There’s been a lot of talk this week about the “failures” of LeBron James, and an equal amount of hand-wringing over what exactly he owes the world of basketball.Is he a team player? Is he a coward? Does he not care seek or care about glory? Hasn’t he done plenty enough for the Miami Heat?
More important, how did he end up with the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders?
To figure this out, we went back to the beginning: A 2002 Sports Illustrated story about a then-high school junior who would be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft that year if only the rules allowed it.
Take a look at some of the quotes compiled by writer Grant Wahl:
- “At this age LeBron is better than anybody I’ve seen in 37 years in this business, including Kevin [Garnett] and Kobe [Bryant] and Tracy [McGrady],” says Sonny Vaccaro of Adidas.
- Germantown (Pa.) Academy coach Jim Fenerty: “We played Kobe when Kobe was a senior, and LeBron is the best player we’ve ever played against. LeBron is physically stronger than Kobe was as a senior, and we’ve never had anybody shoot better against us.”
- Soon-to-become Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “If I were a general manager, there are only four or five NBA players that I wouldn’t trade to get him right now. If LeBron came out this year, I wouldn’t even have to think about it. I’d take him No. 1.”
You should re-read the whole thing, because it’s pretty telling.
The article starts with the story of him meeting Michael Jordan (not for the first time) at a Cavaliers game he got free tickets to. He had already got a personal audience with Phil Knight of Nike, got backstage passes to meet Jay-Z, and went to the Super Bowl as the guest of a marketing executive.
(It’s a good thing he never went to college, because that school would have already had their national championship vacated.)
LeBron counted NBAers Antoine Walker, Michael Finley, Tracy McGrady, and Jerry Stackhouse as friends. Kobe Bryant gave him a pair of custom shoes. He was treated like Jordan, before he was Jordan.
It’s easy to see how James could let that go to his head. But he didn’t exactly fight back against the expectations, even then.
“A lot of players know how to play the game,” LeBron says, “but they really don’t know how to play the game, if you know what I mean. They can put the ball in the hoop, but I see things before they even happen.”
Now, remember he was 17. If we pulled up some of your choice quotes at that age, you probably wouldn’t sound too humble, either. Plus, he was basically repeating one everyone else was already saying about him. He was the next Jordan. We all agreed.
But now it’s become clear that he’s not. (Even a triple-double tonight won’t change that.) So is that OK? Jordan was once-in-a-lifetime. Why can’t he just be LeBron?
Because LeBron James wanted to be the next the Jordan, too. He’s got Jordan’s shoe deal. He’s got Jordan’s commercials. He’s got Jordan’s money and fame and much more. He’s owns part of a soccer team and runs his own companies.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have Jordan’s titles and he doesn’t have his unparalleled (some say inhuman) thirst to be No. 1. In everything.
The truth is that LeBron is a victim of expectations. Some of them are unreasonable, but many of them are of his own making. He encouraged them and nurtured them and they made him very, very rich. Why do you think they would even put his free agent “Decision” on the TV in the first place? Because he’s the NOT “The Man”?
LeBron may make his teammates better, but he didn’t put any of them in that “We Are Witnesses” banner. SI may have have called him the Chosen One, but they didn’t create the fake cover calling him the next Jordan that he already had in his living room. Advertisers put him on TV, but they didn’t tell him to sell a cartoon show starring himself, times four.
It’s one thing to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17, with the headline the Chosen One. It’s another to have it tattooed on your back for the rest of you life. And then mock an entire city for expecting you to live up that promise.
He made Cleveland (and Miami) think he was second coming. It’s not a crime for fans and sportswriters to point that out that he’s not. They held a championship parade the day he got to South Beach. It’s not rude to ask why they haven’t won it yet.
The media encouraged his legend, because it was a good story and they’re happy to take him apart now, because that’s a good story too. And he has to take it, because its his job. There were no complaints when they made him @KingJames. Why should anyone be complaining now?
LeBron can still win this Finals series (and five or six more), but he’s not going to do it the way Jordan (or Magic or Bird) did it, which is why he’s always going to be a “disappointment” to everyone who wanted him to be the absolute greatest. That should also include LeBron James.
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