Another NBA championship gives us another moment to obsess over whether LeBron James is going to be better than Michael Jordan and whether he’s already greater than Kobe Bryant. But because that’s essentially a Superman vs. Hulk argument that won’t be decided until LeBron retires, let’s take the debate about the most compelling, polarizing athlete on the planet in a different direction.
“For me, I can’t worry what everybody say about me. I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough. Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a number six with ‘James’ on the back, I’m blessed. So whatever people say about me off the court, it don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries.”
After LeBron’s response to ESPN’s Doris Burke’s question about quieting the critics, do you a.) still hate him with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns; b.) merely just loathe him intensely; or c.) finally get LeBron, respecting who he is and where he came from?
Are you still holding his tone-deaf exit from Cleveland against him? Does his 2010 star-chamber alliance with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, followed by his “not one, not two, not three” boast, still make your pulse race with anger? Or is it the complaining after the calls, the image of the most talented man on the court morphing back to his Terrible Twos every time a referee’s whistle blows?
Or are you simply like me: You’ve gotten past all that and wish his detractors would just shut up and appreciate the best basketball player in the universe at the moment.
I actually like LeBron more after Thursday night. He came off as vulnerable, real, unvarnished and very unlike Jordan, who was a prisoner of his own corporate imperiousness.
Oh, Michael the ballplayer was otherworldly, the best I’ve ever seen in person, but you never got the authentic Mike off the court. You didn’t get anything like this unplugged candor regarding Miami’s Game 6 reprieve, when ESPN’s Bill Simmons asked LeBron after his champagne bath in the locker room, “Did you think you were done?”
“You know, Bill, you need a little bit of luck to win an NBA championship,” he said. “That’s exactly what we had. We had a couple missed free throws, we hit a couple shots, we had a couple offensive rebounds and we had Jesus on our side,” LeBron said with a smile, referring to teammate Ray Allen, who played a character named Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s 1998 film “He Got Game.”
What’s striking about the last 72 hours is how much perceptions about a player’s career can change so drastically over the course of two games and, really, 5.2 seconds.
If Bosh doesn’t secure LeBron’s errant three-point attempt in the final seconds of Game 6 and funnel a perfect pass to Allen . . . if Allen doesn’t ensure his tippy toes are behind the three-point line . . . if the arc on that shot is off just two inches, then the Spurs’ bench is storming the floor in jubilation and teams carried by LeBron are 1-3 in the Finals.
But Allen swished that shot, and LeBron parlayed it into a clutch Game 7, scoring 37 points on a buffet of midrange jumpers and five three-pointers — including that, yes, Jordan-esque, Kobe-esque shot over a charging Kawhi Leonard that very much sealed the game with less than 30 seconds left.
LeBron wasn’t a different player in those madcap final seconds of Game 6. But he seems to realize that all those factors out of his control had to transpire so that, in effect, a shift could occur in people’s perceptions about his place in NBA history.
Just like that, LeBron joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan as one of three players to win four MVP awards, two titles and two Finals MVPs, and the Heat joined the 1999 and 2010 Lakers and 1994 Rockets as the only teams to win a title after being down 3-2 since the 2-3-2 format began.
Magic Johnson, speaking to LeBron afterward, said he had seen every play over the years, “and you are the only guy I think that can become the greatest that’s ever played this game.”
Earvin can be prone to hyperbole sometimes after a big game, but LeBron is only 28 years old, and his health and drive are the only things that can stop him from winning several more titles and genuinely being a part of that conversation.
Of course, you don’t have to like LeBron because he’s the best basketball player in the world, and judging by social media Thursday night, winning again may have increased the venom directed toward him.
But when a scrutinized athlete keeps putting himself out there — when he is publicly judged every few seconds in ways his predecessors never had to deal with, when he admits his failings and how they helped him achieve his dream — well, when that guy says, “I’m a kid from Akron, Ohio, that, statistically, I’m not even supposed to be here,” I’m going to take him at his word and let bygones be bygones.
And those who can’t stomach that and still need to spew hate, well, it’s probably more about their own baggage than it is about LeBron James.
For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.