Thursday, March 28, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Crowned by Dan O'Brien

LeBron "King" James
Dan O'Brien
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

"LeBrown James with Halo"
PHOTO: Craig Hatfield

I have always loved basketball.

When I was much younger I would sit by the TV with a pen and pad and write down the order of the NBA draft as it was announced. I remember quite clearly talking about the free throw percentage of particular players during the playoffs as an indicator of their eventual success. As I grew up, the game changed. Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were replaced with players who no longer seemed bigger than the game, but demanded to be. My brother and I pretending to be Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as we played on cracked asphalt, shooting a basketball through chain nets, was a thing of the past.

The modern superstar came right out of high school. I watched as men who were not much older than me transitioned from being young men who dominated their peers to joining the elite of the NBA. While many young men made this leap, none were as talked about, touted, and inspected more than a young Akron native by the name of LeBron Raymone James. His years at St. Vincent–St. Mary announced him to a national stage, and by his senior year it was clear that he would enter the 2003 NBA draft. It came as no surprise the Cleveland Cavaliers took James with the first pick, bringing hope to Cleveland with the possibility of being relevant in basketball once more. From the moment he stepped on the court, we knew that we were watching the opening acts of a great play with LeBron cast as the young hero from humble beginnings.

I have a soft spot for the mythologies crafted by humanity, and especially Campbell’s seminal work on the hero’s cycle, or the monomyth as borrowed from Finnegan’s Wake. When we think about the roles we assign sports figures in an age where mythical heroes no longer ride in from dusty battlefields with the spoils and banners of war, we have to be careful to remember that mythologizing these men and women is an act we are performing and supporting, and not necessarily a function of the wishes of a reluctant hero.

I am not saying that LeBron James was timid about his elevation to King James, as he was heralded, but what would you expect of a young man who aspires to stand on top of the world as so many young men do. We too quickly forget that he has not made the personal missteps that have come to be associated with many of his peers. He graduated from high school and was raised by a single mom. He managed to stay out of the usual trappings that underscore a life of poverty: he was not affiliated with a gang, there were no scandals about prostitutes, and no drug problems to speak of. His moment of infamy was cemented by two ill-fated media events that surrounded his flight from Cleveland to the sunny shores of Miami.

But how does a man who should have been seen as a potential hero become such a villain? Campbell talks about the formula for a hero, the events around which a hero rises from obscurity into someone worthy of legend. The cycle begins with a divine gift, or some element of a preternatural skill set, which creates the appropriate landscape for a hero to rise. When examining LeBron James’s life, we cannot help but be struck–even if you are not a fan of his game or his later decisions, or the Decision–and see the framework for a meteoric rise. From the moment James decided to play basketball, it was clear that he was an extraordinary talent. As the years passed, these talents were supplemented by a physicality that would later define him as a player. This gift was the precipitating event that would lead James to enter the NBA out of high school and bring hope to a Cleveland Cavaliers team desperate to win. This was James’s call to adventure; his moment–like Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring when he understood that he must protect the ring and journey far from his home–when bringing a ring to Cleveland became the goal of his individual journey.

This goal, however, would soon change.

Dan Gilbert, long before he publicly called out James for ditching Cleveland, appeared on the scene in order to assist James in his pursuit of a ring and a championship. While Gilbert is certainly no Gandalf, he did indeed do something that James could not do on his own: bring players in around his hero. This brought James and the Cavaliers to the precipice of a vast chasm that separates the known from the unknown. Was James a great enough player to be more than a record breaker? Could he ascend and enter in the conversation about the greatest players ever to play? Would he be able to lead others to victory? Surrounded by guardians and helpers, players who were with LeBron from the beginning and who had become part of his journey–much like a certain surly dwarf and ethereal elf I might add–this young man from Akron met the challenges of a rising hero straight on.

As we watched LeBron’s game improve, as well as the dominance of the Cavaliers in the East, there were a few brief moments when we thought he might take that next step, rectifying an embarrassing loss to San Antonio in the NBA Finals.

This was short-lived and the challenges proved too great for him in Cleveland; it was the temptation of larger venues and super-teams, much like Boston had done in acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett before winning a title in 2008, that came to the forefront for LeBron James. This notion of creating his own triumvirate of superstars began with Dwayne Wade and LeBron James jokingly talking about playing together in the future during their time together on the Olympic team. It coalesced through the nail-biting days before free agency began with LeBron James being the most sought-after player in his class. And it finally culminated with the uncomfortable and universally-panned Decision.

What is important to remember is that it was the pursuit of a ring which drove LeBron.

The arrival in Miami was primed with bright lights and declarations of championships galore. We watched as LeBron James slipped into a void of his own making. Their first year together in Miami, the expectations were title or bust. It turned out to be a bust, dropping four games straight to the Mavericks and giving Dirk Nowitski his first NBA championship. Many of us dismiss the year they put together with no real role players and the lack of a real post presence–no offense to Chris Bosh, but he is a spread big man, not a post-up big man. They made it to the Finals during their first year together and were up 2-1 in the series before they fell apart.

LeBron bore the brunt of the criticism because of terrible numbers during the Finals and a general look of confusion on the floor as he watched the series slip away. He has talked in the media about the days and weeks following the loss. He didn’t want to watch basketball, he didn’t want to play–he just wanted to think, ruminate about what had happened. Alas, the season started once more and LeBron had to watch the Dallas Mavericks hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy high above their heads in victory, solidifying a sense of purpose in a young man who wants nothing more than to win. The abyss of LeBron’s basketball career was immediately following his public announcement of taking his talents to South Beach and the subsequent season that was truly a failure manufactured by his own words. The depths he had sunk to and his failings in the Finals revealed a deepset anger and irritation among basketball pundits and fans alike as they clambered to denigrate his position in the hierarchy of the greatest to ever play the game.

When the 2011-2012 season started, again the spotlight shined on Miami. We may not like to admit it, but LeBron is the face of the league and watching him rise from the ashes of a crushing defeat by the Mavericks was part of his story, part of what will eventually come to define his legacy–and his myth. Capturing his third regular season MVP title and then moving on to win an NBA Finals MVP and his first championship was the moment of rebirth for LeBron James, a point after which he will be judged and talked about differently among fans and commentators alike.

The two final components of the myth are transformation and atonement. These elements remain elusive moving forward, though an argument could be made that his domination of other teams this season represents a transformation of his game. I would be hesitant to agree with that: he played at the level we all thought him capable, revealing the basketball icon many have rallied behind when naysayers and critics of the game talk about the nature of the NBA today as compared to eras past.
We will have to watch James carefully moving forward to the transformative events that will define him as a sports hero; but I imagine they will not happen on the court, but instead off the court. Atonement in this day and age is a bit of a stretch, not because I don’t think it is possible, but rather it is something that is not reinforced or encouraged. We all make mistakes, and those men and women in the public eye pay a greater price for verbal slips and mishaps. Was the Decision a mistake? Certainly, and I don’t think anyone thinks otherwise. Was the gala in Miami announcing the South Beach Three a bit too much, punctuated by a promise of seven championships? Absolutely, but time will tell whether or not it was too much and incorrect, or a portent of a shift in the league.

Why do so many people not like LeBron James?

Is it the ego, the King James moniker? We saddled him with a mission, a destiny, and then punished him for not living up to it. Some critics are quick to point to the clear physical advantage he has and how that reflects poorly on his overall skill. So being athletic and big makes him less of a player in a league populated by large men? There is nothing about his game that is not subsumed by a league-wide departure from the fundamentals of earlier eras of basketball. Singling out LeBron James as the scapegoat for the ills of the NBA seems irrational and unreasonable. Was he the first to abandon a team for greener pastures and form relationships with other stars to win a championship? Moses Malone went to Philadelphia to help the 76ers; Shaq left Orlando for L.A.; Garnett and Allen joined forces with Paul Pierce in Boston; and now we are seeing the formation of super teams all across the league.

LeBron James didn’t facilitate any of this.

What he did do is reveal a glaring flaw in the system itself: too many teams. So when you are done targeting a player in a league populated by nepotism and profit margins, consider those who keep a system afloat that allows small-market teams to flounder in order to make more money instead of creating a streamlined association of teams that could really compete with each other.

Maybe people will start listening.

Maybe I can love watching basketball again.

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