By: Norman Yallen
Who is Lebron James? He is not like Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson, or Wilt Chamberlain or any NBA great I have heard him compared to. In terms of physical gifts he is equal to each of those men. He might be the best combination of size, speed, and strength that basketball has ever seen. Yet for whatever reason, when any of those men needed to step up their game, when it mattered most, they did and they won the championships. (Yes, that includes Chamberlain. Look at the 1967 playoffs and tell me he was a loser.) Lebron does not look as though he wants to be the man the spotlight is on, literally doing anything to get the ball out of his hands as soon as possible. When Dwyane Wade hurt his hip, James immediately looked to Mario Chalmers to shoot the ball, to bail him out and save him. My friends and I kept making jokes along the vein that perhaps Chalmers was the Heat’s best player because he was the player that was most confident to shoot with Wade off the floor. There was Lebron James watching in the corner, or passing the ball off, hoping someone else could win the game for him.
Lebron James grew up without a father in Akron, Ohio. He and his mother moved around a lot when he was a kid. He struggled to make friends and fit in, almost dropping out of school in fourth grade. Then a number of things changed the life of a young Lebron. He found some more stability, stayed in school, and grew to be a very tall, incredibly well coordinated teenager. By the middle of his high school career he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Since he was a 16 year-old kid, Lebron has had the pressure of being the saviour of the NBA on his shoulders. I can attest that as a 17 year-old kid I can’t even really handle the pressure of being the captain of my school’s trivia team. He handled that pressure in a way a kid would, doing things such as getting a “Chosen One” back tattoo. Somewhere, Jesus must have been cringing at the thought of a very good teenage basketball player wearing that tattoo. (Is wearing the phrase used when talking about a tattoo? Because permanently wearing something is a strange concept. Perhaps having is a better word.) By the time he got up to Cleveland, he had billboards and commercials saying “We Are All Witnesses.” What we were witnessing remained to be seen.
If anyone has seen the documentary on Lebron James, More Than A Game, they know the movie gave us two things: the song Forever by Lebron’s good pal Drake, and the impression that above all else, Lebron just wanted to be one of the guys. He seemed oddly nostalgic about playing in high school, even though he was now making hundreds of millions of dollars. He didn’t want to be any saviour; he just wanted to have fun playing basketball with his friends. This contrasted rather harshly with his King James nickname in his Chosen One tattoo. What it began to show us was that we couldn’t be sure of who Lebron James was, because he was not really sure himself.
Over the next couple years after the release of that film, Lebron James continued to muddy the picture with controversial playoff exits. After leading the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007, he bowed out in earlier rounds the next three seasons. The first against the Celtics was explainable; he played a better team but still managed to take the series to seven games and nearly win. The next year his Cleveland team won 66 games, but collapsed against a seemingly inferior Orlando Magic team. People at the time were shocked that a Lebron led team collapsed in such a manner. There had been speculation that perhaps Lebron couldn’t be beaten, that any team he played for would win the championship every single year. The next season this was proven further to be untrue with his second exit against Boston.
That series in Boston has been the subject of many rumours for over a year now. There are the theorists who claim that he had already planned to leave Cleveland and quit on them. There are the scandal starters who claim Lebron caught teammate Delonte West having sex with his mother and stopped playing hard. To me, these stories both say more about us than about Lebron, about our need to rationalize and explain away a man’s behaviour. These losses were inexplicable to all of us who saw Lebron as the next MJ, as the man who would save Cleveland, as King James the ruler of the NBA. For years though there had been signs that something was not quite right; signs that we chose to ignore. Signs like how he drove out his first coach Paul Silas, and how he flirted with the New York Knicks faithful almost the moment Summer of 2010 became a term in basketball circles, which was long before 2010.
In the Summer of 2010, Lebron fulfilled his dream of playing with friends, only this time instead of some high school kids in Akron it would be Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Lebron seemingly stepped away from the pressure of leading a team so he could stay in the background, yet at the same time announced this on national television. Then he participated in one of the biggest spectacles in modern sports: his welcoming ceremony to Miami, where he guaranteed they would win at least 7 championships. It is as though there are two James, Lebron James and King James. Lebron James had the best times of his life playing with his friends in high school and wanted to recreate that in Miami. He couldn’t handle the pressure of being the saviour of Cleveland, so he went to Miami where he could be just another player. King James left Cleveland to be a worldwide media icon in Miami, and fulfilled that goal with his big Decision.
I don’t know Lebron James, but I suspect that he would really hate the comparison of himself to Michael Jordan. Jordan’s pathological competitiveness changed the template of an NBA star. It wasn’t good enough to pass the ball and be a good teammate, now a player had to be ruthless in his pursuit of victory. I have heard many words describing Lebron James, but never have I heard the word ruthless. King James went to Miami and embraced his role as the villain, putting on spectacular performances in his first three playoff series. However, I am a big believer that someone’s true self comes out in their biggest moments, and what we have found is not King James, the cocky global icon, but Lebron James, the kid with the superior basketball talent who at the end of the day just wants to be like everybody else. Because of that he hides in the corner and passes it to Chalmers. Lebron James cannot handle the burden that King James had foisted upon him.
There are two aspects to sports, the physical, which we can see, and the mental, which we cannot. As Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” Wayne Gretzky was not the fastest skater, and he didn’t have the best shot, yet he was the best player in hockey because he mentally had a superior sense of the game. We cannot quantify the mental aspect of sports into numbers like the 40-yard dash. They are every bit as important, if not more so, because we cannot see them. There is a reason Peyton Manning became an elite quarterback, while Ryan Leaf and Jemarcus Russell, who had his physical talent, became busts. They simply did not have the mentality to succeed. Lebron James seems to now have the worst aspects of both parts of his personality. King James turns off all fans and fuels the opponent to play harder with his cockiness off the court. On the court, Lebron James is willing to defer to others, because he does not want to lead, he just wants to fit in. That is not the mentality of a great basketball player, and it is why we are so frustrated in Lebron. In the physical aspects we can see he is the best to ever play, yet the mental aspects, which we cannot see, leave him as a bystander in the biggest game of his life.
Scottie Pippen called Lebron perhaps a better player than MJ. If you look at Lebron’s stats these playoffs they are remarkably similar to Scottie Pippen. What I believe Scottie was really trying to say was that he was a better player than Michael Jordan. He would be wrong on both those counts, since part of being a great player today, whether Pippen or James likes it or not, is the ability to not just fit in but to lead your team to victory in the fourth quarter. It is the reason Dirk Nowitzki is finally receiving the credit he deserves with the Mavericks on the brink of the title. While he and Dwyane Wade are both great stories, the real fascinating story is James.
What will Lebron do? Will he step it up or slide back down to a role player the rest of these finals? If you claim to know, you are lying because I don’t think James himself knows. King James is positive he’ll shut up all the haters, win the title, and be the greatest of all time. Lebron James doesn’t think he’s quite good enough and thus will defer to far inferior talents when it really counts. The rumours are circulating again this year, this time about Rashard Lewis and Lebron’s girlfriend. Either Lebron is the Hardluck Kid or we have all fallen in a very bad habit of making up stories to justify his internal conflict.
NBA ratings and interest are through the roof thanks to the man wearing number six on Miami. Almost everyone has a little interest in Lebron James, whether they like him or not. In fact, those who hate him are arguably interested in him the most. I believe he represents a bit of everyone, with his brashness, tentativeness and insecurity. Michael Jordan was not like most people in that he had supreme confidence and an almost sociopath competitive instinct to always take over a game. Lebron James is very much like the average person in that sometimes he has the confidence in his ability to take over a game, while sometimes he does not and stands off to the side.
Will Lebron James step up his game when it matters most, or will he retreat into the background once more? Will the King begin to swagger obnoxiously around the court on his way to winning Finals MVP? Or will Lebron slink off humbly defeated? It is the question on the mind of every basketball fan, and is a question that I am sure no one can answer, least of all James himself.