LeBron James just passed Allen Iverson on the all-time NBA scoring chart. For people like me, that’s another reminder of how rapidly time flies in basketball – Iverson was the first player I ever saw carry a legitimate aura of fear on the court, and yet this was the first time I’d thought of him in months. But this is not about Allen Iverson, it is about LeBron James. It’s his achievement, after all. And with any other achievement LeBron makes, there is always this undercurrent of “What’s wrong with LeBron James?” There’s always criticism, backhanded compliments, “Some other player did it better.” Sure, ESPN comments do that with everything. But what’s so particularly wrong with the image of LeBron that we see?
It goes without saying that James is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. If you look at his stats, it’s almost as if he has no career arc. He’s uncannily consistent in nearly every counting stat there is. And while he was brilliant well before any player should ever expect to be brilliant, he has persisted long after most stars fizzle out.
Is he human? Well, no, but in a good way – inhuman dunks and inhuman athleticism and inhuman success. LeBron is less of a player and more of a fact. He lives in his own world, far above the rest of us mortals (okay, that Kevin Durant fellow is pretty darn good). It’s only fitting that his greatest nemesis has been the San Antonio Spurs, so similar to LeBron in their excellence and their longevity. They’re not zombies, they’re just axioms.
At this point, we are in Charles Barkley territory, where in response to critics it’s actually valid to say, “What more could I have done?” LeBron has always had to contend with unreasonable expectations, but to a large extent he has transcended them. He has not brought any championships to Cleveland, to be sure. But he has two titles, four MVP trophies, eight first-team All-NBA appearances, and so on, and so on and so on. As a player, you cannot really ask for much more.
Yet something always seems off about James. He currently vies with Tim Duncan for the title of Most Anonymous Star in the NBA, but for rather different reasons. Duncan is just stereotyped as boring. LeBron sees fit to show us frustration, anger, disgust and happiness, and all of that’s fine, but it seems painfully obvious every time he steps on the court that he has learned his lesson from the Miami Heat Welcome Party. We see very little about him, both on and off the court, that he doesn’t want us to see. It seems like every action LeBron takes has been vetted beforehand. LeBron was criticized far more for the hubris that he displayed during his move to Miami than the fact that he went. He seems to have gotten the message.
If he’s learned his lesson, isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? This is, in a sense, the apotheosis of the baller-as-businessman. And it seems strange not because LeBron’s public image differs from that of a typical human being (well, as typical as you can get while still being really good at basketball), but because he does it too well. That’s what we wanted; that’s what we got.
Perfect choreography is fine. Michael Jordan was incredibly calculated in his commercialism, a pitch-perfect marketing sensation, and that did not stop him from being dominant or memorable. Given that people have complained about everything else in LeBron James’ life, to criticize him for being commercial is to admit that there will always be something about him to nitpick. I suspect that subconscious envy plays a role in most criticism of LeBron James. Having ascended to a higher plane of existence, anything he does in the mortal sphere must seem like condescension to us. If that’s the reason, then good for him.
Maybe that’s irrelevant. I don’t care if LeBron is the most tailored and scheduled man on earth, as long as he can play basketball and not embarrass me for watching him. What will be the legacy of LeBron James?
If there is any recent player that LeBron could remind us of, it would have to be the aforementioned Duncan. Is LeBron James a new Tim Duncan? The easy thing to say is that it is too soon to tell. A lot can change in just a few years. Iverson crashed out of the Association in a blaze of dying glory, as rule changes rendered his greatest skills superfluous. Duncan’s style of play is lasting, as a big man in a league with few dominant big men. Besides, he’s settled into a narrative himself, now that his trademark (and likely undeserved) blandness is staggeringly memetic. LeBron looks like he will be great for many years to come, but who knows? He certainly doesn’t have any narrative surrounding him aside from success. His play is all we see, with little else to truly define him. And at least right now, that play is spectacular.
When searching for words to describe LeBron’s greatness, we throw around outrageous comparisons like “John Stockton in Karl Malone’s body” without actually comprehending what these deifications actually mean. LeBron has made the incredible commonplace. He has been so good that we have forgotten what good used to be, and to top it off, he either doesn’t have or won’t show the personality traits that make great players compelling in spite of clockwork greatness – Iverson’s menace or Kobe’s competitiveness. That’s our fault, not his. But it is a rather entertaining irony.
LeBron may be commercial, he may be meticulous, he may be image-conscious, he may be uncanny in his perfection both on and off the court. But with time that will fade away. In 50 years, all that we will remember about LeBron James is that he was really, really, really good. There is value in that.
Winston Shi’s image is largely defined by the fact he orders not three, not four, but five Naked juices at a time from the Treehouse. Contact him to find out his ways at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.