At the relatively tender age of 28, he stands alone on the mountaintop, unquestionably the most famous athlete on the planet and one of its most famous citizens of any kind. We’ve heard it so often that it’s now a cliche, though nonetheless accurate: He transcends sports.”
— Sports Illustrated
You thought that was about LeBron, didn’t you? Nope. Jack McCallum wrote that about Michael Jordan nearly 21 years ago, in December of 1991, as the lead paragraph of the magazine’s “Sportsman of the Year” feature. When Danny Biasone’s 24-second shot clock saved the NBA in 1954, the same year of Sports Illustrated‘s launch, it inadvertently positioned the magazine as the mainstream media’s stamp of approval anytime an NBA star either revolutionized the sport or transcended it. In 1956, they dubbed Bob Cousy a “creative genius” and “nothing less than the greatest all-round player in the 64-year history of basketball.” In 1963, they celebrated Bill Russell’s brilliance and called him “the most remarkable basketball player of our time.” And it just kept going from there. Five years before Jordan’s 1991 coronation, Larry Bird adorned the magazine’s cover with the headline “The Living Legend,” which featured a barrage of gushing quotes and wondered if Bird’s supremacy had surpassed even Russell and Kareem. As usual, Bird was the one who ended up putting everything in perspective.
“All I know is that people tend to forget how great the older great players were,” (said) Bird. “It’ll happen that way with me, too.”
Now we’re doing this dance with the latest object of everyone’s affection, LeBron James, the best basketball player in 20 years. We spent nearly nine years picking him apart before he flipped the narrative, borrowing the finest qualities of Bird, Magic and Jordan and blending them together into a superstar smoothie during last year’s playoffs. When his team needed him to score, he unleashed the most complicated inside/outside game since Jordan’s second prime. When they needed him to create shots for teammates, he found them wide-open over and over again. When they needed rebounds, he pounded the boards like Barkley or Moses in their primes. When they needed to slow down an opposing scorer, he guarded that player and the player stopped scoring (no matter what position he played).
LeBron James churned out 44 minutes a night, every other night, for eight straight weeks without ever wearing down. He played two of the greatest two-way playoff basketball games in the history of the league: Game 4 at Indiana (40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists) and Game 6 at Boston (45 points, 15 rebounds, only seven missed shots), then threw on a Larry Bird 2.0 costume in the Finals, destroyed Oklahoma City in the low post, liquidated the media’s absurd “LeBron or Durant?” argument and averaged a triple-double in the deciding two games. I called it a “virtuoso basketball performance” at the time, but really, it was more of a watershed athletic achievement — no different than Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile or Carl Lewis trying to jump 30 feet. You shouldn’t be able to play basketball like that.
For the first time in a long time, someone made the sport of basketball feel like a Little League game with one of Those Kids — you know, those oversize five-tool freaks who seem like they’re 20 when they’re really just 12. I will never forget sitting next to my father during Game 6 of the Celtics series, both of us getting shamed into silence because LeBron couldn’t miss, waiting for him to sweat, waiting for him to tire, waiting for any sign that he was human. It just wasn’t happening. The last time I felt that helpless during a sporting event, Jordan and Pippen were ripping through a pathetic Celtics team in the mid-’90s — they were playing at such a high level, we couldn’t help showing our appreciation by cheering them when they finally came out. What else could you do? When were we going to see something like that again? Two guys covering the whole court? Two guys playing that beautifully together? What if we never saw that again? Didn’t we have to acknowledge it? Didn’t we have to let them know that we knew?
LeBron peaked in a similar way during those last two and a half playoff rounds, and really, you couldn’t blame him if he coasted from here — his hunger satiated, his point proven, the monkey pulled off his back and subsequently stomped to death. Everyone handles this moment differently. Jordan (1991), Magic (1987), Walton (1977), Hakeem (1994) and Bird (1986) returned more inspired than ever, but it was the worst thing that ever happened to Shaq — after his 2000 title, he realized his immense physical advantages allowed him to enjoy his summers, use regular seasons to work himself into shape, then take over when it truly mattered. And he was right — the Lakers won two more titles that way, even if they left another three on the table.
Wilt suffered as well: After briefly embracing controversial things like “teamwork” and “unselfishness” and defeating Russell’s Celtics and winning his first championship in 1967, he couldn’t maintain the momentum. He measured his own worth by numbers, not team success. The following year, Wilt went overboard with the “unselfish” gimmick, desperately tried to lead the league in assists (he did), then mysteriously stopped shooting in the second half of an eventual Game 7 loss to Boston. They traded him to Los Angeles a few months later. So much for Wilt “getting it.”
So there’s definitely a fork in the road with the “Year after The Year.” The good news? There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that LeBron is heading toward that Jordan/Bird/Magic direction. When we were taping a television segment for ESPN last week, Magic Johnson mentioned how LeBron’s “off the court” was catching up to LeBron’s “on the court.” In other words, he gets it now — that there’s a cause and effect between how you spend your offseason and what actually happens during that season. We finished the segment and spent the next few minutes bullshitting about LeBron. Magic mentioned that LeBron could taste it now; he could tell by their phone calls over the summer. He believed Pat Riley’s impact was so much more underrated than anyone realizes, that Riley has a way of just staying in your ear, appealing to you as a friend and a competitor, never letting up, never letting you stop thinking about what’s next. Riley wouldn’t push it that hard unless he thought LeBron wanted it. And Magic thought LeBron wanted it.
“It’s like eating steak if you’ve never had steak,” Magic said. “Once you taste it, you want more of it.”
After LeBron spent his first eight seasons regarding the low post with genuine disdain, it took a humiliating 2011 Finals series for someone blessed with Karl Malone’s body and Jordan’s footwork to change his thinking. Once upon a time, Bird started the trend of using every summer to add one new weapon to his game, something Magic quickly copied, and then Jordan, Hakeem and Kobe used to their advantage the following two decades. Why wasn’t LeBron following suit? For years and years, that was the easiest way to criticize him. As long as someone with LeBron’s basketball intelligence refused to use what should have been his biggest advantage (an inside/outside game), then we couldn’t believe in him. We wondered if he was destined to become the next Shaq or Wilt, someone with all the talent in the world who just couldn’t harness those prodigious physical gifts and even worse, didn’t totally care.
Everything changed in the summer of 2011, and thanks to our friends at CourtVision, you can actually see how his offensive game matured. LeBron spent this summer working on his own version of Magic’s junior sky hook (even asking the master for a few tips). Meanwhile, the Heat’s offensive philosophy has evolved with him — they’re gravitating toward a strategy that Holland’s soccer team famously tried during the 1970s, something of an offensive Nirvana, where positions don’t matter and players aren’t pigeonholed with a formulaic set of expectations. For all we know, Miami might eliminate the sport’s two most famous positions completely — point guard and center — so they can surround LeBron with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and two shooters (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, etc.) 90 percent of the time.
You know what was really frightening? When Erik Spoelstra said the words, “Thinking conventionally that first season with LeBron — that was my biggest regret as a coach. I put LeBron in a box. And that’s the worst thing I could have done.” As a Celtics fan, I read those words and thought to myself, Good God, we’re all screwed.”
Of course, none of this would matter if LeBron didn’t want it — and in this case, the word “it” covers “multiple titles,” “dominance” and “true greatness” — but by all accounts, he does. During the Summer Olympics in London, observers were pleasantly surprised by a subtle shift in LeBron’s personality: less clowning, more leading, more measuring himself against the other guys. Four years ago, he may have spent an hour shooting half-court shots. In 2012, he kept throwing himself into shooting contests with Durant and Kobe, determined to prove he could hold his own. Anytime one of the USA practices became heated and turned into something of a dick-measuring contest, something that tends to happen when you gather the best players in the world on the same floor, LeBron left little doubt who mattered most. By all accounts, he was clearly the best player on the team. And it wasn’t close.
In 2008, when things were falling apart during that gold-medal game against Spain, everyone deferred to Kobe. In 2012, during a similar moment in the gold-medal game, there was an unforgettable stretch when Coach K frantically signaled for LeBron, then LeBron sat at the scorer’s table for what felt like three hours, waiting for a dead-ball whistle so he could reenter a game that was suddenly slipping away. Finally, a crumbling Carmelo Anthony whipped a pass into the stands — inadvertently, his best play of the Olympics since it allowed LeBron to come back in — and within a few minutes, everything was fine. (LeBron made a dagger 3 and a backbreaking drive.) I can still remember sitting in the stands, freaking out, glancing over at LeBron at the scorer’s table, wondering if he was ever getting back in, feeling like we were screwed if it didn’t happen soon. You couldn’t crystallize what happened last summer better than that.
You know who summed up LeBron’s ascension better than anyone? My old friend Isiah Thomas! The same guy who saved my NBA book with “The Secret” of basketball dropped a little more wisdom to Sports Illustrated this week, explaining LeBron’s current mind-set by saying, “Think about what I’m saying here. On the planet Earth, there is nobody better than you, and that gives you the confidence to walk around and say, I’m bigger than you, I’m better than you, and the only thing you can hope for is that I’m having a bad night.”
That’s exactly what it means to be LeBron James right now. The only thing that can stop him? If Dwyane Wade resists being relegated to “LeBron’s sidekick” status again. During the last three weeks of the 2012 playoffs, their uneasy alpha-dog battle was resolved as organically as possible — Wade’s aching knee forced LeBron to assume a bigger offensive burden, and just like that, Miami’s team fell into place. To borrow a word from the great Bob Ryan, the Heat’s calibration finally made sense. Everything ran through LeBron, with Wade reinventing himself as a new-wave Pippen almost on the fly. He spent the summer fixing his knee and getting himself into phenomenal shape, blowing everyone away during the preseason and leaving the door ajar — just a little — that he might not be ready to throw on that Robin costume again.
Then again, who has it better than Dwyane Wade right now? What if this was the plan all along? What if Wade and Riley were scheming years ago, We’ll never be able to beat LeBron if he finds the right team, we need him on our side — we’ll push him to another level, ride him to a few titles and never let him know that we were pulling the strings all along? Now that LeBron has established himself as the league’s most dominant player, there’s an overwhelming chance that Wade is delighted by this — it just means less work for him, right? And if that’s the case, I am fully preparing for the monster LeBron season to end all monster LeBron seasons: 65 wins, 27 points a game, 10 rebounds a game, maybe even (gulp) 10 assists a game. Oh, while changing the way we watch and think about basketball, much like Cousy in 1956, or Russell in 1963, or Bird and Magic in the ’80s, or Jordan a decade later.
And yeah, with the greatest basketball season in 20 years looming, I understand it’s easy to get distracted by admittedly juicy story lines like the Lakers trotting out four future Hall of Famers, or two suddenly juicy Nets-Knicks and Clippers-Lakers rivalries, or Derrick Rose’s potential comeback, or possible leap seasons for Rajon Rondo (a runner-up MVP candidate) and Kyrie Irving (as a top-15 guy), or Oklahoma City’s “kids” using last year’s bitter Finals defeat as motivation for a possible Eff You season. Just know that it’s all window dressing — fun subplots to pass the time, keep us engaged, keep us arguing, keep us watching. From a big-picture standpoint? History says LeBron James is getting ready to destroy everybody. No other angle really matters.
If it happens — and I think it will — that means two straight titles and four MVP trophies in five years (something only Russell’s ever done). For the first time, we could start thinking about him in Jordanian terms. What would it take for LeBron to pass Michael? Does he need six titles to get there? What if he ended up with five titles and six MVPs while also creating the 35-10-10 club (35,000 points, 10,000 assists, 10,000 rebounds)? Would that be enough? And if he continues to break ground as a power point guard — Bird 2.0 crossed with Magic, basically — shouldn’t it matter that he created a new position? Also, how have we not hit LeBron’s ceiling yet after nine years? Can we really go higher than what we witnessed last June? How high can this go? How long can this last?
For the first time, I feel myself starting to waver a little. Maybe Michael Jordan won’t remain the greatest basketball player ever. Maybe we were wrong.
Of all the themes that have me excited for this upcoming NBA season, I keep circling back to that one. We love sports for dozens and dozens of reasons, but ultimately, the seasons and teams and championships blend into one blurry mess. You’re going to be 80 years old someday and unable to remember 99.7 percent of it. Only a handful of athletes will stand out, and when someone asks if you watched them, your face will start glowing, and you’ll start gushing about them, and for a few seconds, you will come to life again. Usually it’s someone with unforgettable athletic ability (say, Usain Bolt or Bo Jackson), a supernatural mastery of his craft (Bird, Gretzky and Magic) and/or an indomitable will to conquer everyone else (Jordan, Ali and Russell). But when someone resonates in all three ways at the same time? Those are the ones we defend forever. We sing their praises, recall them on our deathbeds, tell everyone who wants to hear that we were there.
Those are the stakes for LeBron James this season. He already won a championship. Now he’s battling for something else.