I’ve come to appreciate the sheer fact of consistency, of availability. Not just day-to-day, though you can certainly expect that from LeBron James, but year-to-year. He is the rare timeless athlete, one of the few constants in my life — in anyone’s life.
Eighteen years. LeBron’s career is old enough to be my drinking buddy, and it pretty much is.
Memories are unreliable, frustrating narrators, but I remember moments involving him with perfect clarity.
When James made his playoff debut with the Miami Heat, I snuck in looks at the TV at my sister-in-law’s bridal shower. When I was in college, I used to find “study” rooms with projectors that somehow always ended up streaming League Pass. I had no idea back then that he’d vanquish far greater foes than Paul Pierce.
In 2017, when the Cleveland Cavaliers insisted on making Game 3 of the NBA Finals close, I sprinted from a Future concert before he took the stage to a bar across the street, only to watch Kevin Durant nail a dagger in LeBron’s face. I watched him in Toronto. I watched him in Los Angeles. I watch him now, when I have no concerts to run away from.
I still cry every time I watch The Block, watch James crumpled up on the hardwood, clinging to the trophy that will always mean more than the rest.
After watching him for almost two decades, our collective awareness of his particular form of dominance has inevitably receded into the NBA’s fabric. We can’t help but take him for granted. Our minds don’t pay attention to information we already recognize, so we miss what’s right in front of our faces. We hardly notice his workaday greatness except for the days he tops himself.
His current arsenal is essentially an advertisement for NBA history: Dirk Nowitzki’s one-foot fadeaway, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, Kobe’s fadeaway from the left baseline. The San Antonio Spurs used to let him fire mid-range jumpers. Now, he’s shooting 40 percent from the logo. The Dallas Mavericks let point guard Jason Kidd guard him on the block. Now, James is one of the most efficient post players in the NBA.
“As the league evolves, you have to be able to evolve with it if you wanna be able to keep up with the times, keep up with the Joneses, or the Jameses in my case,” James said, laughing. “For me, [it’s] just never putting a cap on myself. I just want to always continue to get better and do things out on the floor that maybe hasn’t been done in other people’s careers and continue to push the envelope and see how much juice I can squeeze out of the lemon.”
James’ game has been molded by postseason failures that forced him to evolve. James failed against Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics twice as a Cavalier, but never with the Heat.
Rivers, now the coach of the Sixers, remembers they “would come out and attack LeBron, even out of timeouts, because at that point, he was a great player, but as far as the defensive game plan and all that, he was into it, but he was young. Then we get to Miami, I remember him calling out sets. Our sets. I remember turning to — I think Lawrence Frank was my assistant — I remember turning to him and he said, ‘Uh oh, this is not good for anybody.’ Now, he’s becoming not only the great LeBron, but the great LeBron student of the game. Once he crossed that threshold, he’s really not looked back.”
James reimagined his game to stay on top, but these days, I’m more impressed by how its basic essence, its raison d’être, has remained the same. He has never stopped imposing his will with playmaking, giving rise to a style so ubiquitous its impact on the NBA goes almost unnoticed. When James melded his preternatural playmaking intelligence with diligent study, he remade the league.
I rewatched Game 7 of the 2010 Finals a few days ago and realized two things: Kobe did indeed shoot over too many double-teams, but the offensive layout didn’t present any easy outlets. And man, we thought very differently about basketball just a decade ago.
When LeBron used to pass to open shooters for potential winners, he triggered DEFCON 1 protocols on sports shows across America, hosts begging him to score, to assert his will, questioning his killer instinct, his very manhood — all because he saw things no one else did.
Now, we see it his way. James is far from being the only reason the game is spaced out, but good offenses now simplify decision-making for star playmakers. The choices Luka Doncic and James Harden make with the ball in their hands are an evolution of LeBron’s style. The modern offense is built in his super-computing image.
My para-relationship with James took a turn for the strange when I started covering the NBA.
In 2018, when I was covering the Toronto Raptors’ playoff run, Game 5 of Pacers-Cavaliers was in its final stretch after the Raptors beat the Wizards. Long story short: James hit the winner, and I squealed and shook in my seat in the middle of a news conference. I tried not to look anyone in the eye for another five minutes.
Then James came to Toronto. I’ll never forget the first time I asked him a question, or my boyfriend at the time yelling “no no no” while James dribbled calmly up full court and nailed a strange, floating bank shot over OG Anunoby from the wing in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, destroying the Raptors thoroughly and nonchalantly in four games. The Raptors did not, as James once put it, present an adverse situation. You could feel that in his stride.
Imagine a pincer opening up, and you’ll see how most people react to change: One side trying to adapt to everything new while, with equal force, another side clings to the familiar.
The older I get, the more I cling to watching LeBron. I tried to stifle this impulse until one day I stopped trying. I’ve come to believe that the sheer attempt to be unbiased while covering sports, at least in the way that I cover them, is a sham: self-deception of the highest order, and it translates to reporters who aren’t honest with themselves and therefore cannot be honest with readers. It accomplishes little outside of twisting one’s mind into knots that prevent it from thinking straight. We chase this line of work because we love sports, crave sports, want — even need — to be near them.
I imagine LeBron has inspired this tug of war in a lot of young writers. It’s a symptom of his longevity. Everyone else I loved to watch before it was my job has retired. I wonder if NFL writers feel this conundrum with Tom Brady. LeBron has been the planet’s best player for so long that he can still connect me to my childhood, so I’ll keep performing this exercise of pretending not to root for him while rooting for him perpetually, until the day he retires, which I hope never comes.
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