Will LeBron James’ First Title Make Sports Commentary Less Dumb?
Or will ESPN and everyone else just find new dumb things to say?
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Before this week, the world’s best basketball player—a 27-year-old fellow with three MVP trophies and incomparable physical gifts—didn’t have a championship ring. For the last half-decade, and for the last two years in particular, that simple fact has made a lot of dumb people very confused. All of that idiocy, released in a steady drip across all 7,000 ESPN platforms, has made the sports world a maddening place to live in. The nightly poking and prodding of LeBron James was everything that’s wrong with 21st-century sports opinioneering: The insistence that every moment of every big game is legacy-defining, that missed shots reveal a lack of heart and character, that losing a game makes you a loser.
Now that LeBron has won an NBA crown, we’ll find out if the commentary surrounding the sport gets any less stupid. The instant, over-enthusiastic recalibrations of James’ place in basketball lore—he’s on the same playing field as Michael Jordan, insisted ESPN’s Jon Barry—did not constitute a promising beginning. But the Finals MVP’s post-game reflections revealed something far more terrifying: The rampant stupidity that makes life as a sports fan so irritating is what fueled LeBron James to win the title he deserved.
Given that basketball is resolutely a team game, an individual’s championship trophy haul shouldn’t be the sole determinant of his legacy. How many titles would Magic Johnson have won, after all, if he was playing alongside Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes rather than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy? Even though it doesn’t make sense, LeBron James and the LeBron James analysis industry have always agreed on one thing: If you’re not first, you’re last. After the Miami Heat’s clinching win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, James was asked whether this championship was somehow more satisfying due to the hardships of the compressed, lockout-shortened season. “Sixty-six games, 82 games—shit, we could have played one regular-season game,” James said. “I’m an NBA champion, and it don’t matter.”
Athletes in every sport don’t just want to win because it puts their achievements in permanent marker. Victory is also way better than the alternative. Championship hardware keeps you off what Charles Barkley calls “the shit list”—the rundown of all-time greats like Sir Charles, Karl Malone, and Elgin Baylor who never won it all. Barkley says he always roots for great players to avoid his fate, to win that one championship that will ward off the simplest, most cutting critique a player can hear. For LeBron, winning an NBA title long ago ceased to be about affirming his greatness. Instead, it became a quest to confirm that he’s not a loser.
It’s dispiriting to think about sports in this way—that winning is as much a defense mechanism as a celebratory act. But for James, it could never be any other way. He was so good, so soon that he never had the chance to be a work in progress. He dwarfed his high school opponents, and he outclassed his pro competition by age 20. His imposing build, dazzling skills, and lack of visible weaknesses gave him no allowance for frailty or failure. The more he dominated in the regular season, the more every postseason disappointment stuck to him. For a lesser player, a bad fourth quarter was just something that happened every so often. For LeBron, a missed three at the buzzer was a window into his choking soul.
Losing in the 2011 Finals to the Mavericks, he explained on Thursday night, was the best thing that could have happened in his career. “It humbled me,” he said, reflecting back on a desultory series in which he scored just 18 fourth-quarter points in six games. “I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted.”
This story of self-examination and personal growth, also trotted out in a recent Sports Illustrated feature, may have the benefit of being true. But this Successories-friendly take on the life of a pro athlete sends a dangerous message to the Monday morning sermonizers who see the LeBron James story as a morality play with basketball undertones. His horrible self-presentation during and immediately after his move from Cleveland to South Beach meant that any on-court failings would be seen as personal ones, consequences of ego and selfishness rather than of poor form on his jump shot. This conflation of game and life—the notion that good players are good, self-actualized people—is the sports media’s laziest, most-infantilizing habit. And now, it seems, the most talented basketball player has swallowed this slop and started dishing it right back out to the village idiots on press row in easily digestible, column-ready bricks.
By his own account, last year’s Finals loss made James go “back to the basics” and work harder than he’s ever worked before. But suggestions that LeBron coasted on his natural talent for his first eight years in the NBA, or that he had to overcome his personal failings to make it to the mountaintop, say more about The Decision than about anything he’s done with a ball and a hoop. The problem with the LeBron turnaround narrative is that this postseason, the one that ended with a championship, wasn’t the anomaly. Rather, the outlier was last year’s Finals, in which he played far worse than he ever had in his career. In the 2009 postseason, for instance, he averaged 35 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists per game and shot 51 percent from the field. At that point, the only thing that needed to change for LeBron was his supporting cast. If he had won a title in Cleveland with Antawn Jamison by his side, they would’ve had to smash the Larry O’Brien Trophy and start awarding NBA champions a life-cast of The Chosen One’s face.
What did change for LeBron this year, as Tom Haberstroh writes on ESPN.com, is that he realized he’s a big man. By focusing on his post-up game rather than his outside shot, James emphasized his strengths (and his strength) while playing down his relative weakness. But this was an adaptation, not a reinvention. To translate into the language of athletic cliché: He didn’t work harder, he worked smarter.
If LeBron doesn’t win two or three or four or five NBA titles, that doesn’t mean he’s returned to complacency. The Oklahoma City Thunder, led by 23-year-old Kevin Durant, 23-year-old Russell Westbrook, 23-year-old James Harden, and 22-year-old Serge Ibaka—have a terrifyingly talented, youthful core. Durant in particular is unimpeachable. He is the best scorer in the game. He is also humble, hard-working, and the consummate teammate. There is no obvious personal journey or maturation process required of him. He appears to be a man in full, on and off the court.
Durant also just finished his fifth season in the NBA without a title. The Thunder will win one soon—how could they not? But what if it takes Durant another year? What if it takes another after that? What if he’s 27 years old and has still never worn a champagne-soaked T-shirt?
Maybe that’s what it would take to convince us that the struggles of great players do not always have a deeper meaning, that struggles with a game aren’t indicative of struggles with personal demons, that even the greatest players can be stymied in their efforts to win the NBA Finals. I don’t want to do it. It goes against everything I believe in. But rooting against Kevin Durant might be the only way to save us all from the tyranny of dumb sports opinions.