Everyone should be cheering against LeBron James tonight. For our sake and, deep down, his own.
LeBron James, essentially since he was 17 years old, has been one of those special talents who is judged not by whether or not he wins a championship, but how many he wins. This has always felt like a special curse, like a teenage math prodigy deemed a failure if he doesn't decipher the formula for cold fusion, but this is what we do. This is what we have done with LeBron since we even knew who LeBron was.
LeBron, in many ways, has been completely helpless in the face of this narrative his whole career, in the way all superstars have been since Michael Jordan. Jordan cast such a psychic spell over the league -- in particular its media -- that not only do we want to see if someone can measure up to what Jordan did, we also want them to do it how he did it. It has to be a process. You also have to live up to a myth, a pretend land where Michael Jordan never missed a shot, never had a bad game, never passed up an open teammate for a moment of selfishness. To live up to the Jordan model, you must be a consummate team player, but you also have to take the game over -- rise to the moment, as Nike might put it -- and be willing to gut your opponent, dominating the spotlight but not hogging it. You also must do this all in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
This is impossible, obviously, not that it stopped Kobe Bryant from driving himself insane trying to make it happen anyway. We've been trying to slap all this on LeBron for a decade now, even though he's not even close to the same kind of player as Jordan, even though he has made it rather obvious, both on the court and off, that he doesn't have that kind of personality, that he doesn't want it. We see this as a failing. It isn't.
One would think all we've learned about Jordan since he left the game would have cured us of this. Wright Thompson's already infamous profile from last February painted Jordan as a sad, lonely, miserable obsessive desperate for another challenge, another slight to avenge, that's never going to come. The piece made the sort of hyper-competitiveness required to reach Jordan's heights of achievement look like the cruelest of afflictions, a Sisyphean torture, an endless cycle of constantly chasing that elusive fix. We should have all stepped back for a moment: The central organizing superstar principle we've been using for the last 25 years ends in psychological tragedy. Who would want to live like this? Why in the world would we ask people to?
We do this in all sports, and it so rarely works out. Tiger Woods is the most obvious example, and the one who seemed the safest bet to transform from prodigy to greatest of all time. Unfortunately, he was a human being rather than a cyborg programmed solely to move product. (It legitimately didn't look that way for about a decade.) What we did with Michelle Wie was downright mean. Bryce Harper is the next in line for this, and much as I'd love to think he's the next Wayne Gretzky or Barry Bonds, the amount of scrutiny he's going to come under over the next 15 years is terrifying to even consider. We want to see people not just equal what our heroes of the past have done, but exceed them. Not only does this hinder them from blazing their own path -- remember, LeBron James was 13 years old when Jordan retired from the Bulls -- it actually sets them up to fail even when they've had incredible success. LeBron James has won four MVPs, made nine All-Star Games, won two Gold Medals, made the all-NBA first team seven times, has led the NBA in PER seven consecutive years and won a championship. At the age of 28. (His mother is the same age as Bill Simmons, one of my favorite factoids.) He's Magic Johnson with Karl Malone's body. LeBron James is amazing. We should be doing backflips every day that we get to watch him play basketball.
But we don't. We jeer him, we call him a fraud, we claim he clams up in big moments, that he shies away from the spotlight when he gets nervous. Some of this he has brought on himself, most notoriously with The Decision, but also with the general disingenuousness, the occasional tone-deafness, the non-stop flopping, the fact that Justin Bieber roots for him. Mostly, though, LeBron James feels like a failure because we have set a bar for him that is impossible to clear. It would be impossible for anyone.
Tonight, I think there's a real chance this could all go away. If the Spurs beat the Heat tonight, any notion that LeBron James can match Michael Jordan will evaporate. The Heat, with their best team -- what some had considered one of the best regular-season teams of all time -- falling short in the Finals with LeBron at the peak of his powers … that would eliminate LeBron from the Jordan conversation. That run of being unstoppable that Jordan had in those six seasons with the Bulls, it'd be official that LeBron could never match it. Unless LeBron was going to run off six titles in a row starting next season -- when we don't even know who he'll be playing for the season after -- there would be no chance. Jordan would remain at the mountaintop -- or at least the imagined mountaintop he created for himself and we all keep fortifying every year -- and LeBron would have to take solace in being the best overall player the NBA has seen in 15 years and one of the best of all time.
It would be nice, wouldn't it, just to get to appreciate LeBron for what he is rather than constantly hectoring him for what he is not? We could drop the whole Jordan thing -- heck, maybe the time the next ultra superstar shows up, there won't be enough media folk around who remember covering Jordan to compare the two constantly -- and just see how he does, enjoy his actual career arc. If you're looking for an example of this, how about, oh, Tim Duncan? Duncan isn't judged on his failures. People don't say, "How could Tim Duncan go five years without winning a championship?" They simply acknowledge how terrific he has been, how he can win a fifth title tonight, how he's an NBA all-time great, maybe even underrated. Doesn't that sound like a better way to look at a player? Doesn't that sound like more fun for a player? It's certainly a lot more healthy, for all of us.
If LeBron loses tonight, it all falls away. He'll get hammered for an offseason, but I bet once the 2013-14 season begins, we'll look at LeBron a little differently, cut him a little more slack. We will have accepted that he is simply the best basketball player in the world, and not a mortal always being forced to chase down a myth. I'll enjoy watching him more that way. We'll enjoy talking about him more that way. And, at his very core, in that place deep within LeBron that would prefer passing to the open man rather than playing heroball, in that place where LeBron just wants to smile and hang out with his friends rather than being a miserable loner who must destroy everything in his path in the name of winning … I bet LeBron would enjoy his life a lot more that way too. Obviously, LeBron doesn't want to lose tonight. I can't help but wonder, though, if he'd be happier, in the long term, if he did.