By Evan Hall
While the comparisons are obviously tedious and broken and annoying, there is at least one useful similarity between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Once the latter has retired, NBA fans who watched his career will have their mental collection of favorite highlights the same way they do for Michael Jordan. Both Jordan and LeBron are savvy enough brand manipulators that they vaguely encourage this sort of thing, but most of the emotional pull of selective sports memories comes from a less cynical place. It might just be nostalgia for a certain period of our lives, childhood probably, that imbues meaning to those memories. But that seems sincere and human enough that I'm willing to allow myself and anyone else the space to fondly smile at the memory of Jordan's shrug or the Flu Game. It's a corny way to look at sports, no doubt, but we probably couldn't shake it if we tried.
With LeBron, though, most, if not all, of my favorite memories of him will come from his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is admittedly because sometime between The Decision and Miami's loss in the 2011 NBA Finals, I had developed some corrosive bitterness toward LeBron that I didn't quite understand. I think at the time, I would have told you that I thought LeBron owed Cleveland fans something, but it wasn't until watching him waste himself against the inexorable humming of the Spurs overpowering machinery that I came to a realization.
As the Spurs effortlessly whirred through the final three quarters of Game 5, LeBron exhausted himself shouldering the burden of an offense with whichever four dead weight teammates were dragging themselves up and down the court. It was different from his days in Cleveland: this was the quick and precipitous deterioration of a once great empire. In Cleveland he had been charged with an impossible task that never got easier, even as LeBron got much better at it. In Miami, he had, for over two seasons, sought out and dominated every corner and cranny of the NBA. There was no undiscovered land he had yet to explore and colonize. Every individual award worth having and every team accomplishment worth achieving were, it turns out, quite easily within his grasp. All he had ever needed was a group of competent teammates and a coach willing to design an offense around his creative talents. It was all so easy and inevitable, and while there's a nice flavor of completion to witnessing supremacy of that degree, it wasn't altogether new.
We already know what happens when two or three great players are surrounded by a group of solid complementary pieces who know their role. That's a team that wins championships. There are a small number of revisionist fans who likely look at Jordan's six rings as primarily individual accolades, but questioned further, even they would admit to Scottie Pippen's usefulness as a defender and open-court finisher, or Dennis Rodman's thorough rebounding, or Phil Jackson's management of egos. They might undersell all of those, but no one goes around believing that any one player wins a championship. Great players, surrounded by veterans with well-established skill sets, are what wins championships. LeBron's teams in Miami looked and felt different aesthetically, but were built of the same stuff as all championship teams.
So then it was unavoidable that the Cleveland comparisons would fly carelessly around the 2014 Finals. The Heat were not any of those Cavaliers teams -- 34-year-old Anthony Parker played the third most minutes on LeBron's last Cleveland team -- but they were also not one of those teams made of championship stuff. They were, at least against the Spurs, nothing more than bad -- so bad, in fact, that suddenly the once unthinkable possibility that LeBron would leave Miami in free agency becomes a real possibility.
LeBron could go to almost any team he'd like and they'd clear the space for him. The options are seductive. The Clippers could make enough trades to carve out room for him beside Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, and mercifully, I'm not sure anyone can imagine the wanton destruction to be wrought by that team. The Bulls, too, are apparently a possibility. If winning championships is LeBron's highest priority, there are places he can go where he will almost definitely do that.
Still, there was a strange beauty, unmatched in my experience watching the NBA, of seeing LeBron struggle so mightily, like a hero Sophocles would love, to carry a team destined for failure to that end. LeBron had reached a kind of boundary to his success in those two championship years. The question was no longer what amazing feat will stagger us next, but only how long can he keep doing these amazing feats he's already done? That is, at least by comparison, a surprisingly boring question for LeBron James. He could have kept this up: Achilles racing the tortoise, always chasing some nebulously perceived standard for greatest player ever. He may end up on a team not much better served for his championship aspirations than those past Cleveland teams were. Should that happen, we'd return to seeing something truly original.
My favorite memory of LeBron James, the one that I will relish telling to the generation after him, is of those 25 straight points against the Detroit Pistons in 2007. With that Cleveland team, there was an unspoken comprehension that they could never beat the Western Conference champion, and as it turned out, that was the last time LeBron lost in an NBA Finals to the Spurs. But you watched to see how far he could take them. No team with Larry Hughes playing that large a role would have a chance in the NBA Finals, but maybe LeBron was good enough to get them there anyways. Maybe he was even good enough to steal a game. It was the most I've ever enjoyed LeBron. He was a man trying to stop a flood with only his hands, except that for stretches, like that stretch against the Pistons, he actually succeeded.
We saw that world-carrying magnificence again in Game 5 of this year's Finals, this time in the first quarter, when LeBron poured in 17 points and grabbed seven boards in only 12 minutes. It was sad, sure, to see such unparalleled greatness go unrewarded, and you already knew how it would end. But that didn't matter. As with any great tragedy, you knew he couldn't carry the Heat to the finish line. You watched to see how close he would come. The chance to see that even one more time is a chance we'll never have again.
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Evan Hall is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho who has written for the Classical and Salt City Hoops of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can find him on Twitter @the20thmaine.