LeBron James is an NBA champion and an NBA Finals MVP again, and it should briefly quell the usual, dreary harangues about his alleged shortcomings. I said “briefly.” At 35, now in possession of four titles in three cities, James remains both an athlete and an argument, an easy vessel for anyone who wants to make a personal point about how much they don’t like the NBA, modern sports, modern society, politics in sports, James’s personal politics, what’s happening in their hometown or city, or, I don’t know, their oatmeal. Some of James’s critics can blame James for almost anything; to co-opt a term deployed by defenders of a certain, other someone, James triggers a kind of LeBron Derangement Syndrome. For various reasons, there will always be some folks determined to loudly deny themselves the pleasure of watching one of the greatest athletes ever. This is anybody’s right, of course. Some folks dislike beer and pizza. Humans are a mystery.
“I want my damn respect, too,” James said in the celebration after Sunday’s clincher over Miami, and the comment drew a bit of an eye-roll on social media: Who, at this point, doesn’t respect LeBron James? I get where he’s coming from, though. If you watch enough sports, you’ll see that the greatest athletes—even the truly historic ones—still rely on perceived slights and other marginal discourtesies as motivational chips. LeBron saying he wants his damn respect is no different than Tom Brady’s decades-long grudge over his NFL draft selection or a billionaire still simmering over rejection from an Ivy. It may be ridiculous, a bit of a straw man, but it continues to work as fuel.
But the other part is: LeBron is kind of right—he still takes a lot of grief! Had the Lakers lost Game 6, instead of burying Miami under the sand, the headlines you’d be reading today would be quite a bit different, almost certainly directed at James, and containing a hint of schadenfreude-like glee. Is LeBron blowing this chance? Will LeBron lose another Finals? Can LeBron carry a team anymore? On and on it would have gone—doubting LeBron is a mature media industry, no longer rooted in factual realities, but still capable of grabbing eyeballs. Look where we were after Los Angeles’s Game 5 loss, when James stopped on a closing-seconds drive to the basket, in order to pass the ball to his extremely wide-open, habitually sharp-shooting teammate, Danny Green. LeBron needs to take that shot himself! was the critical refrain. That’s right: We have reached the point in the argument cycle in which we are upset at superstars for passing a lower-percentage shot to give a teammate a higher-percentage shot, which will come as news to Michael Jordan, an NBA idol regularly celebrated for once doing the same thing for John Paxson and Steve Kerr (who, in a significant difference, hit the shots).
Does James have faults? Gosh, absolutely. His career machinations have, at times, been clumsy, and it took a real bottoming-out in the NBA Finals against Dallas during his first season with Miami for James to figure out what it takes to win—both facts an older James now admits. He can be tough on teammates—his Laker teammate Rajon Rondo challenged James on his poor body language during their disappointing debut season in Los Angeles. James usually steps in and out of social politics with thoughtfulness, an arena Jordan carefully avoided during his playing career, but his soft comments on the NBA’s delicate standoff last fall with China were a clumsy miss by someone who wants to be known for speaking for the disenfranchised. He can do better, and I suspect he knows this, too.
James’s charitable ambitions, meanwhile, are mostly spectacular: the school he helped build in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, is a triumph. The school specifically serves disadvantaged children, a category James once belonged to himself; everyone who graduates is entitled to a scholarship at the University of Akron. (James also gives every kid a free bike, which will forever earn my admiration.) The voting-rights organization he formed, “More Than a Vote,” is actively recruiting poll workers in a number of American cities. With his agent, Rich Paul, James is already a behemoth in the world of athlete representation. The movie company he’s co-founded with his colleague, Maverick Carter, SpringHill Entertainment, is trying to break new ground in representation before and behind the camera. It’s routine to dismiss privileged athletes as “all talk,” but James isn’t all talk. Far from it.
He’s never going to win everyone over, and I suspect he knows this, too. LeBron Derangement Syndrome is here to stay, and people who enjoy sports accept the dissension as a bellicose and somewhat comical part of the drama. This has been the season, of course, of loudly declaring in sports environments that you’re not watching sports anymore, which is anyone is free to do, but starts to resemble marching into a restaurant, yelling all your objections to the menu, and then stomping out. Nearly every form TV entertainment is battling profound audience attrition, the NBA is no different here, and there remain plenty of basketball fans who see James for what he undeniably is: one of the greatest American athletes who’s ever been. Is LeBron James perfect? No, nobody is. But at this point, the complaints are mere fuel.
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Appeared in the October 13, 2020, print edition as ‘Not Watching? Don’t Deny Yourself Joy.’