LeBron James has been bigger than the game, a cultural artifact for discussion, dissection and discernment for six years through triumph, misery, and wait, did he have a cartoon show? In advance of LeBron’s second big decision, we wanted to weigh in with our writers’ thoughts on the different worlds this moment in time touches and how honestly weird this entire process is — because the four most powerful words in the NBA are “LeBron James free agency” Enjoy. – Ed.
At any given time in the NBA, the best player in the league rarely makes you think about the future. The road to an NBA title is such an inexorable and tiring endeavor that one dares not approach it with less than maximal focus. To dwell on the pastures beyond a playoff run is to give up the run itself. In a world where superstars are judged primarily on bling and hardware, such split attention is ill-advised.
And yet here comes LeBron James, for the second time in four years, with the future sitting alongside the present tucked within his gargantuan headband. A free agency overhaul but a TV special away, James is an alpha dog rarity in his approach to the NBA landscape.
Sheer gravity ensures that the fabric of basketball bends towards the city LeBron calls home. This is a situation past pole bearers were mostly content with. NBA lore is stacked to the brim with images of Birds, Johnsons, Jordans, Duncans and Bryants smirking atop Their throne, dutifully honing Their craft in the empty royal hall, waiting for the next foolish commoner to enter with aspirations fitting only of Their holiness.
These thrones, as thrones are wont to do, came in many colors and were made of many substances. But the one constant among all pre-James thrones was their immobility. A throne is, by design, a heavy object, forever supporting both intangible regal responsibilities as well as a ruler’s backside. Moving one takes a physical toll on the movers and a mental toll on the constituents. The Kings of the past understood this, and ruled from pre-determined castles. They approached time and space with dogmatic confidence – there are planets and there are stars, and all must revolve around my brilliance. Since I am here, the central point is here. Since I am to be in the central point, and the central point is here, here I will remain.
James takes a different approach, as confident but more proactive. The NBA revolves around him, yes, but even in that flattering reality there are more terms to dictate. In a Newtonian rarity, James exerts both the action and the reaction on a closed, unsuspecting 30 team system. Basketball’s extraterrestrials were previously bound by terrestrial rules, sure. But why should James succumb?
It’s easy to misconstrue this as hubris. James is surrounded by Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame organization. By merely hinting that he may leave them, he is arrogantly declaring the best of the rest unworthy of his trust. Magic trusted Jerry Buss. Jordan and Kobe trusted Phil. Duncan all but immersed himself in the culture his franchise cultivated around him. How dare LeBron declare that he, and only he, is worthy of his own support?
But while hubris is undoubtedly a factor – James is but a human athlete, a profession for which belief in self is a hard coded requirement – the driving force behind James’ infamous free agency forays is control. The modern athlete wants his brand, uniform, teammates, coaches, team personnel and dinner condiments a certain way, and if his value in a free and/or collectively bargained market enables him to demand such provisions, then by all means, he should. LeBron, like his “Best Player Alive” predecessors, can obviously demand a platter of perks that other NBA players can only dream of. But fully extending those gravitas where past players only went most of the way isn’t morally reprehensible; it’s good business.