NBA Playoffs – LeBron James: Death of a Salesman

(Quick Note: I’m not quite sure what I spewed onto this page. I just know that Cleveland’s LeBacle left me confused and questioning everything I think I know about the current state of basketball and stardom. Consider this me trying to sort it out in my own head. It probably doesn’t make sense.)

When older generations speak of how today’s youth has grown soft to the touch and incapable of working hard for what they want in life, the younger generations often dismiss these accusations with thoughts of jealousy and exaggeration being hurled their way.

The “greatest generation” has had their tales woven by luminaries and great authors while our generations try to figure out how to make a quick buck as a YouTube sensation or the latest prize winner on So You Think You Can Turn Your Fifteen Minutes of Fame Into a Pension Plan. That’s not to say my and later generations don’t have those who are willing to work for success and glory. We are to a certain extent capable of accomplishing this. But at the same time, the idea of work ethic and killer instinct have been diluted into varying clichés while we try to figure out how to get more efficient.

Efficiency is kind of a funny thing. In essence, it’s what you want in your workers and fellow man. We build computers, cell phones and automobiles to be as economical and systematic as they can possibly be. We want more production with less effort in a way to show just how smart we are. But essentially, it’s a sign of laziness. Efficiency brings about thoughts of intelligence and getting the most bang for your buck.

In the sports world, we’ve been a part of this efficiency revolution because maximizing your assets is the best way to get the most out of your franchise and product. However, there is a fine line that can be approached by doing this. Being efficient is the best way to stretch your dollar and it’s probably the best way to ensure whether a player is worth the time on the court or not. But what if efficiency has ended up breeding lazy people who don’t have enough fight?

The NBA stars of today never just want a long-term guaranteed contract to solidify their financial freedom and job security. Guys like Von Wafer, Matt Barnes and Flip Murray are the guys who are the ones seeking elongated acceptance as a professional athlete. Instead, today’s NBA stars – and more importantly superstars – are looking for the max contract to be the cherry on the multiple endorsement deals and clothing line sundae.

Guys like LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony are born into this league with marketing stardom. They have an image to worry about both on and off the court as they turn their likeness into a certified cash cow. And there’s nothing wrong with this in anyway as long as it doesn’t get in the way of mystique and folklore.

The new American way is now “get as much as you can as early and often as you can.” We create shortcuts on our keyboards to help us complete tasks much quicker than normal. We turn our loved one’s phone numbers into a single button on speed dial just to avoid doing anything extraneous with our fingers. It’s human nature now to get away with whatever you can while conserving energy and effort.

After, Tuesday night in Cleveland it clearly extends beyond the common people and into the icons we follow.

LeBron James is a savvy enterprise. I don’t even think you can call him a businessman at this point. Like Jay-Z said, “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, MAN.” With every play on the court, LeBron James stock goes up or down on the superstar stock market. He is a salesman first and everything else second. He has goals to be a billionaire athlete because for him, it’s not only a likelihood but it’s also inevitable. People love LeBron James. You probably hate him or can’t stand the way he composes himself and his calculated antics. Frankly, most of the time I can’t blame you because I’m helping you paddle that boat. But overall, people love LeBron James.

It’s what makes him such a profitable venture. The love he receives from the masses invokes an attractive jealousy that we pine for. If only I was as tall or as strong or as athletic or as skilled as LeBron James is, I’d be a global icon too! He projects so many endearing and infuriating qualities onto the television screen that you can’t help but form an opinion about everything he does. He keeps himself in the eye of the public because it’s his way to attract attention, coverage and Twitter accounts posing as his body parts.

But what we’ve seen during the most adversarially challenging time of his career makes me think he’s no different than any other human being. It’s times like this that make you question his desire (lord knows Woj just did) and work ethic for the greater good of basketball. Guys like LeBron, Dwight and Carmelo have blatant flaws in their respective games that you just assume will be ironed out with age and experience. We predict they’ll add the missing pieces to their skill set puzzle to help complete the animal we all want them to evolve into.

And here we are with LeBron’s back against the wall, challenging his desire and bravado once again. The worst thing that could have happened to him was the 48-point explosion against the Pistons in 2007. It accelerated the process in which we allowed him to develop. It impossibly piled on expectations that the hype machine had planned on producing as his career progressed. Instead, we expect greatness from him now and any sign of failure is a point on his license to be amongst the sports historical greats. In a way, it was the premature leap that could have possibly stunted the needed growth to do the things we want him to do (expand his game, learn to win, become a killer).

We want fight from our stars through adversity and through boredom. We want our legends to be wired in a way that makes them want to crush anything and everything in the way of their goals. Michael Jordan was the poster boy for all of this. People didn’t want to be like Mike because of his basketball skill or his athletic ability. We wanted to be like Mike because he had the mentality we all envied on top of the physical accoutrements. He was a killer and so determined to win that nothing else mattered. When we see a seemingly unstoppable force like LeBron, we want him to be cut from the same mold.

But losing a pivotal Game Five on your home court by more than 30 points doesn’t exude this type of inner-animal. LeBron assumes greatness from himself because that’s all he’s ever known. He’s almost always been the best basketball player on the court throughout his lifetime. He has his own expectations of how he should perform. For the past eight years of his life, he’s been playing a part he thinks he saw on television.

LeBron James is dangerously becoming the basketball embodiment of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. He is charming and charismatic in a way that should disarm just about everybody. The existence of greatness lies within both of these protagonists. But honing and demonstrating this greatness seem to be their downfall. They both assume they can manufacture this greatness whenever they want to but it’s simply not that easy.

Domination is a state of mind that is either there or isn’t. There is no faking imposing your will on someone as you get deeper into the playoffs. There is not a way to fake hunger, especially when the competition set before you has real hunger. The Celtics have a hunger that derives from not wanting to be too old to win. The Magic have a hunger that comes from tasting success last season and wanting to prove everybody wrong that it was just a fluke. The Lakers have a hunger from the most singularly focused individual we’ve seen of the past 12 years. But what do the Cavs have?

The Cavs have LeBron James whose focus and hunger seem to be more marketing scheme rather than something to fear. His failures create a reaction of bewilderment, I told you so’s and trepidation that anointing this self-proclaimed “king” was an honor we should have never agreed to. We don’t want to see vulnerability from him.

Now we wait for Game Six and possibly Game Seven to see how he responds. If he’s what we’ve built him up to be, I’d imagine that Game Five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals will look like nothing more than a Mike Wilks production.

But if the current, perceived culture of laziness and an unwillingness to fight for his victory rears its ugly head in LeBron, then the conclusion of this series may truly be a current adaptation of Death of a Salesman.

Seth Carstens