LeBron James Gets His Title

Will winning a championship finally overshadown "The Decision" and erase the NBA's best player's reputation as a choke artist?

With Chris Bosh out from injury, the Miami Heat came very close to getting knocked out in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Boston Celtics. With him healthy, they brushed aside the Oklahoma City Thunder in five to win the NBA Finals.

Aside from highlights, I watched maybe five minutes of it. I’ve been at best a casual fan of the NBA since Michael Jordan’s second retirement–interested enough to not fast forward through a discussion of the game on PTI or not flip the channels in the car radio when they’re talking about the game but not dedicated enough to stay up late to watch.* The other night, I flipped over to catch a bit of game 4 but, since it was already 1030 and they were only halfway through the 3rd quarter, there was no way in hell that I was going to see the end. Nowadays, only the only sports that I’ll sacrifice sleep for are Dallas Cowboys and Crimson Tide football.

Even so, I’ve been fascinated the last four years with the LeBron James saga. Two years of frenzied speculation about where he would go–or stay–once he became a free agent, the sordid ESPN special where he infamously announced he was “taking my talents to South Beach,” the insane “not 1, not 2, not 3…” unveiling of the new Heat, the collapse in last year’s finals, and the ups and downs of this year’s playoffs–which seem to have been ongoing since 2008–have been gripping even though I’m not really following the game any more.

Like most, I thought “The Decision” was cheesy and twisted the knife into the hearts of his hometown fans in Cleveland  (though everyone seems to forget that LeBron donated the $3 million in proceeds to charity) but fully understood why he’d rather play for Pat Riley and with Dwayne Wade and Bosh than stay in a town that couldn’t attract free agent talent. And I’ve never understood why a guy who’s clearly the most dominant player in the most athletic sports league on the planet was constantly derided as a choke artist.

So, I agree with Kevin Arnovitz‘s assessment in “LeBron James and the end of all that.”

I’d been quietly pulling for the Miami Heat to win the title since April — and not because I find LeBron James to be sympathetic or because I like the Heat’s brand of basketball or even because I have a lingering attachment to the Heat after covering them in Miami during the 2010-11 season.

I simply wanted it all to be about basketball again, because the public exercise of trying to probe James’ inner life had grown tiresome. The ease with which epithets like choke artist, fraud and much worse have been thrown at James has always been petty and, when examined closely, they usually rang false. In recent months, those takedowns had also become boring, and the prospect that they’d continue to dominate the NBA for at least another year was excruciating.

[…]

I can think of a zillion reasons why a person’s curiosity would be drawn to the NBA. But it became increasingly difficult for me to understand how someone whose interest is vested in a game they supposedly love could watch James during this postseason run and not want to commit his performances to their catalog of fan memories.

If you’re a Thunder fan or just someone who felt the Heat were assembled in the tackiest fashion, then you’ve had good reason not to root for James, but can’t there be appreciation without devotion?

One day, someone a lot younger than you might want to know what it was like to watch this era of superstars in real time. That conversation will turn to James earlier than later. You’ll likely explain the full context of his career, how even the most natural talent has its limitations, how he was a polarizing figure at an evolutionary moment for the NBA. But do we really believe that will be the lead? I’d feel silly emphasizing that above a glowing summation of who he was as a basketball player.

Now that James has won his first championship, the conversation will change. Some of James’ fans will engage in the inevitable — and insufferable — score-settling with those who revel in seeing him fail. The dark margins of the fan experience will always play host to ugly exchanges like these, but for the first time in about five years, we can celebrate the game through James, apart from all the other stuff.

LeBron finally has his ring–and a Finals MVP–to go along with his three regular season MVP awards. The latter, incidentally, puts him in some elite company, indeed. Kareem had 6, Jordan and Russell 5, Wilt 4, and Bird, Magic, and Moses also had 3. That’s the list. Kobe Bryant, whose career achievements still outstrip James’, has only one.

If he and Wade stay healthy, this will likely not be LeBron’s last ring. Somehow, though, I don’t think he’s going to make it to 8.

_____________________
*It occurs to me that, during the short period in the 1990s when I was a true NBA fan, two things were true that no longer are: I was single with no kids and lived in the Central time zone. With two small kids, I have less time for sports and less room for error on getting enough sleep. And the games starting and ending an hour later in my day is just huge. Even Monday Night Football went by the wayside once I moved to the East Coast. Unless the Cowboys are playing, I just can’t stay up past midnight and get up at 6.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. J-Dub says:

    You learn a lot more about a person by the way they lose more than how they win and he’s always been a poor loser and a bad sport. Give me Tim Duncan or David Robinson as a role model over this ass-clown anyday.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @J-Dub: Oh, I prefer Duncan and Robinson, too. But they’re from a different era and a different market. LeBron has been in a white hot spotlight since he was a high school phenom and went straight to the NBA. He displayed incredible maturity playing against grown men as an 18-year-old kid. He has been a little defensive the last couple of years when confronted by idiotic questioning by asshole sports reporters challenging his manhood and dedication; but Duncan and Robinson never faced anything like that playing under the radar in San Antonio.

  3. Herb says:

    Not only Lebron, but Juwan Howard gets his first title at age 39. Yeah, he didn’t do much to get it beside keep the bench warm, but that’s pretty cool.

  4. steve says:

    Peyton was no longer a choke artist after winning one title. In a way, it is kind of odd that no matter how talented you are, or your team, just winning one is enough to erase all of that.

    Steve

  5. Franklin says:

    I didn’t even know Juwan Howard was still playing. I was in the same class as the Fab Five at Michigan but tried to forget about them after their scandal broke …

    Anyway, I did sort of admire LeBron’s talents until he became a douche with The Decision and had to surround himself with two other star-caliber players to win anything. BUT, as far as I know none of them has raped or shot anyone, so they’re not all bad. Congratulations to the Heat!

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Franklin: Basketball is a team sport; LeBron is hardly unique in needing great teammates to win a title.

    Jordan, widely considered the best of all time, had Scottie Pippen–also an all-time great.

    Kobe, probably the best of the next generation, had Shaq for three titles and Pao Gasol for another two.

    Kevin Garnett was great for years but never won until becoming part of the Celtics’ Big 3.

    David Robinson never won until he had Tim Duncan; Duncan only won one post-Robinson and he had Ginóbili, Horry, and several near-greats on that team.

    Magic had Kareem, Worthy, et. al.

    Kareem had Magic late and Oscar Robertson early.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Finally the national nightmare is over. America’s premier narcissist athlete finally has an NBA Championship ring.

    America’s obsession with championship rings has its limits – Robert Horry won 7, Steve Kerr 5, Derek Fisher 5.

  8. @al-Ameda:

    Is there any superstar in the NBA who isn’t a narcissist?

  9. James Joyner says:

    @al-Ameda: Charles Barkley was on PTI the other day and was asked a similar question. As most know, while Barkley is widely considered among the greatest ballers of all time, he never won a championship. Asked if it irked him that some scrub on the Heat was about to get his Xth title, Barkley said that, no, he didn’t concern himself with the scrubs. He rooted for the greats, like LeBron, to get their rings because he understands how much it means to them. But he didn’t compare himself to the role players.

    Horry, Kerr, and Fisher were/are outstanding players and played a significant role in their teams winning championships. But it’s the superstars who rightly get the glory since they’re the main component. And it’s the superstars, not the solid role players, who get the grief if they fall short.

  10. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    s there any superstar in the NBA who isn’t a narcissist?

    I suppose that for most of them it comes down to degrees of difference, right? However, how many NBA superstars had a televised show, i.e, “The Decision” to announce that they were going to another team?

    We know that all top tier players have egos and ambition, I have no problem with that.
    Which elite players do not appear to be narcissists? It’s all perception and appearance but … Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Dirk Nowitzky, Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Steve Nash do not appear to be rampant narcissists.

    Look out LeBron, Dwight Howard is challenging for narcissist honors.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:
    I saw Barkley’s comments on that. I always enjoy Barkly, he’s entertaining and makes good observations on today’s game.

    I really enjoy the NBA, and I think that by the time he’s finished, Lebron James will be recognized as one of the half-dozen best players of all time. In a way, he’s as physically dominant in his time as Wilt Chamberlain was in his era. James is 6’9″ 270, he’s a combination point guard, shooting guard, small forward all in a power forward’;s body – incredible.

    Part of the problem is the 24/7 sports media – we all know too much about Lebron James, all this information and opinion gets shot at us point-blank all day every day. It takes away some of the enjoyment

  12. James Joyner says:

    @al-Ameda: Not much question on that last part. The fact that LeBron came to the NBA right out of high school and in the current communications environment made it amazingly tough for him. Kobe Bryant, who did the same thing seven years earlier, it was a different world. Plus, Bryant was the 13th pick in the draft, not the 1st.

  13. Dazedandconfused says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Why do you believe James a premier narcissist? I don’t see much Iverson in him, or his game, myself.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    @Dazedandconfused:

    It’s a few things: the “The Decision” spectacle, the “King James” nickname, and predicting “3,4,5 … ” championships.

    I’ll let up on that though. He is an amazing talent – a PG, SG, SF in a Power Forward’s body. His game is unselfish – far more so than that of Kobe or Jordan. I get tired of the hype.

  15. Dazedandconfused says:

    @al-Ameda:

    He’s not the brightest porch light on the block at PR, that’s for sure.