LeBron James is Thinking of Ending Things

Ahead of his -- *checks notes* -- tenth NBA Finals appearance, Abe Beame makes a strong case for the four-time MVP and sixteen-time All-Star as the greatest NBA player of all-time.
By    September 29, 2020

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Abe Beame already has his Nike Bronny 1s on special advance-advance preorder.

I’ve seen two 50 point performances in person in my life. The first was Jamal Crawford in 2007 against the Heat on a frigid January evening in the Garden. If you’ve never seen Jamal catch a heater in person, you haven’t lived. It’s Dali at the peak of his powers, surreal poetry. The angles defy the laws of physics, the logic and reason defying shot selection, the slippery grace of a human Gumby curving the ball and the Earth’s gravitational pull with each shot. It was apparent early on that it wasn’t going to be a normal night for Jamal. He went 20/30 from the field (only shooting, and making, FOUR fucking free throws the entire game), at one point, he made 16 consecutive field goals. I’ve been to playoff games that haven’t been as intense and electric, as he just kept making idiotic circus shot after idiotic circus shot and the crowd lost their minds.

To me, it explains why we as a culture make such big deals over 50 point games, even now as James Harden has reduced it to something he’ll do casually on a Wednesday night en route to a Rockets loss. It is an astonishing display of desire, talent, fortitude, any cliche you can apply to why we love this game so much and appreciate its imperfect, perfect players. It’s true heroism.

The second 50 point performance I ever saw was LeBron James, two years later, on a frigid Thursday night in early February with the Cavs in town against the Knicks. The moment I realized LeBron was going for 50 was early in the fourth quarter, when my friend belatedly looked up at the scoreboard, nudged me and said, “Oh shit bro, ‘Bron going for 50.” It was a triple double (That catty bitch David Stern (R.I.P.) belatedly took away over semantics as to what qualifies as a rebound).

For me, this best illustrates the power and the problem with discussing Los Angeles Lakers (Guard? Forward? Center? Coach? Team President and future owner?) player LeBron James. He has been the most famous person on Earth for most of my adult life. He is the most watched, most debated, most loved and most hated person in our collective consciousness. Of course, there should be no debate when it comes to LeBron, but it’s just like that night 11 years ago in midtown. LeBron has been so great, for so long, and makes the superhuman look routine so often, we have no choice but to normalize his incredible talent. Our brains couldn’t handle it otherwise. He has made us suspend our disbelief with such regularity, he can no longer surprise us. We’ll believe it all, and many of us will take it for granted. 

Most people my age believe Michael Jordan is the greatest player who ever lived. And this makes sense. It’s human nature. We think of our childlike wonder, encountering greatness for the first time. How fresh and full of possibility our lives were then. People run through Jordan’s incredible resume. The MVPs, the rings, the stats he accumulated against a bunch of guys who would get worked in today’s G-League. So many people have written so much shit on this subject that I won’t bore you with a long-winded and less informed argument. I will just say this, because I never hear anyone say it and it’s the dumbest and most obvious thing you will ever hear anyone say on this beaten to death subject: LeBron James is the greatest player of all time because he’s better at basketball than Michael Jordan. He just is. I’ve been in arenas, watched on TV, rewatched dozens if not hundreds of hours of both playing on YouTube. At their peaks, and even off much of his peak, LeBron is a better player in basically every facet of the game. 

So now that we’ve put that debate to bed forever, let’s focus on the impossibility of LeBron “In Winter”. There are some who believe Anthony Davis is the best player on the Lakers. And this makes sense. He has gaudy counting and advanced stats. He is perhaps as physically gifted as LeBron and as my favorite basketball writer once put it, he is an octopus with long and all encompassing tentacles on defense. But anyone who could watch, say, a quarter of LeBron and AD play together and not realize who the better player on the court is has no understanding of how a fulcrum, or a hinge, or a yo-yo works. LeBron is Marcus Thames and AD is Gio Urshela. LeBron is Martin Scorsese and AD is Leonardo DiCaprio. LeBron is William Tecumseh Sherman and AD is the Union Army. LeBron harnesses and unleashes AD’s full power and potential. 

He is a great coach. He can make Kyrie Irving seem sane. He can make Dwight Howard seem bearable. He can make J.R. Smith chill. LeBron is a great GM, something he had to figure out after years of being failed by Jim Paxson, Danny Ferry, and Chris Grant. I recall when heading into their miraculous 2016 matchup with the Warriors, many (mostly white) critics were quick to point out that LeBron had done all his Makavelian maneuvering, and now, with derision, with an ugly sneer, with an acid tongue they would deign to use in lashing this celestial being, they said “Well, enjoy that Tristan Thompson contract, GM LEBRON!” And then, the team LeBron built won Cleveland its first NBA championship ever, and the first professional championship of any sort it had seen in 62 years. You’ll never believe this, but there was not a word of praise spoken for the team GM LeBron put together. He’s now on the cusp of constructing his fourth championship caliber squad.

LeBron James forever changed the context in which athletes exist. With how we watch sports, with how we see athletes, with how we understand them, with how they understand themselves. His politics, his fearlessness, the way he uses his voice and the voices of those around him. You may remember “The Decision”, often pointed to by (mostly white) critics as a black mark on LeBron’s legacy. These sadists are Bloomberg-era cops stopping and frisking unassuming young men for jaywalking in a targeted neighborhood because they have nothing else to go on. I mean really, ten years later, who gives an actual fuck? The Cavs fans who eventually got their ring? Doubtful. It really just exists at this point in the hearts and minds of LeBron’s (mostly white) critics as some scandal, some perceived slight, some breach of a decorum that never existed. Just for them, let’s take a look at my favorite scene from the ESPN special.

The decision laid bare the lie we had all been living in. Players are drafted by teams they don’t have the freedom to choose. No other profession is like this. Freshly minted lawyers don’t enter the job pool with a massive draft that forces the blue chip rookie lawyers to go lawyer for the shittiest firms. Players are drafted by old (mostly white) owners who don’t love or care about them beyond their ability to generate revenue for their business that wouldn’t exist without the labor. LeBron James, the greatest basketball player who has ever lived, stood up to conventional wisdom, stood up to decades of precedence, and said I am going to live in Miami and make my legacy with my friends. Every single person on Earth can go fuck themselves. He waived his hand and remade the world.

Some television character I’m not going to go to the trouble of researching but I can only assume is non problematic once said, “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” Well, LeBron has both. No one has understood from the very beginning the full implications of the arc of their entire lives like LeBron has. And I don’t mean to limit this to athletes. He has the mapped out trajectory of everything normally reserved for psychos who really actually plan on running for President of the United States in middle school. From the fully formed and narratively sound career arc, to the insanity employed in maintaining the most incredible body the league has ever seen, LeBron is the master of his domain in every imaginable sense.

(Mostly white) People hate on LeBron for his marketing savvy. They think, at times, he’s phony and inauthentic, that he’s calculating. And perhaps he is. For some reason, we haven’t yet figured out that our culture, and this entire country, is built on advertising and self promotion. Some of us cling to absurd Gen X, misguided notions of “Keeping It Real.” People shit on Travis Scott, and Drake, and the Kardashians for the same things you may hate, or at least dislike about LeBron. But LeBron’s packaging is as impressive as the rest of his full court persona. Here’s two of my favorite postgame videos of LeBron:

A lot was made of these two videos at the time, only it wasn’t really, because in my mind, and probably in yours, there was only one. It was an off the cuff recitation, with photographic detail, of several plays that occurred during the Cavs 2018 series with the Celtics in two separate games. And I’m almost positive it was completely staged. Marla Ridenour, the woman who throws Lebron the oop in the first video, works at the Akron Beacon Journal and has covered Lebron breathlessly for most of his career. So, perhaps not impossible to plant. Lebron performs the parlor trick, then can’t help but crack an apple polishing smirk as the press room slaps their flippers together like they’re performing for a tossed fish. He then, without any real prompting, opens the next question by stating “I didn’t go to college”, playing up his auto-didact, prodigal brilliance.

Then he basically replays the same bit ten days later. I have not been able to find a single instance of him doing this before or since. 

If it sounds like I disapprove of this potential op, I’m not at all. I’m in awe of it. Consider it as a monologue, something LeBron studied on an iPad in the locker room before getting on stage. It’s worthy of an Oscar. It’s impressive just as rote memorization, or a Middleditch and Schwartz level riff around the details he managed to imprint. And then there was the devastating effectiveness of it. Even Lebron’s long time (mostly white) critics kind of took it as gospel that they were in the presence of genius. And here’s the thing, they are. He plays the game like a savant. But LeBron also understands basketball is a game ruled by narratives, and he understands on Banksy level how to manipulate narrative, and he did.

It was a brilliant act of meta myth making he executed by hijacking the media in the margins of a tight Eastern Conference Final series against the Celtics. We talk shit about Jordan’s incredible chip and how he never stopped looking for angles and advantages against his opponents. LeBron doesn’t see opponents. His only competition is eternity. He’s playing 12-dimensional chess and everyone else is playing that cup and ball game and not doing particularly well.

We all know about Klutch Sports, LeBron and Rich Paul’s agency. We all understand exactly what it is and what is happening, but again, this is the LeBron Effect. Right now, as we speak, 28 players in the league are free to play against LeBron, but they are also playing for him. He is somehow allowed, in plain sight, to run what is one of the most powerful agencies in sports, and everyone just lets him do it.

My favorite aspect of LeBron’s nearly flawless game is his passing. I remember my freshman year of college, I was at a house party smoking a blunt with a talented combo guard named John Gilchrist who played against LeBron in High School. Gilchrist insisted LeBron was going to be the next Jordan. And I firmly insisted, like a bit of a fucking moron, that LeBron would never be Jordan. He was the next Magic. This was 2002, when LeBron was a senior in High School. Even then, you could see the magic, and the Magic, in his game. 

Because for all his incredible, God-given talent, for all the things that separates him from every other human being before he steps foot on the court, what separates him from every player who has ever played the game is how he sees it. And this translates most tangibly in his passing, but you can see it in how he maps games, in his second by second decision making, never committing a misstep. He evaluates his competition on a nightly basis, and becomes whatever he needs to be, whatever he needs of his deep and endless talent, to win. And he does. For all the records we speak of in hushed tones, I’m quite sure we will  never again see any one player get to 8 consecutive NBA Finals. It is staggering, but it’s LeBron, so we just kind of go with it.

He is the most successful philanthropist of the 21st century. If LeBron gets behind a cause, it’s headline news. My wife works in non-profit education and has been beating the drum and advocating for the community school model LeBron has realized. Community schools do more than just invest in their children. They work with entire families to promote success. They literalize the “It takes a village” cliche. It’s a beautiful, utopian model of education. I can’t really stress enough what an incredible flex I Promise is as a concept for intellectuals in public education, let alone what an incredible force of light and good it is for the kids and families benefiting from its existence, and the generations of philanthropists who will emulate LeBron, and the millions who will eventually benefit from his bold and immaculately publicized example. This is how you convert generational wealth to meaningful and lasting social change. 

The thing I admire most about LeBron James isn’t any physical attribute, it’s not his mystical vision or freak intellect. It’s LeBron as a human being. People who get cameos in a national commercial ruin their lives because they can’t handle the very limited fame and success they achieve. LeBron has been the most famous person on earth his entire life and is entirely unphased by it. He is either a genuinely nice and well adjusted guy or incredibly adept at conveying that quality. He was the most charming and gregarious person on Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson’s iconic Road Trippin podcast. He loves his family, he has fun with his teammates. This is more impressive to me than any stat line he’s ever put up in his entire career. It’s the single thing that makes him a 1 of 1 human being. 

LeBron should have more rings. Of course there was Dallas. They ran into a fucking juggernaut in the remade Spurs team we don’t really talk about enough, with Boris fucking Diaw whipping the ball around the post like Nikola Jokic and every single corner three falling. But really, it’s the fucking Warriors. When LeBron left Cleveland, he opened Pandora’s Box. The Warriors were revolutionary and evolutionary in their play, and then they got the second best player in the league to throw onto a 73 win team. It’s just fucking stupid. The only reason why there were not riots in the streets was because it had been normalized. LeBron himself is the architect of it. That team could never have happened without him. And all the (mostly white) idiots are going to point to that on his resume and say he’s not the greatest because he’ll most likely end up just shy of 6 rings. 

But now LeBron is on the cusp of something incredible even for him. He was the unrecognized MVP and DPOY and at the age of 35, with ten Finals appearances, and four rings with three different franchises, he will end the Jordan/James convo for everyone but the diehard, Skip Bayless, “College Basketball is better” demo. There will be some stubborn holdouts hiding in the jungles of Guam, unaware that the war is over, but everyone with eyes, and a brain, and a pulse, will concede the inevitable. But really, regardless of what happens on court over the next two weeks, the jury has been out for some time. It helps that he’s the greatest player who has ever lived, but even without the game of basketball, LeBron James is the Greatest Of All Time.

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