“All the people that were rooting me on to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want with me and my family and be happy with that,” LeBron James stated in the press conference following the Miami Heat’s Game 6 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals.
Following his back-to-back fourth quarter no-shows in games four and five of the NBA finals last year, James found himself mired in a deluge of hatred streaming from seemingly all corners of the NBA universe. His infamous decision to join the Miami Heat appeared to lack any semblance of decency, as he embarrassed the only NBA team he had known in front of a national audience and bankrupted the professional sports scene of his hometown city.
The league’s owners were appalled, crying that the combination of three maximum-contract players — James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh — would disrupt the league’s competitive balance. This imbalance could potentially create a template for big-market teams to perpetually dominate the league (a fear that has since been quelled by the recently negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement) and the league’s fans. The majority of these fans were already tired of the attention given to the aloof superstar who had yet to prove his mettle in the playoffs (aside from an improbable run to the finals early in his career, albeit one which was diluted by the sweep his team endured at the hands of the Spurs once they had arrived there). Embellished with vain pomp and superficial splendor, his decision appeared to come from the archetypal egomaniac — perhaps a symptom of the turn the modern athlete, intent on profiting from his commercial appeal, has taken toward full-blown megalomania.
Yet the most vexing part of the whole situation, the aspect that doesn’t allow me to satisfy the overwhelming urge to neatly categorize James as a villain, is the inability to discern his intentions. If he was truly aiming to create his own commercial empire, he would have chosen New York. Yet he chose Miami, a bold choice in the sense that he opened himself up to criticism for joining forces with two of the league’s best players.
Seen by many as anti-competitive, the choice was possibly the only option that possessed the potential to compromise the stature he had already attained. From this perspective, he made a huge gamble in choosing the lone option in which his success, measured in number of championships won, would become the primary indicator for how he is remembered. The manner in which the decision was made was as haughty as could be, but the decision itself can’t exactly be understood as plainly sinister. I don’t condone James’ attitude, his propensity for coming up short in the biggest moments of the biggest games, his utter ignorance of his fame and wealth being predicated on the adulation of the fans he believes do not understand him, or really anything about him, aside from his transparently prodigious physical gifts. But anyone who claims to despise him must appreciate the impact that our expectations for him have on our conception of him — the object of this would-be hate. It is impossible for James to surpass our expectations; long considered the heir to Michael Jordan’s tradition of greatness, he is presented with a false dilemma prompted by our desire to witness greatness: win something in the neighborhood of Jordan’s six championships and he will satisfy our expectations, though if he falls short of this lofty echelon, he will be seen as a failure, an unremarkable addition to the litany of incredible talents who never fulfilled their respective enormous potential.
In Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, David Halberstam describes Jordan’s ability to keep his life as a basketball player in perspective as one of his most important attributes: “It was one of Jordan’s gifts to understand that basketball was the one true thing at the center of all this madness, that it was real while almost everything else was artificial. That in itself reflected uncommon wisdom and inner strength — many other athletes who had attained far less in the way of adulation came all too readily to believe the myth of who they were and to believe that the inauthentic was the authentic, that they were every bit as important as the transitory of images — the mirror that is contemporary media — said they were.”
James is clearly one of these many other athletes, unable to grasp that the product he puts on the court every night is the source of his fame and all of its byproducts, that without excellence at his craft, he isn’t excellent, at least as a basketball player. He might not be completely responsible, however, for the perpetuation of this fault, as he has been conditioned to believe in his own greatness since his initial appearance within our national conscience as a prep phenom.
Any discussions of James’ expectations must involve Jordan, ever since we were made aware of his existence and anxiously awaited — for nearly two whole years — his arrival from high school to the NBA. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong or sinister about this. Basketball fans were excited by the coming arrival to the professional ranks of a supreme amateur talent, who justified, with his play, his status as a prodigy and possessed never-before-seen physical talents, not to mention what appeared to be elite passing abilities and innate basketball acumen. They looked forward to watching this gifted prospect develop, and to eventually — though probably sooner than later — appreciating the chance to watch a master practice his craft.
But this brief piece of revisionist history denies the important course of events by which it happened. James was doomed the moment he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the ripe age of 16 next to the title, “The Chosen One?” Unbeknownst to him, he was to be defined thereafter by our conception of greatness, caught up in our need to project an unrealistic narrative of infallible supremacy that we tend to project upon our heroes.
In many ways this tragic story doesn’t even involve James. He just happened to be the greatest raw talent around following the reign of a player, Michael Jordan, whose accomplishments, and the ease with which he attained them, justified our celebration of the narrative of infallibility. He is popularly referred to as ‘King James,’ and frequently appears on T-shirts and posters next to the word ‘witness.’
The NBA, with its slogan: ‘Where Amazing Happens,’ fuels this derangement by conditioning us to expect to see greatness every time we tune in. It’s a great marketing ploy, just not a particularly accurate portrayal of real life. James — and other great athletes expected to achieve this level of excellence — must compete with these expectations for a romantic, narrativized greatness.
Yet this is the world James has grown up in ever since the day his face appeared on the cover of SI. He accepted the fame and our impossible expectations that came with it. And I don’t find it crazy to consider that these fanciful expectations, conditions which have defined James’ experience throughout his adult life, might actually impact his performance. He never had to earn his unanimous recognition as the game’s best player with hard-earned playoff victories and championships.
In skipping the process of earning this status, he has arrived at superstardom unequipped to earn the praise that was prematurely bestowed upon him. The fact that he has never been held accountable for his team’s playoff failures — his coach or supporting cast has always, until last year, his first with the Miami Heat, been deemed inadequate — has denied him the failures, and subsequent adversity, that affords eventual champions the chance to learn to practice the habits that yield for him the final product of excellence that we end up watching. That his habits have been exposed in the biggest moments of the biggest games as insufficient should not come as a surprise to us.
The impulse to hate James should force an examination of the context within which we feel this impulse. By conforming our conceptions of our culture’s greatest athletes to some romantic narrative of greatness, we preclude ourselves from appreciating any lesser, authentic greatness we do get to watch. LeBron James can’t surprise us by surpassing our expectations for him.
No matter what he does, it will never be good enough. And many athletes that follow him will be understood — and celebrated — by the same unfair standards.
— Contact Geoff Gilbert