By Jake Appleman

LeBron James is 22 years old. I’d like you to all take a moment and think about that. Up until he started playing with more fire later in the season, I was convinced he had spent most of this season—deserved or not—showering in Hatorade fierce. While cogent points were made about LeBron and the Cavs during what was dubbed “The Malaise”, the greater point seemed to get lost amidst all of the incessant clamoring and that is, to repeat my first sentence: LeBron James is 22 years old.

Instead of using his age as tool to try and exonerate a regular season that angered critics and Cavs fans alike, I’d like to run the rest of this column as a metaphor, a metaphor dear to my recent past: the career of LeBron James as that of a college student.

Before we continue though, I must mention that the idea for this post came about when I watched LeBron’s high school teammates, Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce III, play in their conference championship. During Akron’s heartbreaking loss to Miami of Ohio it dawned on me how young King James actually is. I wonder if anybody would really be able to think of LeBron as a true 22 year old unless they saw his high school teammates playing as college kids. As someone who recently entered “the real world”, it was jarring. Most people pretend LeBron isn’t actually this young because of how far ahead of the curve he is, but he is 22, and I feel that a lot of the criticism he endured this year had a lot to do with older people forgetting what it’s like to be truly young and gifted.

Maybe this analogy can clarify: My roommate from freshman and sophomore years at college is extremely intellectually gifted. He might even be “a genius,” though I’m not 100% sure. He chose our beloved Kenyon College over Ivy league offers because he wanted to study in a less competitive environment. I’d say it was a good choice: He’s currently studying astrophysics as a grad student at Harvard. Both undergrad and grad school are free rides for him. As he used to tell me: He won’t have to pay for anything until he makes the first down payment on his mortgage. He’s that smart. He got paid by the school to solve math problems. (Great kid too.) Anyway, if my memory serves me right, he was running on a 4.0 (or something fractionally close) till senior year, when all of a sudden I’d hear things like, “You wouldn’t believe it, I got a B.” In short, his Valedictorian bid was definitely spoiled by a subpar (for him) senior year.

The funny thing was, I don’t think the faculty started completely doubting all the academic expectations they’d heaped on him. This is where the LeBron course veers off into the Hatorade fierce I mentioned earlier. Nobody other than my roomie and his professors cared that his grades had slipped a little bit. They still knew he was brilliant. And they still knew he’d do brilliant things in his life. I think they were also all smart enough to know that when you’re finishing up a certain phase of your life, there’s an inherent internal rebellion involved. When you’ve been so much better than nearly everyone at what you do for so long and you’re so young, it becomes tiring. If you need more proof, think about the “Do you know how easy this for me?” scene in Good Will Hunting.

It’s the other side of genius. The problem with the LeBron situation is that his “senior slack off” occurred under a scalding hot microscope utilized by those that thrive off of snap judgments, which simply reflects the nature of journalism and the blogosphere.

Anyway, so we retain proper perspective, here’s the analogy of his entire undergrad career, lest we forget where he’s come from and where he’s at.

FRESHMAN YEAR:

FRESHMAN SEMINAR 101: Adjusting to the NBA.

LeBron handled his coursework with surprising success given the expectations placed on him by his professors, and it started at the top, with the most important course that any first year student at this prestigious institution must take. In “Adjusting to the NBA” he wowed the faculty with his readiness to learn and excel. Some thought the ballyhooed pupil would think of himself as “above” this type of work. He immediately proved them wrong.

PSYCH 101: Handling Pressure and Expectations.

LeBron entered uncharted territory for a PSYCH 101 student by getting extra credit in a course that originally didn’t offer it. His PSYCH 101 dissertation: “Look at me, not only living up to the hype but surpassing it, bitches!” earned him scholarly acclaim on a national level and stunned even the most thick-headed haters.

PSYCH 102: Handling the Media.

Like any rookie, LeBron had a few uneasy moments with the rigors of PSYCH 102, but he aced the course overall, learning quickly and taking cliché spitting to a higher level. His use of repetitious positive reinforcements such as “we’re taking it one game at a time,” was particularly exceptional.

BIO-CHEM 127: Cancer Research: Playing with Darius Miles and Ricky Davis. (First semester only.)

While it isn’t known as to whether LeBron raised his hand to Bio-Chem professor Jim Paxson and said, “Sir, these cells appear to be cancerous and this test tube may in fact be broken,” the class did successfully—if temporarily—solve their main experiment: “Cancer cell removal from a cancer riddled organization of cells.” Participation or lack thereof, as a class leader LeBron deserves some credit.

PHYSICS 114: The Development of a Jumpshot.

LeBron’s understanding of arc in the art of shot-making skyrocketed during his first season, a testament to the hard work he put in and the confidence he had in himself. He continued to apply this newfound understanding during his second and third seasons, proving that LEARNING IS FUN!

ECON 101: Marketing Oneself to the Public.

LeBron lived up to his place in the shoe game right away. When special guest lecturer Q-Tip asked a group of first year shoe marketers if they could kick it, LeBron yelled back the loudest: “YES I CAN!” Where he succeeded with shoes, he struggled with the soft drink game, letting a stupid hack of a professor convince him to engage in a term paper entitled, “Why a horribly annoying Lil’ Penny knock-off with no charisma could, in theory, sell Sprite.” In fairness to LeBron, who was quite young and new to Econ, the department eventually fired the professor. Unfortunately, the replacement “Sublymonal: The Advertiser” was only slightly less terrible than his predecessor. LeBron has contacted the university repeatedly about completely making over the soft drink side of the department…still to no avail. The department maintains it’s about selling high fructose corn syrup to kids; LeBron maintains (hopefully) that the work suffers.

SOPHOMORE YEAR

HUMANITIES 201: Avoiding a sophomore slump.

Much of this course dealt with statistics, and LeBron, with class-leading averages of 27-7-7, put to rest any doubt that he was a flash in the pan type of scholar and produced comparisons to the legendary Stats scholar Oscar Robertson.

PSYCH 411: The psychology of Cleveland.

After such an enjoyable time in the PSYCH department his freshman year, LeBron decided to take a grad-school level course. The course came with its requisite disappointment, and the study of geographical depression on such a deep level were hard pills—pun intended—for LeBron to swallow, but he handled his coursework with admirable maturity.

CHEM 264: Explosions and Collapses.

Often in chemistry, success can depend on your lab partners. Unfortunately, an experiment went terribly wrong and the class constantly disagreed with its professor (Silas), who was let go before the year ended. Their replacement, an associate professor from the same department (Malone), fared no better with the struggling class; one chemical experiment in particular, guarding a Jamal Crawford/Mo Taylor high pick & roll late in the semester proved especially dubious and stood out when the class wasn’t allowed to partake in what was thought to be a guaranteed quarterfinal review.

PHSYCIS 317: Combining Physical Gifts with Mental Understanding.

LeBron continued to excel in Physics, surprising his professors with his precocious ability to learn early in the year-long course.

ECON 407: Changing agents.

Nobody expected LeBron to take a summer elective and try and change the game. It is still unclear as to whether his decision will pay off in the long run. Incomplete.

JUNIOR YEAR:

HUMANITIES 405: Leadership seminar.

LeBron’s professor (Brown) put the onus on his top student to lead the class in various discussions and exercises throughout the year. With this tutelage and his own growing confidence in himself, LeBron truly grew into his own as a gifted scholar.

PSYCH 403: Late game mentality.

LeBron responded strongly to those in the department that didn’t think he had the onions for this course by proving that by working with his classmates, the entire class could raise their psychological approach and pass high pressure tests. And lessons were learned for more important exams, as exhibited by Damon Jones’ strong finish to an exam the class had to take on a field trip to Washington.

ECON 322: Negotiating a new contract.

Once again, LeBron changed the game. Other students copied his final exam, which was completely original and well thought out.

DRAMA 311: The Postseason.

Many witnessed LeBron passing his first dramatic exercise, answering four out of six questions correctly, including two correct last minute answers that came as his dramaturge was shouting, “5-4-3-2-1…” LeBron’s second dramatic exercise only seemed to be an exercise in formality, especially after he and his scene partners badly bungled their first two scenes. However, they responded with a better performance than anyone could have ever imagined, coming thisclose to qualifying for a third, completely unexpected exercise. LeBron proved during this intense mini-course that, like TNT, he knows drama.

PHYSICS: Senior honors: Becoming a more complete player.

The fact that the faculty let LeBron take this course as a Junior speaks to his scholarly ability and performance. LeBron’s effort in this course, much of which was of his own design, proved particularly instrumental in landing him the second highest GPA for the year, behind only the then floppy haired Steve Nash. LeBron’s performance in this course and in his junior year overall left the faculty salivating at the prospects of his senior year…

SENIOR YEAR:

SOCY 366: Dealing with your place in society.

Ever the academic with lofty aspirations, LeBron raised his hand in class and said he aspired to be an intellectual on the level of Muhammad Ali. This was probably a mistake for a kid still new to the sociology department. Only time will tell if he gleaned anything from the teachings in this class.

ECON Senior Honors: How to become amazingly rich.

Already rich beyond his wildest dreams, LeBron told the Econ department that he has decided to strive to be the richest academic in all of the land. His unrelenting interest in free-market capitalism seemed to create a conflict of interest with his sociology studies, but even his hardest critics in the faculty were stunned when he was able to convince Warren Buffet to speak to the class.

DRAMA: Criticism: How to handle it.

LeBron bounced back from his professor’s declaration that he wasn’t working hard enough by putting the class in a good position heading into finals.

Transcript Note: Because of the many AP credits he earned in high school, LeBron only needed to take three courses his senior year to graduate with high honors. This baffled many in the faculty, most of whom expected LeBron to take on a full course load during his senior year. LeBron admitted that he was more focused on his senior thesis than finishing up, which also angered many.

Senior Thesis: “From High School to the NBA Finals in the time it takes most people to complete college.”

Incomplete.

Tangent that might help to explain where I’m coming from:

To complete my Spanish major, I did my senior thesis paper at Kenyon–what we call “Comps”–on the use of the literary term Masterplots in Women’s Latin American Testimonial Narrative. I won’t bore you with the details of my paper, but I think the process is interesting and enlightening for comparitive purposes.

See, during the first part of my project when I had to sketch out roughly what I wanted to do, I was in Spain, bouncing around discotecas till 8 in the morning, drinking Mahou, going to soccer matches and sleeping a lot. Once in a while, I would do a little bit of “studying”, but that was never really my focus. That was my senior slack off…

When I got back to Ohio the following semester, the real work heated up. I finished up the first draft of the paper, which was deemed decent. When I made the corrections and really made the paper what it was, it was considered excellent. Now, there are three grades you can receive for your Comps at Kenyon: Fail, Pass and Distinction. Distinction basically means you got an A.

When I got my paper back, I was told that I wrote a paper that would have qualified for Distinction had my effort throughout the process been more up to par–in other words, had I not been coasting, my paper might be sitting in the college library for other students to read as an example of what you’re supposed to do with the culmination of your college career. (In case you were wondering, I don’t care that I didn’t get Distinction. I was never a top academic and I never expected to get it.)

But knowing that process, and knowing that athletes are only truly judged on their postseason performances (i.e. their final drafts), I found it absurd how critical people were of LeBron’s regular season, because unlike the first part of a student’s thesis project, it means NEXT TO NOTHING. If players were judged on the whole of their performances equally, then you would have to look at the totality of Dirk Nowitzki’s season and argue that it was just as good as the totality of any player’s season other than perhaps Tim Duncan if the Spurs win the Chip this year. Otherwise, you’d be a raging hypocrite. So kudos to LeBron for realizing what’s important in this specific system, and kudos to him for doing just enough in the regular season to put his team in the position it wants to be in the postseason. Whether his foresight was intentional or not, it deserves a little bit of recognition in a Van Wilder sort of way.

And here’s the bottom line: If the Cavs beat Detroit, LeBron gets Distinction. If that happens, like Carmelo Anthony said in SLAM 106, “Can’t nobody say nothing about that man.” If Detroit wins, LeBron gets a pass and the pundits can fairly place him under their critical lens.

Upon metaphorical graduation this summer, LeBron will move from “NBA U” to Graduate Studies at “Springfield Road”, which is a much more challenging conservatory. High honors are expected there as well.

(Congrats to Dru and Romeo, who graduated from Akron a little over a week ago. When I asked him after Game 4 in Jersey, LeBron said he was going to take you guys somewhere real nice. Enjoy that. Because, as the seemingly non-stop criticism your boy has dealt with for most of this season proves, the real world can be a bitch.)