Lebron James was so good in his first four years there was not much to criticize. Look at the numbers. 27 points. 6 assists. 7 rebounds. He made other players better. His own game was unstoppable. On the cusp of his first NBA Finals in 2007, he was re-introduced to the world. The timing was crucial in this new narrative. It was just before game 1 when Nike released a black and white photo advertisement, a very stark but very dramatic image. The ad was everywhere, digital, in print, on buildings. In the ad, Lebron James’ arms were outstretched, his head rolling back. His eyes were invisible, most of his face was imaginary. Above him was written: We Are All Witnesses. The religious idolatry was not accidental. It seemed to say: kneel at the altar of this new God. Witness. Here is the miracle of Lebron James. Witness. Here is the greatness of Lebron James. Witness. Here is the rebirth of Lebron James.
So much has happened to him since then, since that ad campaign. An eleven year career is in the books, two titles, four regular season MVP’s, 10 All Star appearances, and yes there are millions of witnesses. Millions. But not the kind Nike assumed when they editorialized Lebron James as the champion of the future. No. It is another kind of witness now; witness Lebron James weakness. Witness Lebron James fragility. Witness Lebron James softness. No matter what he may accomplish, no matter what happens to him on the court that is celebratory, Lebron will never be able to escape the knife wounds when something goes wrong. When he gets cramps because of inferno like temperatures it only means he lacks toughness. He lacks the strength of Isiah, the psychosis of Kobe, the desperation of Garnett. Lebron James gives in to chaos instead of surviving it. He is not who he told us he wanted to be. He is not Michael Jordan.
Two things are true: fans love great players. Fans hate great players. Lebron was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old. The only other basketball player who endured such a season of hype was Lew Alcindor when he was at Power Memorial High School in the ‘60’s. But Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar) had the luxury of going to college at a time when freshmen did not play with upperclassman. His sophomore, junior and senior seasons he won college championships. In the NBA he delivered a championship in his second year. Often sullen, distant and shy, Abdul-Jabaar was never loved by fans who felt insulted by the name change. But they respected what he did on the court. He did it the way it had always been done. He led his high school team to state championships. He led his college team to NCAA championships. He was a difference maker the moment he played in his first NBA game. So when he wanted out of Milwaukee no one thought he committed a crime.
Lebron took #23 to honor Michael Jordan who was his favorite player though he played more like Magic Johnson. Lebron didn’t go to college. But in four years he did what Abdul-jabaar did, he led his team to the NBA Finals. His Cleveland teams were 60+ win teams because of Lebron. Without college, his learning curve was longer. He had to adjust to and overcome mental pressure in late game situations. Every now and then he struggled with muscle cramping. It happened in both the regular season and in the NBA Finals. And of course it happened on Thursday night.
The need to be right about Lebron James even if they are wrong about Lebron James echoes across the country. So here is the truth. Lebron James did have cramps in game 1 of the NBA Finals. Those same cramps would have incapacitated anyone. The difference with Lebron James and Michael Jordan is perception. Michael would have had a scowl etched upon his face as if he thought about cutting his leg off. Lebron was a sufferer. The conclusion that Lebron’s character is somehow connected to dehydration is ridiculous. His character was on display when he lost in the NBA Finals in 2007 and 2011. His character was on display when he won in the NBA Finals in 2012 and 2013.
Michael Jordan, when he came into the NBA, shocked everyone. Dean Smith kept Michael’s love and talent for isolation plays under wraps for three years. This was a Michael Jordan no one knew. The worst thing said about MJ was that he was selfish. Kobe Bryant was never supposed to succeed, not without college and he surpassed the most generous expectations. The worst thing said about Kobe was that he was selfish. Lebron James was a whirlwind, talked about by everyone. When he came into the NBA he shocked everyone. His first game against the Sacramento Kings was spectacular, 25 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists, 60% shooting. The best thing said about Lebron James is that he is not selfish. So what does it all mean? You can be selfish and loved. You can be generous and despised.
Of course, a long time ago, Nike asked for witnesses. Well, here they are. They fall at Lebron’s feet in droves. The same ones who adore him are the ones who stab him in the back. They call him a quitter. Soft. Not tough. Not a closer. Afraid. Then they call him great. Unguardable. A physical specimen. The best of his generation. But neither his lovers nor his detractors have ever called him fearless.
The temperatures in game 1 were a throw back to all of those small gyms in small towns when the buildings were crammed with people paying $5 dollars for standing room only. It was so hot, sweat peeled down everyone’s arms and legs. The air was soaked. The tongue was dry. They arena stank. Except this was the NBA Fiinals.
If anyone was to get cramps it would be Lebron James. He plays more than anyone else but he is not indestructible. He is not a holy man as Nike tried to imply. He is the Heat’s best scorer. Their best rebounder. Their best defender. Their best motivator. Their best critic. Unlike the Nike ad he is not immortal, he is human. His body is not a shrine.
After the game last night the name calling was as ridiculous as it was amusing only in that Lebron James engenders this sort of response. Game 2 on Sunday, Lebron will play. Usually after such a heavy dose of criticism, like game 6 in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, he has the last word. And even if he doesn’t, even if his game is good but not good enough because of Greg Popovich’s adjustments there will be the chorus of haters spewing venom. Only in Lebron’s case they are also his witnesses.