Obsessing About LeBron James: Smart or Unbelievably Stupid?

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By now, every functioning voice box, every capable typist and every off-duty cab driver has pontificated about the LeBron James saga. Every piece of film, micro-analyzed. Every gesture and soundbite, ecclesiastically interpreted.

What strikes me, besides the immense schadenfraude sweeping the Basketballsphere, is that none of this is really about LeBron James at all.

Why do we care so much?

It’s about us. Those who follows sports.

What is it, exactly, that captures humans about the unscripted theater of live athletics?

David Foster Wallace, in his iconic essay about Roger Federer, suggested some of the allure of great athletes is the acceptance of having a body. I too have a body, and thus will marvel in amazement at what another homo sapien can do with his. The more balletic the better, I suppose.

Chuck Klosterman wrote something recently on the power of liveness; Nothing is quite like watching something unfold right now. The puissance, he suggests, is that in that perpetually unfolding moment in time, anything can happen. Absolutely anything. That is why we watch. Highlights strip away the electricity of the unpredictable.

Klosterman must have seeped into Bill Simmons’ subconscious, because amid the cacophony of analysis and psychology-at-a-distance hurled upon LeBron James, Simmons wrote this about why we watch:

Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and because once in a while, someone shows up who’s so good and so talented that he makes us say, “I know what’s going to happen next?” Like he’s giving us sports fan ESP? The best thing about Jordan’s final shot wasn’t that he made it, but that we knew he would make it. That’s why we revere him all these years later.

All the riff raff about LeBron James really has little to do with the real LeBron James. It’s all about what we want LeBron James to be.

That may sound simplistic, but I’m not referring to loyalty or humility or clutch shots or post moves. No, I’m referring to why we watch. I’m referring to Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

Jordan Nostalgia

I was sitting in my parent’s kitchen, huddled around an old black TV no bigger than a laptop, anxiously looking on with my brother and his girlfriend. The Bulls, who days earlier were ready to cruise to a sixth parade, were on the precipice of disaster. They were old and wearing down, and Scottie Pippen was severely hampered with a lower back injury.

It was time for Jordan to save the day. Superhero mode or bust.

With Chicago trailing by three, Jordan quickly knifed into the lane and at the age of 35, floated between two defenders and flicked the ball off the backboard and in. 86-85 Utah. My palms moistened with sweat. On the other end, Jordan left his man to go strip Karl Malone from the blindside. Everyone could see it coming but the Mailman.

When Jordan collected the ball for the final time as a Chicago Bull, the excitement of the moment was so great I sprinted outside. I can still feel the humidity of that summer night, and the silence, frozen in time, awaiting Jordan’s final act through a kitchen window. In retrospect, nearly defenestrating myself must have been instinctive; How many actual times do sports icons play out a Driveway Dream? One shot to win the title, all the marbles on the line. And the hero controls the outcome.

Michael Jordan is the most revered athlete of our time. He could fly like a Kryptonian and walk on water like a bearded carpenter. Was he infallible? Of course not. But his legend is. I think, in large part, because we want it to be. To bring a storybook to life — that’s why we watch sports.

When Proximo told Maximus, “Win the crowd, and you shall win your freedom,” his response was fitting. “I shall give them something they have never seen before.”

For Jordan, he gave us what we wanted – the perfect real-life hero. You know the tale by now: cut from high school team, slighted by Portland in the draft, told he couldn’t win a title only to break through and never lose. And he did it with such grace, such indelible images — the wagging tongue, the bald head, the poetic fadeaway. Every time he was challenged, he seized the moment. He would not let his team lose. Then he swished his last shot in that 87-86 win and walked off into the sunset a conquering hero. Roll credits.

Do you know what the fascinating part of that story is?

It isn’t true.

We want it to be true — that’s precisely why Jordan’s legend is described that way. We want to ascribe control to it, because we live vicariously through our heroes and we want to believe in controlling destiny. Luck had nothing to do with Michael Jordan‘s success, we tell ourselves. His unbreakable will did. Jordan never failed because he could do no wrong. (This is not true, unless he was training as a pugilist with Steve Kerr.)

Jordan seized the crowd, and in doing so, became excellence personified. He gave us something we have never seen before, both in skill and a perfectly arcing narrative.* He was balletic. He made us believe he could do anything — 63 points, The Shot, The Move, The Shrug, The Flu. Tune in and find out what web the maestro will weave. And in doing so, he made us believe we knew what would happen, even if we had to delude ourselves into thinking it.

Good Luck Being Me. Photo: David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been 13 years and there is a still a void left by Jordan. We called Tiger Woods the Michael Jordan of golf. That story has changed. Tom Brady might have had a shot, but he actually started to lose big games. (It’s hard to tell if he is propped up or down for marrying a supermodel more famous than he is.) Naturally, the hardwood is where we crave the Jordanian narrative the most, and since LeBron James emerged as a plausible heir, he’s been held to that mythical standard.

*It’s almost impossible to think of any athlete in the last century, and certainly in the cable-news era, who went from middling to good to the brink and then maximized his talent while overcoming all obstacles along the way. I believe that is also the plot of the Matrix.

The Real LeBron James

James is different. He might even be sui generis. To me, that’s where the fascination begins. The sea of criticism and microanalysis didn’t exist back in 2008 when he was clearly a mere mortal. Then he started doing the miraculous; The obsession has crescendoed since he became peerless.

We always wanted Michael Jordan to be a conquering hero, so we yearn for the same from LeBron. He can give it to us, so why doesn’t he? Why won’t he just be what we want him to be? Is it too much to ask to will his team to victory, give us something we have never seen before and quash every challenge with furious elegance and unblemished success?

How dare he lose in the Finals. Jordan never woulda done that.

Are these not actually issues with the audience instead of the play? This isn’t “Michael Jordan, Episode II” (or would it be III, or IV?), it’s “The LeBron James Story.” (Granted, James didn’t make this distinction easier for anyone when he wore No. 23 and evolved Jordan’s pre-game chalk routine.) Maybe it’s time we accept LeBron just the way he is.

I don’t mean accept his Gen-X ego or his judgment in television production or even that he joined a Superteam. What I mean is that it is time we accepted that James makes mistakes. That he’s not the greatest outside shooter (and that’s not easy to remedy). That he isn’t wired like Michael Jordan. He’s wired like LeBron James.

LeBron’s priorities are different, partly, because he came after Jordan. (How’s that for irony?) The foundation for James’ goal of “Global Icon” was laid by Michael himself. James occupies his time on projects that weren’t part of Jordan’s universe, like building his CAA empire and tweeting to his critics at wee hours of the night. He also has some sort of animated series on youtube.

Jordan never woulda done that.

Jordan never could have. LeBron James is a different person, in a different time and he’s certainly a different basketball player. His mentality and goals are part of that spectacular physical package, whether we like it or not. And we have a choice: Bemoan one of the great basketball players of our lives when every folly taints our fairy tale, or appreciate a timeless athletic specimen, replete with flaws and all.

The Decision is yours.

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