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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On LeBron James’ crowning achievement, and the media’s response

Typically, it is not an easy thing to define one’s legacy, especially in this day and age. (I’ve tried with my own, but nothing printable for a family audience can be written in this space.) For athletes, there was a time where their impact on a particular sport could be qualified based on championships won, or even to have so profound an effect as to change the way the game was played.

Nowadays, however, who the heck knows? The number of one’s Twitter followers has been a seemingly quantifiable characteristic of greatness. Count at least one person in who hopes that is not the end-all. At last check, I have fewer followers than Charles Lindbergh, and he died more than 30 years before the social media site crossed the Atlantic. Others might be judged by their actions on and off the court, for better or worse. Does anyone believe that Ron Artest or his alter ego will be remembered more for his Game 7 against the Celtics in 2010 more than for his Palace malice or his Harden bombarding? Winning championships still gets its proper due, but now it is competing for elbow room — sorry Ron-Ron that wasn’t for you — with superstars who gather news attention for dressing like Steve Urkel.

Legacy really is a funny word, like caddywompus, kumquat, or blimp. Not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, though. (Most of the readers of this column should be unfamiliar with such a response anyhow.) It’s more like a Jay Leno monologue: You see it, absorb it, think about it, and after 20 seconds go by, you start questioning how much of your life you’ve wasted on such an endeavor and unwittingly pass out in the process. Media-types are always big on forcing you to consider what an athlete means in the broad landscape when a title is won or lost, especially when multiple attempts have been made, oftentimes conveniently forgetting that said star plays not on a team of one.

The latest sports figure to undergo such scrutiny is LeBron James; he of the barnstorming high school team that was turned into a documentary, soon becoming the brightest thing to burn in the state of Ohio since the Cuyahoga River, then famously spurning Cleveland like so many others, only to make back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals after shamelessly hosting a televised event with the nebbishy Jim Gray to declare where he would take his talents.

James became everyone’s pin-cushion. Heck, even I jumped in the fray after about 20 games last season. Why not? A player dubbed a superstar before he even suited up for his first-ever NBA game and carried through with the charade of leaving a city, a franchise, and a large throng of fans twisting in the wind while he made “The Decision” (as if such a thing was keeping the world holding its breath … which it was) deserves such spotlight and, perhaps, even the scorn from the fans who put the All-Star on a list of things that need to be done away with, alongside world hunger, poverty, and World Peace (sorry Ron-Ron, I couldn’t resist that time).

After a losing effort in the Finals last year to Dallas, making James 0 for his first two championship runs (including the 2007 loss to the Spurs in the final round), the derisive chant grew louder from fan-bases around the league: LeBron for all his talents, couldn’t win the big one. Not one, not two, not three, and so on they clamored. Even as it became apparent in 2011 that it seemed like this would be the year for James, folks kept holding onto hope that the Miami Heat would just falter and deprive the King his scepter once more.

Though James had been posited as this malevolent figure, the NBA’s antagonist — the NBA where literary devices happen — not more than a half-hour after the Larry O’Brien Trophy was hoisted by the smiling James, ESPN was beaming with graphics depicting where LeBron’s star could be situated by Michael Jordan’s. Comparing the age at which Jordan won his title and Finals MVP versus James, who is a year younger, if you still believe his biography that is. Even Kobe had to wait three more years in age before hauling in his first Most Valuable Trophy award in the Finals the analysts crowed. The only thing that wasn’t said was how long before Queen Elizabeth II abdicates so LBJ could get an early start on donning a powdered wig and salute the Union Jack.

Of course, this is the usual modern sports media practice of making the latest piece of news seem like the biggest ever to hit the airwaves. Now, the LeBron who seemingly couldn’t come up with the big plays when they were needed metamorphosized into the clutch athlete who saved his only triple-double of the season for the clincher. Either way, the critics who begrudged James’ move to Miami may still deny LeBron his credentials on the merit this title was won not on his own but with the help of colluding Dwyane Wade to stay and Chris Bosh to join the Super Friends, an argument that somehow eludes Jordan’s legacy at times when one considers that MJ went without a title for the first six years of his career. MJ, though, scores additional points since he was able to help beat the Monstars, probably his greatest cinematic accomplishment.

The whole talk about legacies and impact on the game has become about as cliché as the truisms I was forced to accept as a child. Eating my vegetables didn’t help me with any athletic feats: I’m about eight inches, 50 pounds of muscle mass, and whatever the opposite of sluggish is from being enshrined in Springfield, Canton, or Cooperstown. While people now try to sort out the puzzle pieces to determine if LeBron can win the next six NBA titles with those other guys wearing Heat jerseys, and where he stands in the pantheon of great basketball stars, perhaps we should all step back and realize one important fact: The LeBron James iPhone has been discontinued. Now the Carmelo Anthony model is the only one that comes without a ring.

Photo credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

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