This week, LeBron James passed Michael Jordan (and, let us not forget, 17 year veteran Chauncey Billups) on the all-time NBA assist leaders list. As with every milestone he achieves, yet particularly those which involve Jordan in some nominal way, this triggered a small level of debate about LeBron's place in the grand scheme of NBA history, particularly in comparison to Jordan.
It is not the intention here to feed that debate, or to take a stance on it. Rather, the passing of this slightly arbitrary but nevertheless impressive milestone has also served as a reminder of what James has become, as both a player and a persona.
The distinction between person and persona is important here. We do not know what LeBron is like as a person - we know only what we are told, by him and others paid to tell us. That is the persona we are fed. We have been fed a persona since LeBron became nationally relevant, and it has been under constant refinement in that time.
LeBron was easy to dislike because he had the temerity to acknowledge he was unbelievably gifted. By being so good, James has always been a villain to many by default. That's just how it works, and, in anointing him the King, there comes a simultaneous demand to pretend he wasn't. It is the job of everyone except the gifted one himself to do that.
His villainy peaked with 'The Decision,' a remarkably naive act of self-aggrandizement in which LeBron called for the biggest stage he could muster up from which to give the NBA world news all but a minority of it did not want to hear. Inevitably, it went down badly. And it changed the persona we now see.
Maybe he didn't know it would be like that, or maybe he didn't care. But he certainly knew and cared afterwards. Ever since then, the image and the brand have been rehabilitated. The Decision is now a footnote for all but the Cavaliers and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the other realistic suitors - LeBron and the Heat have done too much for it to be any other way. Once the initial backdraft burnt itself out, LeBron became much more palatable to those without a legitimate grudge.
Ultimately, the reasons he was even disliked in the first place were often petty and based upon an unrealistic standard for greatness. I was guilty of this - I didn't like him, not because I was jealous of what he had, but because he knew what we had, spoke accordingly, and lived his life as though he was constantly baying to a crowd and a camera (It seemed to matter not in this logic that he actually was). I, of course, was pretty sure I would not do it like that. Because that's what self-righteous twenty-somethings think. Self-righteous twenty-somethings are also prone to hold petty grudges on trivial matters and form lifelong opinions of character based on the slightest stimuli. LeBron was once a self righteous twenty-something, too. Maybe we both grew up.
Everyone grows up with certain superstars. There are those you grow up with in the sense that they are at their career apex when you are only a child, the ones whose posters you have on your walls and whose moves you seek to emulate in the playground. Then there are those of comparable age whose career arc rather parallels your own life. LeBron, five months my junior, has been the latter of these for me. I have grown up with LeBron and can now acknowledge that, if he was a bit of a wazzock once, so was I. If I hold it against him still, I therefore claim parts of my past are still a part of me. If I do not want this to be the case, it must not be the case for LeBron either.
It is all too easy to impose a moral standard onto someone else that you cannot aspire to yourself. We wanted LeBron to have everything while demanding he had more, we wanted him to be both the perfect winner and the perfect loser, and we wanted him to be the right balance between humble, confident and honest along the way. Now that he has gone and become the leader, talent and winner we demanded one so dominant and skilled be, perhaps it is time to reconsider what we think of his persona.
Yet, ultimately, this is not about that either. This is about what has become of LeBron the player, and how.
Faced with the scathing fallout of his decision, James was deemed to be many things, not least of which was a coward, opting to join other stars rather than luring them to his undersupported home town team. In addition to his braggadocio, his lack of humility, and the social awareness of what and what not to say, James was derided as a player who lacked the fortitude and confidence to lead his own team to the title, instead opting to piggyback others.
However, this criticism has surely fallen by the wayside. It is true that LeBron joined a team with far more talent than the one he left, but it is they who piggyback him. Needing considerable talent to win the title is not news, yet we faulted LeBron for seeking it, chided him for finding it, and not frequently enough laud him for what he has made of it.
To see his play on the court is to see a constant spectacle, a dominance rivalled in the last generation only by a Lakers-era Shaquille O'Neal. And even then, with Shaq, it was only sporadic. LeBron always brings his best game to the court, and his best game is better than everyone elses. If he does not end his career as the best player of all time, should such distinctions ever really matter, he nearly will.
We told him what he should be, what he had to be, what he needed to be, and found every single reason we could why he could never be it. Somehow, through all the constant doubt that, he has become it. Maybe he never will win as much as Jordan does. But at this point, LeBron has rounded into the perfect basketball player, and personal grudges born out of the flaws in his persona cannot change that.