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.
A few weeks after The Decision, I wrote what I thought was a fantastically insightful piece about LeBron James. I used the mythopoetic lens of Robert Bly and the narrative structure of Frank Herbet’s novel Dune to lay out my case that James’ biggest character flaw was the disconnect between how he thought people saw him and how people actually saw him. My take was that James thought he was in control of the narrative structure of his career, not understanding that being a (sports) hero meant he existed inside a mythic template that predated both his birth and his career and that public perception of him would always be guided by how his actions fit into this template.
Four years ago it was assumed by the majority of the basketball-watching world (including me) that LeBron was grappling with immortality as he tried to decide where to place the next chapter of his career. When he revealed himself to be simply a naive human being (like every single stinking last one of us) it was immediately seen as an enormous character flaw. I do still believe that LeBron misjudged how his decision would be seen and that he didn’t fully comprehend this mythic template that had been wrapped around him and his stunning athletic achievements. But I also think I completely misjudged how important public perception was to him. For a player who appeared to be so intentionally involved in crafting himself as a personal brand as well as an athlete, it seemed incomprehensible that we might care about his legacy more than he did.
The Decision has been dissected to death and there’s little originality in my opinions from four years ago or the value added of hindsight. But it’s worth revisiting because a similar situation is lurking just over the horizon. LeBron could opt out of his contract in the next few weeks, along with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and run this entire free agency thing back. And their is some eerie symmetry in the fact that these looming decisions were immediately preceded by a stunning playoff disappointment and questions about the quality of his supporting cast and the championship viability of his future with his current team. It all reeks of four years ago and Cleveland. It seems that once again LeBron is staring down the same sort of tangled forks in the road—rebuild with a franchise that built around him, choose loyalty (to his present or his past), chase the ghosts of history in a bigger, brighter, shinier market.
But the thing that is clearly and painfully obvious this time around is that LeBron is no longer struggling with mythic templates and road maps of legacy. He’s long since shed all that shit.
There are still pejorative comparisons—Jordan never would have been felled by leg cramps, as though he was made, not of sinew and bone, but of strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff. But LeBron has mostly overcome this kind of garbage in Miami. He’s won two titles and lost two more. He’s addressed all the nits we’ve picked in his game—everything except a situational lack of electrolytes, the fact that he can’t lay hands on Wade and heal his ailments and that his telepathic abilities are inadequate for the task of controlling the body, thoughts and actions of Mario Chalmers. We no longer wonder whether he’s an Alpha or a Beta, a Jordan or a Magic, even asking the questions seems silly. He’s a LeBron.
This reclaiming of his identity, freeing it from whatever demands millions of fans would place on it seems (to me, at least) to be LeBron’s biggest victory with the Miami Heat. He has been transformed from ascendent god to resplendent man and he is infinitely better off for it. The achievement of two NBA championships pales in comparison to defying the Oracle at Delphi, wrestling fate to the ground and making it your own. His future is once again uncertain and it is a tremendous gift, knowing that he, not Dan Gilbert, Michael Wilbon, @SupaHeatFan, or anyone else will be shaping that future.
I have no idea if LeBron will be back with the Heat next year, mentoring Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, chasing another banner in Boston or Los Angeles or touring the mid-west with his new funk-jazz trio “We Three Kings.” But it doesn’t really matter what I think anyway, which is exactly the point.