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LeBron James and the Burden of Being Great(est)


There are many reasons he is taken for granted. Silly arguments over who is better, James or Michael Jordan, distract from the ability to see him for what he really is.

Race is part of the mix. There are still too many who cannot see beyond James’s physicality, his uncommon blend of size and strength and speed. Still too many who see him without nuance, first and foremost as a body. A Black body.

That allows the easy dismissal of the dedication he has always put into staying in shape — and the disregard of his sheer intelligence. James is said to possess a photographic memory. He can recall plays that occurred years ago with little trouble, and he has forged a remarkable and successful business and entertainment company, not to mention a school in his hometown Akron, Ohio. To watch him is to watch an athlete attuned to the flow, feel and probability of every move and every moment. John Coltrane meets Albert Einstein meets a point guard in a power forward’s body.

The genius of James, the beauty of his game and the joy he exudes playing it, has shown itself in vivid Technicolor during this playoff run. The blocks, dunks, spinning pirouettes and sprinting fast breaks. The tips, screens, fall-aways and sudden passes that cut across the court as if rocketing along on a zip-line.

He has been doing this for 17 years. Consider the span of that journey. Think of 2010. That’s the year of “The Decision,” James’s nationally televised announcement that he was leaving Cleveland for a Miami team stocked with All-Stars. Remember how he was scorned and vilified? How a single line from that pronouncement — “taking my talents to South Beach” — became a punchline, code for narcissism and disloyalty?

But James was actually coming into his own. He was tapping into a longing that is at once universal and felt at a particular, bone-deep level in Black America: the longing to break bonds, the urge for freedom of movement, the need for self-determination and control.

The reverberating power of that decision gets lost in the haze of memory. Remember that among the players to whom he is most often compared, no one had made such a move in the prime of his career. Not Magic. Not Kobe. Not Michael Jordan.

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