From here until the end of modernity, it’s circles and trends all the way down. The backlash against LeBron James, awakened from its post-2012 dormancy like some sort of giant lizard creature, inevitably generated its own faction of counter-revolutionary Jacobins. Those who point out the undue criticisms leveled against LeBron James are in turn accused of propping up strawmen. And, admittedly, it’s easy to write off those who belittle James. Question their credentials, wonder why one would bother giving them the time of day, and the problem disappears.
Unfortunately, some beings made of straw achieve sentience, as the classic horror film The Wizard of Oz warned us. While we might ideally ignore those who spew venom against our greatest superstars, their toxic views still seep into the groundwater. These conversations, these points of view — they truly exist, both in the echo chamber of twitter and in countless discussions among friends and coworkers. The populace, to its credit, has built up something of an immunity against the impurities since LeBron James gilded two of his fingers. With the complete and utter dismemberment of the Miami Heat by the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals, though, even the hardiest are vulnerable; many are once again swept up in the tide of public opinion as it recedes from LeBron, leaving little but contaminated commentary in its wake.
So the debates rage on. On the one hand, LeBron James is one of the greatest players in NBA history, a superstar whose teams haven’t always been up to the challenge. He isn’t Michael Jordan, because he’s not wired like Jordan and he hasn’t had Jordan’s series of fortune — an underrated aspect of his career, one which will never be given its just day in the sun because to even mention it is to question the mythos of MJ — and if he were Jordan, we’d all need to go on a witch hunt to find the person who invented a matter replicator and didn’t bother to tell anybody.
And for the “other” camp — as much as opinions can ever be divided along genuine partisan lines, anyway — LeBron James is one of the greatest players of his age, a star who wasn’t always up to the challenge. He isn’t Michael Jordan, because he’s not wired like Jordan and he hasn’t had Jordan’s skill and ability to seize on every opponent’s weakness — an underrated aspect of his career, one which is too often turned into some discussion about Jordan’s “ruthlessness” and “competitive drive,” terms that bolster the mythos of MJ but overshadow the reality of what made him so great — and if he were Jordan, we’d all laugh, because that could never happen.
Each side proselytizes and yearns to teach, to inform the others of the truth. As a “LeBron is one of the greatest” preacher, I’m as guilty as anyone. But maybe it’s time to stop preaching to other churches’ choirs. Perhaps this lightning rod for such boisterous disagreement is who LeBron James is meant to be. After all, this is who we are anymore — fragile, confused, egotistical creatures who know nothing yet are unabashedly proud of their ability to shout the certainty of their opinions from the largest pulpits.
Though previous superstars were all put through the wringer over their careers, only to see the public swayed by championship glory, it seems highly unlikely at this point that those who hold their disdain for LeBron in such high esteem will change their minds in any meaningful way. Maybe LeBron made his bed during the Decision, or maybe it was the preseason pep rally that turned so many against him. Nostalgia and the “built, not bought” narratives that refuse to go away undoubtedly played their part as well. Regardless of the cause, however, the condition of LeBron James schadenfreude is chronic.
And frankly, I’m not sure those who support James would be in any hurry to question our own beliefs if he were never to win another title. There is room to acknowledge the peculiar nature of LeBron’s approach to the game — his mental probing, his reading of the defense, his hesitation to put himself and his team in less than perfect situations. That cerebral understanding of the game has made James into the champion that he is, but it’s worth wondering if perfect might sometimes be the enemy of good. Yet with such a vocal contingent unwilling to acknowledge LeBron’s greatness, his defense becomes something of a Crusade for many. An imperfect basketball player is lionized, and the cycle continues.
That’s who we are when it comes to LeBron James: bundles of emotions and logic and stretches of reason, wrapped together with the odd notion of a vested interest in James’ perception through the ages. And on that level, LeBron is perfect. He’s perfect as himself, and he’s perfect for us. So long as we want to critique without offering solutions and denigrate everyone but a singular “winner,” LeBron James will be there for us, unleashing his dominance on the game whether or not we want to appreciate him. So long as we want to tell others how wrong they are and how they should watch basketball and appreciate the gifts before them, dammit, or else they’re going to their room without dessert for the night I mean it mister, LeBron James will be there for us, taking teams past and short of their primes to the brink of the summit, only to fall short. So long as we are who we are, LeBron James will be all things to all people and no one thing to everyone.
Our greatest champion stands before us as we shout in equal parts adulation and condemnation, wondering if we’ll ever hear ourselves. And, with a rueful grin, he shakes his head. All hail LeBron James. Or whatever. It’s your call.