Not So Bad After All
Falling in and out of love with the greatest player of this generation.
by Daniel Friedman / @DFried615
LeBron James is not a basketball player. He’s a social magician. If you asked me to give you my impression of the Miami Heat superstar two years ago, I would have said he was scared. He’s not a killer on the hardwood. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the greatest of all time, but he’ll never be the greatest.
Today, the day after James led the Miami Heat to their second straight NBA title in a stunning display of a man imposing his will, my perception has changed. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that a man can change. After analyzing LeBron over the years, I had doubts that he would have the power to ignite that killer instinct, let alone change the perception of people like me who hold players like him to a much higher standard than other guys simply because of his vast potential.
When LeBron left the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency, he made a fool of himself in the public eye with The Decision. That was PR suicide for a number of reasons. But the thing that bothered me most was the fact that we were never going to see LeBron transform Cleveland into a winning tradition. Much like we saw Michael Jordan do in Chicago with the Bulls.
The other thing that bothered me, and most of the greats who LeBron is trying to usurp, was that he was leaving the team that drafted him. None of the other players who we consider to be the greatest of all time, with the exception of Kareem and Wilt, left the team they started with. Kobe flirted with the idea through turbulent times in Los Angeles, but the furthest he got was one foot out the door.
LeBron jumped out. Hopped into a topless Jeep Wrangler with his buddies Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and headed down to South Beach to party. It didn’t help matters that the trio made their entrance with a block party where they arrogantly figured the combination of their talents was an automatic win, several times over. It was a prime example of what I like to call the disease of now.
In today’s day and age, young people want everything right away. I can watch 20 episodes in a row of Mad Men on-demand if I want, or I can download the new Kanye West album in seconds (though who would want to?), and if I wanted to talk to my brother face-to-face while he’s sitting in his kitchen on the other side of the country, I can just hit the button that says FaceTime on my iPhone when I call him, and boom, there’s his ugly mug.
LeBron waited seven years, and if he stuck around he probably could have won a ring in Cleveland, where it all began. But he wanted the ultimate prize now, not later. He’d seen others wait, and wait, and wait, and wait…and never get anything. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing. That’s a list no player wants to be a part of. Players of James’ stature fear the absence of a Championship on their Wikipedia page like the plague. That list is demoralizing. Pathetic. Unsuccessful.
So after seven years of clawing at the chance to pop champagne and spray it all over expensive TV equipment in the locker room, James left. When he made the choice to hop in that Jeep Wrangler, he formed a triumvirate in Miami the likes of which we’ve never seen. The move gave LeBron the best possible chance to earn the highest accolade a professional basketball player can hope to attain. In the moment when he stood in front of thousands of fans with Wade and Bosh, proclaiming that they would bring several Championships to South Beach, James was very much uncouth. It was unbecoming to be so arrogant about such a sacred right.
But two back-to-back Championships and Finals MVP trophies later, LeBron James is continuing to elevate his game in every way. In just the last two weeks, he’s taken an unprecedented leap in terms of confidence and demeanor. In Game 6, with the Heat facing elimination, LeBron flung his headband into the stands and willed his team to victory. In Game 7, with his reputation for the next six months hanging in the balance, James rose to the occasion once again with a historic performance: 37 points, 12 rebounds, 5 important threes from downtown, and a perfect 8-8 from the charity stripe, including the final few daggers to put the Spurs down at the end.
Everyone I’ve spoken to about this series has been rooting for the Spurs. If not because they’re actually fans of San Antonio, but because they just don’t want the Heat to have the satisfaction of getting what they wanted. There’s a perpetual dislike for LeBron and his continual dominance. It reminds me of my youth, growing up watching Michael Jordan tear his opponents to shreds over and over.
In one game in particular, on June 14, 1998, I recall Game 6 of the NBA Finals coming to a close. John Stockton had just hit a three with a little over 40 seconds left to go, giving the Jazz an 86-83 lead. Then, Jordan made a quick layup to bring the game within one point, and the famous Stockton-to-Malone call came from the announcers. But Jordan swooped in, stole the ball from Malone, brought it up the court, shook Bryon Russell, and sunk one of the most iconic shots in NBA history.
The series of plays, and the painstaking loss that followed, sent my mother screaming at the old television set and Michael Jordan in particular. My parents had become Jazz fans over the years because they liked the hard-working nature of Stockton and Malone, but also because they enjoyed rooting for the underdog, and this was supposed to be their year. But that night Jordan crushed their hopes, and there weren’t many praises being said about him in my household that summer.
With the passage of time, things have changed. My mom doesn’t hate Michael Jordan anymore. In that moment 15 years ago, maybe, but when I asked her what she thought of the whole situation this morning, all she could say was she respected Jordan for what he did to change the game.
Now I know my mother could be described as a very understanding woman, but the hatred that has manifested for LeBron over the past few years should have been wavered by his ability to single-handedly lead the Miami Heat to the NBA Title last season. Now, after another historic regular season and back-to-back titles, if you still hold ill will toward the greatest player of our generation for that controversial summer, you just don’t respect the game of basketball. Period.