Whenever I've tried to nail down, precisely, why we've always given LeBron James such a hard time - myself included -- I always think back to his first major Nike commercial. It came out in January 2004, just three months into his rookie season, and features the late Bernie Mac leading a raucous church choir in celebration of the new NBA savior.
Here is the ad:
What's telling about this ad is that LeBron, while clearly the star of the ad, isn't the focus. The focus is what he can do for you. He gets all his teammates involved! He is our chosen one! He could have asked for hops, or a long-range jumpshot, or crazy dunking skills. But he didn't. He asked for court vision. He is the chosen one because he is not here for himself; he is here for you. LeBron doesn't even take a shot in the commercial, with ends with the choir singing, "Pass! Pass! Pass pass pass pass!" At one point, Bernie Mac actually says, "He's here for the team!" I feel the soul of the game comin' over me.
This was the opposite of how the NBA had always sold its stars. They were alpha males, asserting dominance with a corporate-friendly smile. You want to be like Mike, but Mike did not want to be like you, or even need you. From the beginning, this was about LeBron's ability to change your life, not ascribe his imprint onto you. The problem for LeBron was not that he was sold as the next great superstar, or even that he was sold as the next savior. The problem was that his greatness relied on people being great with him. It's the difference between a politician who tells you he will make your life better, just watch, and the one who says you can be great together, if you just meet him in the middle. LeBron's greatness would be judged by destroying others, but instead by elevating those among him. He would have to meet expectations that we didn't even think to outline; nothing he could do would ever be enough because we wanted things we couldn't even articulate. LeBron had to be everything, and more than that. Pass pass pass pass. He's here for the team.
James was a teenager when he filmed that ad, and in the 12 years since, we've still never figured out what, when we closed our eyes and envisioned him, we were supposed to think of him. What was his signature LeBron moment? Was he passing in our mind's eye? Shooting? Setting a hard screen? LeBron's game has been so complete that we couldn't grasp it, and therefore we couldn't wrap our arms around him. His overall brilliance was displaced by Kobe's fadeaway, or Kevin Durant's jumper, or Derrick Rose's drive to the basket or, most notably, Stephen Curry's 35-foot effortless heaves. LeBron did everything so well that he never got a signature move of his own, and we blamed him for it. (Remember, it was only four years ago we were yelling at him for not being aggressive enough in an All-Star Game.) His finishing move was making everyone else better. That does not translate well to a 12-year-old kid dreaming on the playground.
And then, Sunday night, on the night of his greatest achievement: He got one.
When you close your eyes in 15 years and think back on LeBron James' career … that's the play you will think of, the one that encapsulates his genius, displays his otherworldly athleticism and reveals just how desperately he wanted, needed, to win, something no one will ever doubt again. Because -- oh yes -- it was one of the greatest basketball plays any human has ever made, and it led to a championship, the most satisfying and urgent one of LeBron's career. The Cavaliers won their title, the city of Cleveland finally has its championship, and LeBron has his snapshot. That's Jordan leaping from the free-throw line, Kareem's sky hook, Magic on the fast break. That's the moment. That's the silhouette. That's the whole deal.
This is LeBron's third title, but this is the only one that will ultimately matter, the one that assured only miscreants and the deliberately dense will deny him now. It's perfect, actually, that the two players most thought to fall short of LeBron's demands, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, made the two biggest plays in the final possession, with Irving's monster three over Unanimous MVP Stephen Curry and Love denying Curry the open 3-pointer to tie seconds later. It wouldn't have felt right if LeBron had made that three and denied Curry, even though he could have. LeBron is the one who does it all. And doing it all, as it turned out, requires as much help as trying to be an Alpha Dog. It goes down a lot smoother too.
There will never be a more LeBron factoid than this:
He is the first player in NBA history to lead all players in all five categories for an entire playoff series https://t.co/5tCfyA606A- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 20, 2016
There is much to be discussed more about this game, about this series, about the best regular season team in NBA history that just dropped a 3-1 lead with two home losses. But only LeBron could make Stephen Curry -- a man who revolutionized basketball the last two seasons in ways we won't feel the full ramifications of for years to come -- into a footnote in his own building, at the end of his own historic season. LeBron has never been a player who has forced his will on you, who has demanded you recede in his presence, whose competitiveness was more about pathology than collective inspiration. This made him different, and it made him confusing, and it made us require a decade to quite figure him out. But it all came together on Sunday night. LeBron has always needed us to be great with him. He had to be everything, and more than that. In Game 7, he was. He probably always was. But now when we close our eyes, we can see it. The delay is our fault, not his. That delay is now over. Fire up the choir. I feel the soul of the game comin' over me.