LeBron James and the burden of being great(est)

By Kurts Streeter

Poor LeBron James. There he is again, battling into the deep muck of the NBA playoffs, leading his team oh-so-close to a world title. And there he is: An omnipresent force in purple-striped high-tops, so consistently great on the biggest stage that we have come to expect nothing less.

His Los Angeles Lakers are now vying with the Denver Nuggets for a spot in the NBA Finals. After Sunday’s 105-103 victory over the Nuggets — sealed by Anthony Davis with a buzzer-beater but fueled by James’ hot start — Los Angeles is now up two games to none in the best-of-seven series.

Should the Lakers advance, it would mean that James has pushed teams from three cities — Cleveland, Miami and Los Angeles — to the league’s championship round in nine of the past 10 seasons.

Within that time, he won two title rings with the Miami Heat, and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the cloister of the NBA’s Disney World bubble, he is making a credible run for a championship with the Lakers.

The burden of great expectations is not new. As a high school junior, he was cast as a basketball messiah. What athlete has ever delivered so thoroughly on such early hype?

And what athlete presents more of a modern-day paradox? He is among the most successful sports stars in history, on his way to billionaire status, influential, admired and connected to at least 120 million followers on social media. Despite all of this, there are far too many who take him and his success for granted.

Just last week, the NBA unveiled the winner of its Most Valuable Player Award for this pandemic-laced season. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s kinetic 25-year-old star, was no doubt worthy of the award. But James was, too. He bounced back from a rare, injury-plagued season to help return the Lakers to dominance. We have never seen a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward lead the NBA in assists. He did it while his team mourned the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash in January. He did it when the league returned to play amid a world torn by a pandemic and unrest.

He did it at age 35.

A case can be made that this season is a grander opus than any he has ever conducted. So how is it that he lost the MVP vote in a landslide? James flashed a cutting bitterness when asked about the award after the first playoff game against Denver. “Out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes” he said, noting his anger at the absurdity of not even coming close.

The mantle of greatness is not easy to hold. James knows his worth to the league and the way his presence has long altered the landscape. He has won the MVP a total of four times. Were it not for the desire to recognize players who for all their greatness operate in his shadow, he should have won eight — at the least.

There are many reasons he is taken for granted. Silly arguments over who is better, James or Michael Jordan, distract from the ability to see him for what he really is.

Race is part of the mix. There are still too many who cannot see beyond James’ physicality, his uncommon blend of size and strength and speed. Still too many who see him without nuance, first and foremost as a body. A Black body.

That allows the easy dismissal of the dedication he has always put into staying in shape — and the disregard of his sheer intelligence. James is said to possess a photographic memory. He can recall plays that occurred years ago with little trouble, and he has forged a remarkable and successful business and entertainment company, not to mention a school in his hometown, Akron, Ohio. To watch him is to watch an athlete attuned to the flow, feel and probability of every move and every moment. John Coltrane meets Albert Einstein meets a point guard in a power forward’s body.

The genius of James, the beauty of his game and the joy he exudes playing it, has shown itself in vivid Technicolor during this playoff run. The blocks, dunks, spinning pirouettes and sprinting fast breaks. The tips, screens, fallaways and sudden passes that cut across the court as if rocketing along on a zip line.

He has been doing this for 17 years. Consider the span of that journey. Think of 2010. That’s the year of “The Decision,” James’ nationally televised announcement that he was leaving Cleveland for a Miami team stocked with All-Stars. Remember how he was scorned and vilified? How a single line from that pronouncement — “taking my talents to South Beach” — became a punchline, code for narcissism and disloyalty?

But James was actually coming into his own. He was tapping into a longing that is at once universal and felt at a particular, bone-deep level in Black America: the longing to break bonds, the urge for freedom of movement, the need for self-determination and control.

The reverberating power of that decision gets lost in the haze of memory. Remember that among the players to whom he is most often compared, no one had made such a move in the prime of his career.

Not Magic. Not Kobe. Not Michael Jordan.

Even lesser players faced scorn for exercising their right to change teams. Now that kind of movement is part of the NBA’s lifeblood.

How easy it is to forget the ways in which James changed the paradigm. His shift to Miami was the dawn of an era during which he became a leading voice for African American empowerment. “The Decision” heralded a new day coming for the NBA. It would take a while longer to fully achieve, but no longer would the athletes play second fiddle to owners, or bend to the forces that want to keep the stars in a league, brimming with Blackness, from speaking out.

The backlash to this new power has been predictable, led by the “shut up and dribble” chorus that continues to chide James for demanding dignity.

He has always laughed off such inane demands. He has doubled down on the notion that he can be a beacon in the fight. “We are scared as Black people in America,” he said after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., unafraid to show vulnerability. He is combating that pain by helping to lead a multimillion-dollar push to staff underserved election polling sites.

Poor LeBron James?

He may be fine without the extra adulation. But in a year full of despair, we would be wise to take stock of all that he is — all of his powerful, steady brilliance — and stop taking him for granted.

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