Quick trivia question:
Who was the last Eastern Conference team to make it to the NBA Finals without LeBron James on the roster?
If you were thinking the 2010 Boston Celtics, congrats, you get a prize.
It is wild to consider just how much has changed in the league, and the world for that matter, since he last did not participate in the Finals.
Since then, and for the last seven seasons, the NBA championship road in the East has gone through LeBron.
With the Cavaliers making yet another trip to the finals, LeBron is arguably having his greatest postseason and possibly en route to the greatest postseason ever.
Cleveland steamrolled its competition in this postseason, winning 12 of 13 games. In fact, James’ dominance over the Eastern Conference over the last seven seasons is so pronounced that he and his teams have defeated every team in the conference at least once.
In short, LeBron is performing at a God-like level and only Golden State can convert him back into a mere mortal.
In the meantime, I am sitting back in awe.
That, in fact, is a rather remarkable transformation from my own attitude toward him from just a few seasons ago.
Like many NBA fans not from either Miami or Northeast Ohio, I can state without equivocation that I once despised LeBron James.
The following phrases usually came to mind: Flopper. Overconfident. No loyalty. Selfish. Media manipulator. Will never be like Michael Jordan.
I am certainly not alone in echoing those sentiments. Look at much social media discussion on LeBron, and you will encounter these sentiments on the daily. As a Chicago Bulls supporter, I believed those things with every fiber of my fandom. Many still do, but the stance is more a product of fierce, undying loyalty to the legend of Jordan and, cynically, the franchise’s inability to vanquish a LeBron team. After all, the Bulls have never beaten LeBron James in the playoffs and haven’t won a championship in nearly a generation.
Often times, the hatred of another team or player is motivated from a sense of jealousy of their success. For Bulls fans especially, such visceral hatred is as much jealousy of LeBron’s success as it is a natural tendency to want to defend Michael Jordan. If there is anything Chicago sports fans are more proud of, it is the pride of claiming the GOAT. Chicago sports fans cannot stand the thought of any other player being considered greater than Michael Jordan. I totally understand that.
Unfortunately, that has made too many Chicago sports fans irrationally and irredeemably hate Lebron.
Yet, Chicago fans should rest assured that even if LeBron wins six or seven championships, he still cannot be compared to Jordan. Michael Jordan did not only never lose in the NBA Finals, he changed the sport in a way no other player can claim. Michael Jordan turned the NBA into a brand — a global brand. Comparing Michael Jordan to LeBron is a futile exercise; much better for arguments at the local dive bar or in the Facebook comments section.
Ideally, Jordan and James should stand in their own categories without needing to be constantly compared.
Beyond the knowledge that Jordan will always be the GOAT, what truly motivated my transition on LeBron is not the result of any of his continuing dominance but what he represents beyond the highlights or the stat sheet.
To be honest, most of my LeBron hatred stems from 2010’s “The Decision.” I, and many others, were incensed that LeBron orchestrated an entire media spectacle simply to announce where he was taking “his talents.”
Where was his sense of civic loyalty? Where was his humility? Michael Jordan would never do that! True winners never team up with two other of their superstar friends just to win championships?
Yet, in a way, LeBron James’ decision to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was a radical act and a powerful way of rebuking the control of NBA ownership. In sports, vacuous values like loyalty and humility often deployed to rein in the players.
A player leaves the team that drafted him for a chance at more money or championships? Not loyal! That player is too emotional or celebrates too much? Not humble!
Of course, in American sports those ideas function as a not-so-subtle form of racial control. Given the history of this country and the prevailing values that still pervade cultural and social institutions, demanding that players give into those lofty concepts is often aimed at black and Latino players with an especially high and unattainable standard.
Those lofty, noble ideals, while on their own valuable, become sinister when used and abused by white owners to police the actions of a majority black workforce.
The NBA, while majority black, is still a white institution controlled by white owners and executives.
Baseball, for example, has been thrown into the spotlight for the obsessive imposition of “unwritten rules”. These archaic bylaws have been put into question by the “conflicting values” of exuberance and celebration displayed by the game’s Latino players (case in point: bat flipping).
The mere act of a black player exercising his autonomy by joining forces with two of his other black friends was an act of defiance against a system of ownership in American sports that subordinates the players below the owners.
What LeBron did in 2010, while more subtle than Colin Kaepernick, was a shock to the system of American sports. Just consider the tantrum thrown by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. It is not an exaggeration to infer that Gilbert’s anger largely stemmed from his own inability to properly control his “asset.”
This is also indicative of why so many negatively compare LeBron to Jordan; Jordan never upset the equilibrium of the NBA or the American sporting hierarchy. Famously, Michael Jordan isolated himself from taking stances on socially-relevant issues.
LeBron is, for the most part, the opposite.
In fact, this voice was on display once again yesterday after LeBron was asked by the media to state his reaction to his LA home being vandalized and graffitied with the N word. LeBron powerfully invokedthe lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 to to explain how the racial animus that era still pervades today.
LeBron understands his own role and the role of other athletes in the process of social change. I certainly admire him for that.
Over the recent years, as my awareness of racial politics has evolved as has my appreciation of the involvement of athletes in socially-relevant causes, I can no longer bring myself to harbor any ill feelings toward LeBron.
Without exception, black athletes are held to a profoundly higher standard than white athletes in America. We expect black athletes to succeed on the court or the field, but also be involved in the community, set a good example for kids, stay out of legal and personal trouble, and remain humble — all simultaneously.
LeBron James has done all those things, and then some, and he is still not good enough for too many people. He is still just too cocky; he complains just a bit too much to the referees. At some point, we must realize that it is not LeBron who is the problem but our racialized conception of the “ideal athlete”.
Finally, I have realized that watching LeBron is watching the unfolding of history. I often wish born 10 years earlier just to have been able to appreciate watching Michael Jordan.
NBA fans of the future will wish they had been around to witness a LeBron chasedown block or watching him collapse in tears of happiness and relief in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
Watching a historical moment unfold in such a culturally important institution as the NBA must be cherished. As I get older, I have realized that.
This by no means signifies that I will become a Cavaliers fan or actively root for LeBron but that I have no interest in devoting any energy to hating him. There is no point, and doing so is to subject oneself to needless bitterness and saltiness.
I am not a witness but an appreciator. In short, what LeBron James represents and the dominance he has displayed in these 2017 playoffs is why my perception of him has so radically shifted.
I hope my fellow NBA fans follow suit and that other current LeBron heaters soon to change their tune.