That controversial move—which enraged Cleveland Cavalier fans and others across the country—wrought him two championships and an eternal friendship with Dwyane Wade. That’s it. But it told far more about the man.
Last year, James made a decision that truly can impact his basketball legend; he left the allure of South Beach to return to Cleveland. Those same infuriated fans who burned his jersey four years earlier, and the owner who bashed him publicly, happily welcomed James back, the thirst for a championship overriding any previous breach.
Now is when the basketball legend of LeBron James takes flight… or stagnates. With Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbling, James played legendary ball, leading the Cavs to the NBA Finals, which begins Thursday in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors.
He was not the league’s MVP this year, but this team might be his best work. Playing under a rookie head coach in David Blatt and a band of players he had no familiarity with, James orchestrated a season to remember.
Now, if he can hold J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert together for another series, if Irving can give James the dribble-penetration and play-making he needs at the point guard position, if Tristan Thompson can continue to play like Moses Malone on the boards and if Blatt can get out of his own way, then James could do the rest.
If he’s holding the Lawrence O’Brien Championship Trophy at the end of this series, then and only then should James’ name be mentioned in the same breath as Michael Jordan as a player, but still not eclipsing MJ. If it’s Steph Curry smiling at the end, it will not bode well for James’ portfolio: six NBA Finals, just two championships.
Amazingly, a few players and countless fans over the years have made the comparison of James to Michael Jordan, proving that the farther away you get from someone’s accomplishments, the more the memory fades.
Jordan, while hardly admirable off the court, remains beyond reproach on it. Six NBA Finals, six championships, six MVPs. But Bill Laimbeer, the former Detroit Piston “Bad Boy,” said last week James “could do more” than Jordan on the court, sparking a controversy.
Kobe Bryant has been the closest to Jordan’s excellence in style of play and championships. Bryant’s brilliance is diminishing in the eyes of fans, too, as his final years have been marked by injuries.
But not to Shaquille O’Neal, the former NBA superstar. He said he would take Kobe in his prime over LeBron.
“I played with (Kobe and LeBron),” O’Neal said on the Dan Patrick Show Monday of his one-time enemy. “You know, Kobe has that killer instinct. And I’d probably have to go with Kobe. That’s not a knock against LeBron. It’s just that I know Kobe and I played with him longer. I’ve seen what he can do.”
So, it’s all a matter of opinion, and everyone has one, from all walks of life. Part of the fascination with James is that he is doing phenomenal things now. The social media impact is incalculable. Jordan became a world icon without Twitter. Bryant’s jersey became the No. 1 seller in the world, including China, without Facebook.
This is not to say James is all-universe simply because of Instagram and YouTube; that would be a cheap shot at his greatness. But it has not hurt.
Still, the best thing about James and his legacy is that he has shown the courage to do the unpopular, to own his career, which is contradictory but brave for someone who seems to have a need to be liked.
Forget the regrettable way he ditched Cleveland for Miami. What James did was courageous. He did what he wanted to do, what he had the right to do, understanding there’d be a major fallout and hit to his reputation.
How many players actually have the gumption to make such a move? Few to none. How many players follow the money? Most to all.
“The Decision” spoke to a man in control of his career and where he lived and worked. Commendable.
And this, too, about James’ legend: He understands his value. A few years ago, he fired his mega-management team and turned over the enormous responsibilities to long-time friends that he trusted. In other words, he empowered young Black men in an industry they are too often looked at as simply part of an entourage. That’s legendary stuff.
Despite how President Obama has been misguidedly viewed by many of the corporate executives James would like to work with, the mega-star not only supported and campaigned for Obama, but he starred in public service announcements about the Affordable Care Act, proving, again, that he is not afraid to stand on his principles and take a political position over that lame “I’m not a role model” stance many athletes with influence take.
This is where James is The King. This is where he distances himself from Jordan and anyone else. His sense of self and community and loyalty are championship level. And his game is, too.
A title in the next few weeks would push him into another stratosphere as an athlete. But he’s already in a different, higher place as a man.