He is the best player in the game today. He is also the most reviled.
LeBron James entered the NBA nine years ago with the billing as someone who had a chance to be considered the greatest basketball player of a generation. After all, no one had seen a player of his size, ability, and agility since, well, ever.
Michael Jordan had the tools, of course. Kobe Bryant had the swagger, certainly. But the total package included the frame of a power forward and the deftness of point guard. Anointed “King James” before he was even out of high school, James was an icon before he could vote.
Of course, the danger in anointing someone as such more often than not leads to disappointment. But the answer to the question of “can he actually do it?” has been a resounding yes.
Yet, despite his talent, three MVP awards, and succession in the lineage of The Greatest, he is still loathed among basketball fans not residing south of Walt Disney World.
“LeBRON IS NO JORDAN,” screams one fan.
“HE CAN’T WIN THE BIG ONE,” bellows another.
All of this because of three linear facts.
1) He was saddled with merely run-of-the-mill players during his seven years in Cleveland. Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Child, please. Drew Gooden? Come on.
Of course, in today’s NBA, even star players need other star players around them to win. The years in between Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol were quite lean for Kobe and the Lakers. Tim Duncan is one of the greatest big men to ever play the game but where would the Spurs have been with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli?
Even Jordan needed Pippen.
With this knowledge within him, LeBron sought out better players to surround himself with. After all, he had earned his free agency after seven years and an expiring contract with the Cavaliers. This led to:
2) The Decision.
The embarrassing, self congratulating, puff piece concocted by sports journalism’s resident weasel, Jim Gray, and the Worldwide Leader of Televised Sports Highlight Shows had boffo ratings but blew up like fireworks store catching a spark in a drought on the public relations front.
NBA fans felt strung along. Clevelanders felt betrayed like Judas himself had ripped their hearts right out of their chests. LeBron was mocked for “taking his talents to South Beach” for months.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert held his breath and pouted like a four-year old.
Why? Because the best player in the NBA had earned the right to choose where and with whom he wanted to play and it did not suit the owner’s or Cleveland’s needs?
Nevertheless, that was the narrative. “LeBron is a bad guy.” And while his ego had been massively out of control for years, the same could be said truthfully of scores of other elite professional athletes.
No one ever questioned Jordan or Kobe’s egos, mainly because no one could fit in the same room with them at the same to do so. The same is true of James. But when everyone finally calmed down, the consensus was, of course, that while LeBron had the choice of where he wanted to go, the way in which he chose to make the announcement was much too self-gratifying and over the top.
Which leads us to:
3) The Championship Celebration held one day after The Decision. “Not two, not three. Not four, not five. Not six, not seven,”James said of how many Larry O’Brien trophies he planned to win in Miami.
After last year’s NBA Finals loss to Dallas, detractors wanted to know when LeBron would get one.
In this, James’ ninth season in the NBA, some fans that had bought into the hype back in 2002 when he was still at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron had felt duped. After all, MJ had six championships. Kobe has five, with perhaps more on the horizon. Even new teammate Dwayne Wade has a ring.
Yet LeBron still awaits his first.
Are the criticism’s justified? Almost every non-Heat fan says yes. Almost every analyst who spends their waking professional hours inside the game itself says no.
Legacies are made with trophies and rings, this is undeniable. Just ask Miami’s all-time sports icon, Dan Marino. As an individual player, few know the success James has. And while there have been times where he shied away from taking over key games like he is capable of, the evolution of the young man as a professional is indicating that he has taken that constructive advice to heart.
Saturday night, James led all scorers with 31 points and all rebounders with 12. This postseason, he is averaging 30.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. More tellingly, however, is that his averages in both key statistics have gone up in each successive series.
You wanted the man to rise to the occasion? You have gotten your wish.
So now it is LeBron in his third NBA Finals, this time going up against perhaps his only true peer, Kevin Durant.
And while many will root against the Heat because it is still misguidedly chic to root against LeBron, that would be a shame.
Because while you are expending so much energy denying to yourself how great one man is, you might just miss the greatest Finals one-on-one matchup since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.