LeBron James and the artful transition

Photo via HaukeSteinberg.com on Flickr

“The concept of art is located in a historically changing constellation of elements; it refuses definition. Its essence cannot be deduced from its origin as if the first work were a foundation on which everything that followed were constructed and would collapse if shaken. The belief that the first artworks were the highest and purest is warmed-over romanticism; with no less justification it could be claimed that the earliest artistic works are dull and impure in that they are not yet separated from magic…”

- from “Aesthetic Theory” by Theodor W. Adorno

I give Adorno credit. I’ve spent the last seven months struggling to define my new and ever changing perception of LeBron James, trying to aptly express how it’s different watching him play. Why it’s different. Adorno more or less sums it up in less than a paragraph.

Jordan had to face accusations of being a one-man scoring machine incapable of leading a team to a championship. Kobe had to hear the whispers that maybe he couldn’t win it all without Shaq. Luke Skywalker had to lose a hand and face some hard truths about the lineage of his family tree. This isn’t to compare LeBron to any of them, but all have undergone a change, something palpable simply by looking at them.

James of course has undergone a degree of scrutiny never before see in the NBA, some of it his own doing, some of it a product of the time he lives in. But that’s only a part of it.

As a young, dominating member of the Cavaliers, James was something to behold – a force. Daily conversations with friends never boiled down to “Did you see the Cleveland game last night?” so much as it was “Did you see LeBron last night?” I was excited by the possibility of the unknown, the notion that anything could happen. The next play. The next game. The next 10 years. Watching James single-handedly restore a broken franchise to prominence while simultaneously shattering my perceptions of what a man his size was capable of was at once exhilarating and left me even hungrier for more.

Even as his career continued to develop and the expectations grew exponentially, there was some sense of being able to forgive his transgressions (read: inability to win a championship). James’ career arc seemed to be tilted so high that he inevitably would win a handful of rings, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest of all time. He remained the high school prodigy in many ways, still unearthing his talents before our eyes.

The Decision changed all of that.

Part of his allure in those days was his singularity, a one-man wrecking crew, it’s something that even if you weren’t a serious basketball fan, could be appreciated. His role in Miami has morphed, become more sophisticated, less about reckless abandon and more about seamless execution within the confines of a game plan. His love of playing is no longer tangible through my TV screen. Hardened by criticism and the pressure of validating his off-season moving, maybe the Wonder Kid is at the point where he’s no longer willing to make excuses for himself. But like Adorna says about the first works of art, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

James’ career has no definition right now, a byproduct of its still relatively early stage and the unprecedented turn of events it has undergone. Maybe that’s been the hardest part, seeing what once appeared a readily definable career turn to something much less certain.  Eight years ago I knew LeBron was the most hyped high school basketball player of all time. Three years ago I knew he was destined to win half a dozen MVP awards and lead Cleveland to the Promised Land. Today?

I know James will win titles, the learning curve for Miami has been too steep this season to think the Heat won’t put it all together at some point in the next five years. I know he’ll win more MVP awards, he “quietly” had his most efficient season ever in 2011 and many felt he was deserving of the honor. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the carefree LeBron that was omnipresent in Cleveland, the one who intermittingly danced with teammates while slaying defenses. But maybe to reach the lofty status to which he aspires change does have to happen and childish things do have to be put away.

Following Cleveland’s loss to Boston in the playoffs last year it was said that maybe LeBron was destined to be my generation’s Julius Erving. One of the all-time greats, an individual lauded for their physical dominance over the game, loved by many, but never held in the same regard as the great champions of the sport. No one will ever call Jordan or Kobe fun loving; they were killers in their prime. And therein lies my personal struggle – sometimes what we want, isn’t always what’s best.

James’ legacy is and always was dependent on him developing an otherworldly killer instinct. Maybe it took the perceived role as the villain to fully manifest itself, but the once jovial phenom has grown up. I remain in awe of his physical abilities, talents that I’m still waiting to see reach their limitation, talents that will inevitably leave an indelible mark on the NBA when they are spent. They needed focus and they needed direction. LeBron seems to have found that, maybe it’s time my perceptions do the same.

Seth Carstens