I hope LeBron’s new Cavaliers teammates know what they’re in for. Or, said more accurately, what they’re there for.
While on the surface the aim for every player in the league seems the same—to be involved in a collective pursuit of an NBA title—for the players in Cleveland it is the same but for one gaping difference:
They’re not playing for a title for their fans, for their city, or even for each other. There is no all for one and one for all.
In Cleveland, there is only all for one.
He dubbed himself King and we celebrated. He even was able to proclaim us all witnesses, in doing so enveloping everyone, not even just his own fans.
His dominion over us all would be most similar to something ancient rather than postmodern, if not for the fact that we are writing the book on LeBron’s legacy not only openly but also in the present.
The ‘postmodern’ seal will be administered when in the future his career is reflected upon, and so much of the footage documenting his career will be of people opining about exactly that, so that any depictions of James’s career coming from the future will have to at least partly feature pundits in the present discussing “LeBron’s legacy.”
And James has gladly stood in the spotlight.
In fact, LeBron has exercised more awareness of himself than any athlete perhaps since Muhammad Ali. He is a center of attention not only because NBA fans decide so but also because James does the same.
To his credit, he has seized this place atop popular sports culture with readiness and composure. James has made himself relevant with his athletic talent and has made himself transcendent with his public leadership on significant social issues.
He has gladly served as basketball’s celebrity ambassador, and has represented the Age of Social Media as adeptly as anyone, especially given his status.
On the court, he seemingly always knows where the camera is, and his statements off the court, to reporters and via social media, are chosen and delivered carefully, with mindfulness of the innate brevity words carry coming from a man in his position.
There are no mug shots, no battered women, and no illegitimate children. There isn’t even a single damning cell phone video.
There is only The Decision, and David Blatt, and cries for fouls and new teammates, and of course those very few pesky things he can’t control, like the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
For LeBron, every wink, whine, tweet and roster shuffle is done with careful calculation of where it fits into one thing–“LeBron’s legacy.”
There is only megalomania.
And as in most such cases, his condition was constructed first from without.
The foundation for LeBron’s ego was laid by the national sports media, with James still a Junior at St. Vincent/St. Mary’s. The questions about his place in history were at first treated by James the same way they’ve been treated by everyone who faced it before him. He used the stock response: “That’s for y’all to decide, I’m just playing basketball.”
But somewhere along the way, LeBron James did what no other athlete of his prominence has ever done: he embraced the debate. In a 2016 Sports Illustrated article, thirteen years after SI called him “The Chosen One,” James stated “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
Now, during each NBA season, postseason, and offseason, it is difficult to see an entire episode of First Take, or Undisputed, or First Things First, or Speak for Yourself, or any other permutation of the Skip Bayless-Stephen A. Smith model without getting an update on the status of “Lebron’s legacy.”
It has even evolved from a commentary on not only what his most recent achievements mean for his all-time status, but also a road-map for what James will have to accomplish in the near future to elevate himself on the totem.
Is simply winning the East for the eighth consecutive year enough? How can he be better than Jordan if he loses another Finals?
How about the fact that Jordan’s Bulls were heavy favorites all six times, while James has only lost one Finals series where his team was expected to win?
How can the same conversation include mention of the Warriors as one of the greatest teams of all-time and a warning about the damage done to “LeBron’s legacy” if he loses to them?
It can happen because that’s how LeBron James wants it.
And how about the fact that in staring down his own legacy as his career unfolds, LeBron has already entered into uncharted waters?
This will be the norm for any future NBA star trying to be the best, but in the postmodern Sports World—to which we are currently privy—there is but one true King. You already know his name.
So what does this mean, ultimately, for the league surrounding LeBron James?
It means that his teammates are all playing for one man’s legacy.
Kyrie Irving, one of James’s greatest running mates, opted out.
It could that Irving decided that hitting a Finals-winning shot in Game 7 leaves something to be desired when it’s done in the name of someone else.
It means that the Golden State Warriors, with a core of players on pace to be one of the most dominant teams in NBA history, will find themselves only ever mentioned alongside their greatest rival, LeBron James.
What will they think when they win their third title in four years and are greeted by headlines about the damage they’ve done to “LeBron’s legacy?”
For Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and George Hill, and even for Larry Nance, Jr., whose father is an all-time Cavalier great with his No. 22 jersey hanging in the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena, now that they play beside King James in Cleveland, they ought to know now that a championship won will not be theirs. It will only be his.
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