LeBron James is about to play in his 10th NBA Finals. How do you mentally contextualize a steady stream of things we’ve never seen before?
He is 35. He is position-less by virtue of having played every position, and he is a triple-double threat and lockdown defender whenever he so seemingly chooses to be. He is in Akron. He is in Cleveland. He is in Miami. Then Cleveland again. He is in Los Angeles. He is inside a Bubble of his own making. The Bubble is within him. Geography and place cannot frame him. Age seems to be failing in the effort to do so as well. His career is a story without end, and yet the story is almost always the same.
Very few athletes reach this stage of wonder. Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Tiger Woods. Babe Ruth. These individuals all rank larger than their sports, and sure, there are others. But this list of long careers bending toward myth is not a long one, and it does not exist within systems or wait for rivals to emerge.
Yes, mistakes occurred and early losses were had, but they all happened in real-time. They will be forgotten, and the ending will be negotiated and packaged for consumption.
Babe bloated himself. Ali fought a war by not fighting a war. Jordan couldn’t give up the game. Tiger found redemption. Federer’s grace never truly aged. And Serena gave birth.
LeBron is about to play in his tenth NBA Finals
The record can be nitpicked, but that’s still a decade’s worth of making it to the league’s final round. The first appearance occurred in 2007 when George W. Bush was president, and Barack Obama was a senator. His Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the San Antonio Spurs in June. Lehman Brothers collapsed in the fall. It wasn’t so much a different time as a different epoch. LeBron’s greatness is like some wrinkled reptile pulsing in the swamp’s murk. You see pictures of it in children’s books and tell your daughters, “LeBron’s been around since the dinosaurs.” You speak of him the way you would a magnolia tree or a sequoia.
Fire sustains him
After Game 4 in the Western Conference Finals, a reporter asked Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets if being guarded down the stretch was the ultimate sign of respect. In the heat of the series, Murray didn’t want to contemplate LeBron’s greatness, which makes sense — after all, his job is to defeat LeBron. The expression on Murray’s face was one etched by equal parts disdain and competitive drive, and in his answer, fans and reporters caught a glimpse of who Murray is as a competitor. He views all his opponents the same. He listed off every Laker who guarded him during Game 4. He even named Kawhi Leonard and Paul George from his team’s series a round earlier against the Los Angeles Clippers. He said no matter who guards him he plays the same. Murray wants to believe — and has to believe — that he controls his basketball fate. And yet, even in a 32-point-8-assist effort, he appeared to have hit a wall, and despite his acrobatic finishes at the rim and soft touch from midrange, his potential — even at the ripe age of 23 appeared spent.
Bruised and battered after Game 5 and Denver’s elimination from the playoffs, Murray concluded, “I didn’t have the energy I needed to have for my teammates today.” Meanwhile, LeBron sat amidst the confetti drawing comparisons on Twitter to Doctor Manhattan and Thanos — as if time and energy were of little consequence to his eternal perch atop the game’s highest peaks.
None of this was always so certain. Or maybe it was
There were the early Sports Illustrated covers and Slam photoshoots that functioned in readers’ imaginations more as prophecy than reporting, and as the subject of prophecy, LeBron quickly became a target of ridicule, as if the magazines had worked to make him something he was not when, in truth, he had worked to make himself the sporting world’s center of attention.
How could LeBron be averaging 26.7 points per game, 10.3 rebounds, and 8.9 assists in the playoffs this deep into his career if not for the work? For a long while now, the body of work has been more than physical. The preparation and dedication over time have been paralleled by only a handful of athletes scattered over decades.
Now LeBron and his all-world running mate Anthony Davis have worked themselves into the NBA Finals. They have plotted and played. They have maneuvered and outlasted. They have overwhelmed and whispered, “checkmate,” at the end of the onslaught.
All that stands now before LeBron and his chosen herald is the Miami Heat. If any player might be foolish enough to challenge LeBron’s standing in the game, it would be difficult to arrive at a better candidate than Jimmy Butler, who lives as a menace on the basketball court, rarely joking, never ceasing, always sweating a salty sampling of caffeinated contempt. Some Battle of the Bastards this will be.
The Heat is a solid squad — a better all-around team than perhaps LeBron’s band of mercenaries and renegades are. Even with Pat Riley lurking in the shadows, they appear to be about more than weighing sacks of gold, and yet the game inside the NBA Bubble seems to be largely about getting what’s yours before the world ends.
LeBron has seen all this before. In fact, all basketball must unspool before his eyes like a déjà vu highlight reel
In 2012, LeBron James was in his second season with the Miami Heat. He was playing alongside Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. All three had recently been embarrassed by a disappointing Finals performance against Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs had less star power, but they proved the better team. Now the Heat was facing an Oklahoma City Thunder squad that was arguably just as star-laden and every bit the Heat’s equal in terms of chemistry and intangibles. The matchup appeared the stuff of budding rivalry. LeBron was three years shy of 30. The Thunder’s roster featured a 23-year-old Kevin Durant, a 23-year-old Russell Westbrook, and a 22-year-old James Harden. The series was done in five games, and every year after, the Thunder’s roar grew softer as each year brought another departure from the team’s young core.
This time around the would-be super team (although it’s more of a super tandem) will be representing the Western Conference, and the slightly younger and more athletic team will stand in for the Eastern Conference. The Heat is not quite in the same position as the Thunder was a near-decade ago. The future is not as promising. Jimmy Butler has found a home, but he is still as well-traveled as a rodeo clown. For the most part, though, Bam Adebayo and the young crew surrounding him can claim they have next.
But what’s imagined isn’t always what arrives, and no one imagined this happening in this year for the Heat
This past Saturday, in the afternoon before the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets, I put on a mask and drove to buy a picture frame. Curled in a canister that was shipped to my house back in March or May was a Jacob Weinstein art print. Weinstein is probably most famous for his FreeDarko illustrations. The print I carried into the framing place was not featured in either FreeDarko book. I believe it appeared in an issue of GQ Magazine. The piece is titled Thunder Troop 405, and set against its yellow background are five members of the Oklahoma City Thunder from the days before they ever made an NBA Finals. The yellow background connotes a sunny optimism. The basketballs are all baby blue. The sneakers are bright orange. Westbrook and Harden and Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha all burst into action behind Durant — who looks straight ahead into the future and salutes. They are young. They are innocent. They are all dressed as Boy Scouts. They are sure to be heroes.
I unrolled this print for the guy at the framing store, and he said, “Cool.” I have taken quite a few pieces to him over the years, and he doesn’t respond to everything in this way. He was seeing Weinstein’s Thunder Troop 405 for the first time, and he liked what he saw. I responded to his monosyllabic appraisal: “Yeah, but it gets sadder by the day.” In saying this, I probably sounded like a glass half empty sort of dude — and sometimes I am that — but when I look at this Weinstein piece, I can’t help to think about how historical context has altered its meanings. I can’t figure out if Weinstein missed the mark or if he delivered an ironic prophecy. These Boy Scouts all grew up to be MVPs, but they were ill-prepared for the times in which they played basketball. The merit badges, in the end, didn’t add up to much.
LeBron didn’t just defeat Oklahoma City in 2012 — he swallowed them whole — and the rest of the league is still waiting on its Zeus. Golden State is on hiatus. Kawhi misjudged the journey. All that’s left is Jimmy, and his name sounds so very ordinary. Maybe he’ll surprise us. If not, it’ll be LeBron — forever prepared to do whatever it takes. You can measure the man’s appetite by surveying all the dreams that have already burst.