In stark contrast to Michael Jordan, whose game grew from his defeats at the hands of the elite teams of the 1980s, and who claimed six titles and the GOAT title, James’ tale is one of descent, the surefire legend staggering from the peak where he first emerged, downhill through eight seasons of on-court wonders that couldn’t meet our impossible expectations.
That’s the story so far.
Can it be turned around with a Miami title next year? Maybe a couple more in the years to follow?
Not just because the spiels of hate will continue from the internet and talk radio because that kind of anonymous rage carries only so much weight in the conversation. Eventually, it’s white noise.
And not because the media’s glare withers everything, because even a single title will reframe the discussion on James, like it’s doing with Dirk Nowitzki, like it did with Kevin Garnett. We’ll all be standing in the catharsis blast zone on that one.
I think James’ real problem is he remains as culturally tone-deaf as any superstar in NBA history.
In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK and Ireland. You’ll find few wealthier celebrities than U2’s Bono and The Edge, two guys whose egos may actually surpass James’. But while I was there, you’d often find them walking unmolested through Dublin, or inconspicuously occupying a table in the Clarence Hotel, which they very publicly owned. In Ireland, celebrity is less a balloon to inflate than it is one to puncture. Which is why the guys in U2 carry themselves differently on Irish soil than they do abroad.
Much of this cultural attitude seems tied to the national economy, which lagged, at the time, far behind that of the United States. Limited upward mobility and class separation were hallmarks. Money was tight. The middle class was increasingly illusory. Fast forward to today, and those things are pervasive all over the world.
Consider, then, this awesome — and now infamous — James quote in the context of the worst U.S. economy in 70 years:
“All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today.”
Translation: James gets to walk off the court and into a summer filled with every possible indulgence known to man, and you get work at Texaco. And he wants you to know he relishes that.
How many titles will it take to render that kind of thinking palatable?
I’m not blind here. James has taken heavy fire, and the magnitude of the attacks has been wildly out of proportion to his crimes (real or imagined). It’s only fair to cut him some slack on his answer because he just failed on the biggest stage possible — again — and the wound was raw.
And it’s not like he’s a horrible human being. He’s hardly Ruben Patterson, right?
But, I still think it’s obscene how unaware James appears about what’s going on around him. In 2011, that sin feels greater than his failure to develop a post game or allowing the stories of the 2010 and 2011 playoffs to be written while he stood by and watched from the weak side.
I admit my biases here. I hold a rather deep contempt for the narcissism and garishness that accompany the worst of celebrity. I’m also young/old enough to harbor a desire for our athletes to embrace the cultures that built them with some measure of grace.
James is basically the antithesis of Bill Russell, a man who personified team, and exemplified the most admirable aspects of turbulent cultural times.
It would have felt deeply wrong to me to watch Russell hand the Finals MVP trophy to James had the Heat won this series.
And that’s the problem. Until James develops some perspective beyond his own insular world of self-congratulation, it will always feel wrong.
Of course, we’re all witnesses.
And he’s only 26.
There’s plenty of time left for him to show us something new.