NEW YORK • Poor LeBron James. There he is again, battling into the deep muck of the National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs, leading his team oh-so-close to a title. And there he is: An omnipresent force in purple-striped high-tops, so consistently great on the biggest stage that we have come to expect nothing less.
His Los Angeles Lakers are now vying with the Denver Nuggets for a spot in the NBA Finals. After Sunday’s 105-103 victory over the Nuggets – sealed by Anthony Davis with a buzzer-beater but fuelled by James’ hot start – Los Angeles are up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.
Should the Lakers advance, it would mean that James has pushed teams from three cities – Cleveland, Miami and Los Angeles – to the league’s championship round in nine of the past 10 seasons.
Within that time, he won two title rings with the Miami Heat, and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers and in the cloister of the Disney World “bubble”, he is making a credible run for another championship.
The burden of great expectations is not new. As a high school junior, he was cast as a basketball messiah. Which athlete has ever delivered so thoroughly on such early hype?
And which athlete presents more of a modern-day paradox? He is among the most successful sports stars in history, on his way to billionaire status, influential, admired and connected to at least 120 million followers on social media. Despite all of this, there are far too many who take him for granted.
Just last week, the NBA unveiled the winner of its Most Valuable Player Award for this pandemic-laced season. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks was no doubt worthy of the award. But James was, too.
He bounced back from a rare, injury-plagued season to help return the Lakers to dominance. He did it while his team mourned the death of legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in January. He did it when the league returned to play amid a world torn by a pandemic.
He did it at age 35.
So how is it that he lost the MVP vote in a landslide? James flashed a cutting bitterness when asked about the award.
“Out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes,” he said, angry at the absurdity of not even coming close.
3 LeBron James is attempting to reach the NBA Finals with his third team, after winning rings with both the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.
James knows his worth to the league and the way his presence has long altered the landscape.
But there are many reasons he is taken for granted. Silly arguments over who is better, him 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’ 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.
To watch him is to watch an athlete attuned to the flow, feel and probability of every move and every moment. The blocks, dunks, spinning pirouettes and sprinting fast breaks. The tips, screens, fallaways 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’ 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. How easy it is to forget the ways in which James changed the paradigm. His shift to Miami was the dawn of an era during which he became a leading voice for black American empowerment.
He may be fine without the extra adulation. But in a year full of despair, we would be wise to take stock of all that he is – all of his powerful, steady brilliance – and stop taking him for granted.