Monday, March 5, 2012

Love/Hate: Our Wants And Expectations For LeBron James

Let's forget about Udonis Haslem bricking a jumper that was right in his wheel house the other day. Let's ignore the the fact that the "correct basketball play" got made, that the pass was gorgeous and we still hated it even as we acknowledged its perfection. Let's disregard the fact that the All-Star Game "incident" colored our perceptions of that moment. Yes, Kobe would absolutely have taken a shot there, even if he was triple-covered 35 feet from the rim. Which is just dumb even if he is Kobe Bryant, and is certainly not a quality to emulate. Let's also table the Lakers' win over the Heat yesterday, and what we think it means or does not mean. Can we, seriously, talk about LeBron James? Not all the ancillary nonsense we attach to him every second of every day; not our expectations and hopes and foolish projections. Let's distill this back to the essentials, at least enough to distinguish between the player and our need to categorize everything about him.

Let's start with this: LeBron James is an NBA basketball player. He is very, very good at his job. Better, in point of fact, than anyone else currently playing basketball for a living. That's LeBron in a vacuum, and without getting into numbers and awards, that's as capable as we seem to be of discussing him without caveats and clauses and attachments.

Now let's get back to business as usual. The problem LeBron lives with is that no matter which way his fortunes are trending, he is reviled and derided at every juncture. Usually, "best in the game" status carries some immunity with it. We looked the other way with MJ, even after "The Jordan Rules" was published and the darkest pathological and vindictive aspects of our most beloved NBA star got dragged into daylight. We adored Shaq despite his predilection for enjoying the ride (often) at the expense of maximizing his on-court potential. Even Kobe, hated though he may within certain quarters, is accorded a sort of wary reverence commensurate with his status. When you transcend the immediacy of fame and enter the realm of the historically elite, your character flaws are largely negated. To put it another way: Oscar Robertson was, by all accounts, a cantankerous SOB who no one particularly enjoyed playing basketball with ... and we don't care because the cat averaged a triple double for a season and damn that is some next-level shit. So we cut the best of the best some slack. Usually. Unless you're LeBron.

Partly though his own actions and partly through our subsequent reactions, LBJ has been placed in a truly unique position in the NBA and maybe sports in general. A superduperstar and a future resident of Springfield even if he never sets foot on the court again after this season, LeBron has already dropped our collective jaws more times than we can remember. He's a two-time MVP who willed a series of perpetually terrible Cavs teams to playoff success. He's the single most versatile player in the history of the game barring maybe Magic, but he's such a freakish combination of strength, speed, size, and agility that there really isn't any comparison, historical or otherwise. He's in a category of one. In, well, more ways than one.

We talk about polarizing athletes in terms of certain people adoring them and certain other people loathing them. Obviously, there are shades and gradations, but we tend to think in extremes, and the athlete who polarizes sends the fans and media scrambling for one of two diametrically opposed corners. LeBron's problem is that he has transcended your basic love-him-or-hate-him dynamic and created a constantly shifting, internally polarized debate in a great many people who follow the NBA. James' problem, in a nutshell, is that we desperately want him to both succeed beyond our wildest expectations and fail beyond our meanest desires.

Because of his ability to do almost everything on a basketball court better than almost anyone else, we want James to live up to that now-tired "Chosen One" moniker. This is not because we wish him well or even, if you're a Heat fan, because of a rooting interest. It's because we want to feel like we are watching greatness, and more than that, unprecedented greatness, and we will feel cheated if King James never reaches that peak, which by the way only exists in our minds. We look at the surfeit of physical gifts at his disposal and we just assume that he should win 8 titles and break every record in the book. We want him to get there because if he doesn't it means (we think) that we have either wasted a great deal of time and effort feeding and buying into the hype machine, or that he is somehow shorting us by failing to live up to our image of what his "best" looks like. That's why we excoriate him for things like that pass to Haslem or the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals or the 2011 Finals. It rarely occurs to us that perhaps the hypothetical apex we've constructed for him is simply unattainable. We will continue to grouse and grumble until he either retires or owns a nice little passel of rings. Then we'll find new things to assail him over, just so we can keep Talking About LeBron James. We demand otherworldly accomplishments and heroic feats, and even as the numbers and highlight reels show that he gives them to us on a nightly basis, King James can never satisfy that demand.

The flip side, of course, is that we also earnestly want him to fail. The avalanche of negative PR LeBron has accrued in the wake of The Decision, the Heat intro that would have made Spinal Tap blush for all its gaudiness, his utterly ridiculous "not one, not two ..." monologue at that event, the "wake up tomorrow to your same crappy lives" presser, and the patina of "he's a quitter; just doesn't have it in him" plastered over it all have made James very easy to dislike. After delivering a kick in the teeth to Cleveland on national television, the transformation to Hoops Public Enemy # 1 was almost instantaneous. No matter how many clever Nike ads LeBron's camp chose to throw at the situation, the second he took his talents to South Beach, it was no longer a matter of joyful when-will-he-peak anticipation. From that point forward, it was ball don't lie and this guy better not perjure himself on the court. The other unfortunate incidents I mentioned above have compressed and compounded the issue, and LeBron now endures a daily crucible in which a part of us hopes the verdict is guilty. From some vague, preachy standpoint, we don't feel he deserves any championship rings, which would eventually factor into whatever consideration we give his GOAT argument (WHICH WE SHOULDN'T EVEN HAVE BECAUSE IT'S MJ AND THAT'S THAT! But anyway ...) We want him to fall short in the trial by fire because to our sensibilities any championships he wins will be ill-gotten gains. We like it when karma punishes those who have done wrong, and some part of our psyche feels that James has sinned.

So we wish for an irreconcilable dichotomy. We ardently desire James' ascension to irrefutable greatness and his receipt of richly-deserved comeuppance. He is a failure if he cannot reach and outstrip every career milestone we envision for him, but a sort of successful morality tale if he does indeed fall short. Conversely, if he hoists five Larry O'Brien Trophies, wins three more MVPs and breaks a few records, we will be highly gratified as basketball fans while still a little disconcerted that there were no apparent consequences for his often callous behavior. We took Jordan and take Kobe for what they were/are. Because LeBron's mind-boggling potential has collided so catastrophically with his bewildering and off-putting brand of self presentation, we refuse to do the same with him. Pity LeBron, and pity us for being malicious and stupid enough to put him in this predicament.

It's strange now to recall that interview (seems a few dozen Mississippi's have flowed under the bridge since) when, in response to a query about his future aspirations, LeBron simply replied: "Global Icon." He can, I think, consider that goal accomplished. What he didn't see at the time and may not see now is that icons are changeable by nature. They represent whatever the people who venerate them want to see. LeBron James' specific iconography is now running along a fault line. On one side is the basketball player we want him to become. On the other is the punching bag we need him to be. Whatever resides in the fissure between, I hope for his sake it's a way out of this mess.

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