We don’t talk about LeBron James very often. Or, I should say, he hardly gets discussed here. Of course, there have been a few exceptions over the last three years. Kevin analyzed his show of political solidarity for Trayvon Martin back in 2012. I know I’ve typed his name before, so I suppose that means I must have offered a take here and there. I couldn’t tell you where, though. I couldn’t even really tell you what I said. Generally speaking, LeBron James, the King, the Chosen One, the whatever-you-want-to-call-him, never gets the Diss treatment. Role players like Amir Johnson, Michael Beasley, Derek Fisher, Jason Collins and Roy Hibbert have gotten their dues. Stars like Blake Griffin, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Steph Curry have gotten plenty of play here as well. But LeBron James — the greatest of them all, at least at this given moment — hasn’t managed to find his way into The Diss. This is his debut, of sorts, and this small piece won’t do him justice.
I think perhaps it’s because LeBron seems too big for The Diss. Even after all of these years, LeBron is impossible to comprehend, at least for a writer who attempts to privilege the larger humanity of a player, rather than his occupational performance and production. In a role player, one can select a few select traits to focus on, to either celebrate excitedly or tear down completely. In a star player, or even a superstar player, one has a wide range of topics to choose from, and thanks to their multi-facedness, they can return to that player repeatedly to prove multiple points over a long period of time. But in LeBron James, a player whom none of us have ever seen the likes of, and who will probably live on in some sort of elite stratosphere reserved for only the greatest of the greats, it’s difficult to find the right words. In many ways, he is a player beyond simple words, unable to be constrained by sentences, who really should just be enjoyed in our living rooms, on our televisions, computers and mobile devices, as long as humanly possible.
LeBron looms large; he breaks models and sends innovators back to their desks, sighing heavily and putting on new pots of coffee. The quants reveal numbers that boggle the mind, universally indicate that LeBron simply gets better every single year. The fact that he is he is in the top 10 of every single statistical category with the exception of rebounding makes one just shake their head slowly, unable to really come up with more than, “wow, that’s really good.” The scribes sit in front of their computers, conjuring words that try to quantify not just what he is, but also what he is not, and almost universally fail in their endeavors. His personal story is well-known, from his rough childhood in Akron to The Decision that finally allowed him to leave his home state and spread his adult wings. His crazy days as a “villain” seem long complete, and not even worth mentioning at this point in time. In fact, it almost seems as if he will skip the free agency carnival altogether, and just re-sign with the team that has allowed him to grow up and establish himself as a man. There is a confidence that seems to envelop LeBron these days; a calm that comes with personal accomplishments of both the professional and personal variety. And with his trophies and rings, as well as his family, fortune and fame, it’s hard to besmirch. Yet, at the same time, it’s hard to identify with LeBron in a way that inspires poignant prose. In this way, LeBron seems unknowable, a statistical conundrum that can’t really be explained, and slowly becoming something a that just is, and appreciated, as much as we can. That’s a good thing. But it’s a difficult thing, too.
Last night’s performance in a 102-96 victory against the Brooklyn Nets illustrated the complicated nature of being the Greatest Player Perhaps of All Time in an era where we’ve already become accustomed to — and even bored by — his greatness. He scored 49 points in “typical LeBron fashion.” He found easy paths to the basket, either to the left or the right, and couldn’t be denied once he reached his destination. He hit jumpers, both hasty pull-ups with eons left in the shot clock, and last-second buzzer beaters, after 10 or more seconds of breaking down a hapless defender in the low block. He got his fingers of missed buckets to tip them in. He found open lanes to dunk the ball with impunity. He went to the free throw line to pad his numbers. And he even found time to play top-notch defense, and make the game-winning hockey assist to Chris Bosh, whose go-ahead 3 put Miami up for good. It all felt very “normal” for LeBron. But how “normal” is 49 points? How “normal” is it to score 25 at the half, 40 in three quarters, and nearly 50 overall? How “normal” is it that, in a 49 point performance, the lasting highlight is a last-second free throw miss, as well as a disappointed, seemingly bored LeBron James mono-toning that “50 would be cool, but at the end of the day I understand we won, and I had fun” to Rachel Nichols? At this point, it all feels very normal, like freakish clockwork. But when we take a step back, we realize that this is exceptional stuff; stuff that we might not ever see again, and we’ll only realize how unique it was when it cannot be done with regularity. But with all that said: those days feel like they’re a long way away, if they ever come, at all.
Whether you enjoy him or not, for better or worse, we are all here because of LeBron James, and we all know it. He is the pivot of the league; the anchor which pins everything down as maelstroms involving racist owners, bizarre firings and unwanted sideshows. It really doesn’t matter if he’s playing the Brooklyn Nets (who he will defeat within the next few days), the Indiana Pacers (who he will defeat in a few weeks), or whomever comes out of the West (yes, I have Miami winning the East for the fourth season in a row). His sheer existence as our most famous, valuable and skilled player supersedes a playoff series, and perhaps even the playoffs altogether. More than any other person, institution or entity, LeBron represents the NBA as a whole, and in turn, everything that the NBA represents for the world at-large. LeBron envelops every team and every player, as a benchmark to aspire to, and a symbol of what can be possible if things are done “the right way.” Divine tanking can garner world changers in the rookie draft, taking moribund franchises to 60-win seasons and appearances in conference and NBA finals. A perfect free agency can secure a player who can change the fortunes of a franchise; extends the career of a rapidly-declining superstar and turn players who likely would fall completely out of the league into valuable role players on a championship team. Sublime performances can inspire young kids to go into their driveway, practicing signature moves (does LeBron have a signature move?) while sporting an expensive #6 Miami Heat Jersey, and can send aging kids (like myself) to their computers, to construct melodramatic sentences about a player who, even after the careers of Magic, Bird, Jordan, Iverson and Kobe, cannot really be understood; just simply accepted for who he is, and how much havoc he wreaks for all other 29 teams in the league. So most of the time, we don’t even try and break him down into his smaller parts, because we know that he will prove us wrong, and we’ll be left scrambling for answers, knowing that they’ll be nearly impossible to find.
If this seems like a tentative take, it’s because I honestly fear what LeBron means in the long run. The modern superstar hardly appeals to viewers like myself; individuals who are almost the exact same age as LeBron. The modern superstar is essentially a walking billboard, pushing products through stellar play, and winning over fans through feelings of longing consumerism, rather than a more innocent imitation of greatness. The thought of monotonous postgame interviews repeated ad nauseum, all leading to the same teleological spot — a place in the NBA finals, and a probable victory for whatever team LeBron is playing on — is a concept that’s frankly unappealing. It is that feeling that makes me feel like I don’t have to follow every single moment of LeBron James (so you can shelve your creepy Big Brother-esque app, thank you very much), and that I only have to tune in for the truly unique moments in a career that, to date, has not been surpassed by any player, including Michael Jordan.
In 2008, Sherman Alexie offered the perfect take on LeBron when he stated that ”A thousand years from now people will be talking about LeBron James as they talk about Hercules now.” And as LeBron becomes more unbelievable — yet at the same time, all-too-believable, at least as modern superstars go, and have gone over the years — it’s hard to disagree. Performances like last night emphasize that LeBron is a force we all must reckon with, and must continue to reckon with for the foreseeable future. Over a decade in, though, it’s interesting that we’re still not quite sure what we’re talking about.