There are so many things that suck about the NBA lockout. Whenever I’ve talked about it with friends over the last few months, I’ve always found myself coming back to one thing in particular that, to me, is especially terrible: the thought of losing a year of watching LeBron James in his prime.Villain, hero, jerk, saviour , witness, quitness or whatever else you want to call him, LeBron is a transcendent basketball player. His athletic ability pretty much bends the rules of physics and makes him a statistical anomaly. How can one human being be blessed with that kind of skill, size, speed, power, hops, court vision, coordination and body control? Think about it. I certainly don’t know the answer, but LeBron’s that guy, and at any time, he is capable of doing something on the court that you’ll never forget. His innate talent would probably be crazy enough to give my best friend Kalter a severe nose bleed, if we were still six and if he was still prone to hilarious nose bleeds. Even after “The Decision,” it’s impossible for me not to appreciate that. I think LeBron is generationally special, and whether you love him or hate him, you probably want to watch him play, because he’s that good.
In my world, missing a year of LeBron would be missing a lot, because since I was in high school, LeBron has been my main basketball memory-maker. I’m lucky to have seen evidence of his gifts a long time ago, before most of the world knew his name. I know for a fact that I’ll never forget these experiences, and they make me appreciate the impact that his talent can have. The first time I saw him was during the spring of my junior year in high school, when I was playing in an AAU tournament in Los Angeles. At that time, I was a wide-eyed 17-year-old filled with wonderment, just coming into my own as a player and loving the experience of travelling around the country to play ball against the best prospects from all over. On these trips, multiple guys slept in one hotel room, we washed our jerseys in the sink (if at all), and we ate Carl’s Jr. for pretty much every meal. I loved this stuff. It was a fun and carefree time, one I remember fondly, especially since the athlete’s foot I always managed to bring home as a souvenir hasn’t returned since then. (OK, it did, but only once, I swear.)
The gym that hosted this specific tournament was huge, with a number of games going on at once on a bunch of different courts. It was hot and sweaty in there, but I’ve always enjoyed studying players and being around the game of basketball. After one of our games, I was standing around with a teammate, watching some of the other action and checking out some of the competition from around the country. For no reason whatsoever, I glanced to the deep left corner of the gym, to the furthest court from where we were standing.
And then my jaw dropped. As soon as I looked that way, I saw a guy blow past his defender, drive the left baseline, take off like a damn G5 jet, and massacre the rim with a tomahawk dunk. I grabbed my friend’s arm. “Who the heck is that?” I asked, though it admittedly may have been in a slightly less decent, slightly more emphatic manner. My friend hadn’t seen the play, but a coach standing next to us had, and he answered my question. “LeBron James,” he said, “from Ohio. Best player in the country.”
After watching some more of his game, I instantly turned into a huge LeBron fan. There was something about his combination of immense physical ability and advanced basketball skill that I’d never really seen before. There’s always something intriguing about a prodigy, someone who is so insanely gifted at such a young age, and that was what LeBron was like. I started telling all of my teammates about this guy, and if initially they didn’t believe me, they got to see for themselves soon enough. I don’t quite remember if it was at that tournament or a different one, but at some point during my junior year, my Friends of Hoop-Wisconsin AAU team played the Oakland Soldiers, the California team that LeBron was playing for at the time. (They also had Leon Powe and Kendrick Perkins. Spoiler alert: we lost). Unfortunately, I had sprained my ankle the game before, so the Grunfeld/James match-up that absolutely no one had been waiting for didn’t actually happen. I just sat on the bench in street clothes and watched the madness unfold. Let’s just say that once the game was over, every single one of my teammates believed the hype.
That summer, LeBron and I both played at the Adidas ABCD Camp in New Jersey, and something crazy happened that only increased my fandom. This story is ridiculous, true and a great example of why missing a year of LeBron would be a loss for basketball fans everywhere. It shows that, at any moment, he can give you something special. At camp, I was standing and watching LeBron’s team play, as I was prone to do, when a friend of mine, another camper, came up and asked what was going on. I said I wanted to watch this guy, then asked my friend if he’d ever seen him. He hadn’t, and right as I was describing to him how absurd LeBron was, young LBJ stole the ball and started to push it down court on a two-on-one fast break. I stopped my spiel and told my buddy, “Wait, check this out.” We both stared as LeBron sailed down the court. I remember freezing a little, hoping that he’d do something awesome to prove the point I was trying to make. He did not disappoint. He glided toward the basket, drew the defender, and threw a sick behind-the-back pass to the teammate that was running with him.
This was already enough to show my friend what I was talking about, but there was more. Whoever the teammate was didn’t finish the layup. It rolled off the rim, so LeBron swooped in, leaped into the air, and dunked the ball through the hoop. Backwards. Smiling and nodding my head, I looked at my friend and gloated: “I told you!!! I told you!!!” The timing was perfect, and it just confirmed what I had been telling people for a while: the dude was out-of-his-mind good. And at that time, he was only 16. Now, he’s 26. Bigger, stronger, faster, better. And his shot has improved a ton. And he has more patience. And he can legitimately play four positions in the league. Can you really blame me for not wanting to lose a year of seeing this guy perform? (By the way, if you answered yes to that, I don’t think we can be friends.)
Of course, I followed the rest of LeBron’s high school career, and you better believe that a bunch of my Stanford teammates and I piled into a dorm room to watch his first NBA game. The Cavs lost to the Kings, but LeBron had 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. Pretty serious stuff, especially for an 18-year-old. That was a memorable night, much like when he torched Detroit for 48 in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. I was in Chicago visiting my girlfriend (now my fiancé) at school, and because her sorority house had a TV that inexplicably did not get whatever channel carried the game, she talked me into going to a movie instead. I’m going to go ahead and file that one under MISTAKE. My cell phone was on vibrate in my pocket, and throughout the movie, my friends were blowing me up with stuff like “How crazy is this?” and “LeBron is the truth!” I clearly haven’t stopped reminding her of this evening, nor do I have any plans to do so.
As a basketball fan, this kind of stuff is why I love the game, and no one nowadays makes these types of memories for me as much as LeBron does. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I was personally disappointed by how “The Decision” went down. It really rubbed me the wrong way, and when this past year’s Finals rolled around, I was rooting for Dirk so hard that I might as well have been wearing Maverick-blue lederhosen. But at the same time, I didn’t and still don’t feel comfortable or qualified to comment on LeBron’s true character. I’ve never met him personally, so I can’t tell you what kind of guy he really is.
All I can say is that, even though he might have to improve his post-up ability, his leadership, his clutch shooting or whatever other aspects of his game people criticise (perhaps rightfully so), he is still an awe-inspiring player, the rare type whose performances can punctuate important parts of your life. Not only that, but he’s currently either in his prime, or knocking on the door of it. No matter how great you are, there are only so many years of that exquisite phase of excellence that represents the peak of your performance — the best you will ever be — and to lose a year of LeBron in that period or anywhere close to it would be a huge bummer.
Granted, he did not play like himself in the Finals, and that was a shame, but I’m not too worried about his long-term prospects. I’m confident he will continue to make memories for me and for basketball fans everywhere. While a lot of people think he’s a butthead (excuse my language), I don’t know anything about all that. To me, he’s just the most ferocious athlete I’ve ever seen play the game, and someone I would miss watching for the next year. For this reason, and so many others, I’m hoping the lockout ends. And pronto. It may only be September, but it’s never too early to want to see something awesome. For that, LeBron is my guy. He has been for a while, and he’ll continue to be, because, Decision or not, he’s still that good.
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