in praise of lebron james, the postmodern athlete

It was hard to miss last week, given all the media attention drawn to Miami, Florida during the 2013 NBA Finals. In what will be remembered as one of the finest NBA championships in memory, the Miami Heat triumphed in seven excruciating, compelling games over the San Antonio Spurs. In case you’ve been in a coma, the Heat have this one player, a certain LeBron James.

James happens to be the singularly most talented player the NBA has featured since Michael Jordan. The writer recognizes and appreciates his talent and the skill he’s clearly developed since coming into the league out of high school in 2003. James can play and defend any of the five positions on the floor, and is virtually unstoppable; there is no limit to what he may accomplish with the balance of his career, which could reasonably be another 12-15 years.

And while many, like me, recognize his ability, few like him. Shouldn’t this be the kind of guy we want to rally behind?

It was charming to see David Stern rig the lottery in ’03 to allow that James be drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Cavaliers provided him minimal help in the seasons James shouldered the burden of a team, fanbase and city that hasn’t seen a championship since the days of Jim Brown. (As a native son of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I empathize with the misery: the last championship in the 414 was the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Then again, the Packers are the state’s team.) James did lead the team to the Finals almost by himself, along with a guy nicknamed ‘Boobie’ who caught fire in the postseason and a bunch of others virtually unknown in casual fan circles. James even signed an extension to keep playing in Cleveland, a good faith move that was never fully reciprocated by ownership, and when the time came for James to choose where to go, he chose to join fellow star Dwyane Wade in Miami. He even took a paycut to do it. The best player in the league chose to make less money to put himself in the best possible position to succeed.

Hey, if the grass isn’t getting very green in your backyard, and it’s primarily because your roommate insists on peeing all over it for years, don’t you owe it to yourself to explore other places to call home? Hence, ‘The Decision’, a poorly-thought out, poorly-executed disgrace of a television special where James was to announce what he was going to do with the next stage of his career. (At least it extorted some money out of ESPN to help subsidize the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.)

Hence, an hour all parties involved (with the exception of the Boys and Girls Club) probably wish never happened: at this point, Sports America turned its back on James, Wade and Miami. The underdog we loved, the kid who was to be the savior of Cleveland created a supergroup in South Florida. So, when Miami beat Oklahoma City last year, they did so against the prevailing headwinds of a groundswell of support behind a supremely talented and likeable Kevin Durant–who will likely have the distinction of being in a Jim Kelly position when it’s all said and done. (That is, Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and not Jim Kelly, he of the legendary afro and jive talk in Enter the Dragon.) And this year, they wore the black hat against a San Antonio Spurs team with good guy and the new greatest power forward of all time Tim Duncan, a hobbled Tony Parker, née Longoria, the rotting corpse of Manu Ginobili and Danny Green as ‘Boobie’.

Truly, this series was full of the kind of drama only the theater of sport provides; the kind of prime fodder which fuels the wet dreams of any number of short-sighted and self-important sportswriters. And this particular era in basketball history is now officially LeBron James’ to define.

One would think that he would be a little more careful about the way in which the benchmark by which all future ball players will be defined would go about his business, but that assumes a cultural and even epistemic framework that doesn’t seem to fit so well anymore. Jordan was careful about how he went about his business and, to be fair, he was benefitted by a time when athletes weren’t scrutinized every waking moment of the day. So was every legend who played basketball before.

The modern age gave way to whatever came after, and LeBron is the athletic apotheosis of this age of whatever. King James is the postmodern athlete.

Under the weight of constant scrutiny, he finally wins the big one twice, and stands with his trophies adorned with a defiant scowl. His victory speech? “I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio. From the inner-city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough. Every night I walk into the locker room and see a number 6 with James on the back. I’m blessed. So what everybody say about me off the court don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries,” proclaimed LeBron Camus.

Many of us looked on and cringed, but this is the epitome of our time. LeBron isn’t ushering in the new spirit of the age, he is a product of it: endowed with uncanny ability and the self-awareness to proclaim it. After winning two titles in a row, is he not entitled to say what he wants?

No, he is not Jordan: Jordan worked very, very hard to become the Ruthian figure he is considered now and did not have the raw talent James can take for granted. Jordan was a fierce competitor, James wasn’t so interested in beating his rivals–Jordan is famed for saying how much he wanted to destroy all comers, including his otherwise friends–as playing with his buddies and seeing what they could do together.

We’re seeing what they can do, and we don’t like it. In reality, the problem isn’t with LeBron James; we, rather, are the problem.

I wrestled with this as the series unfolded, particularly when the Spurs crapped away Game 6 at the outset of the fourth quarter: here we are, openly choosing sides against the most talented player the NBA has seen in 20 years. Why are we choosing contra James? The Spurs were never compelling during their four championship runs before, what do we gain from cheering for the demise of the greatest? It’s the Iliad inverted, where Achilles’ downfall is to be celebrated rather than mourned or observed for the cautionary tale that it is. It’s epilogomena, placing a rooting interest in the aging Tim Duncan before his career comes to a close. It’s Schadenfreude the likes of which is found within dorks at the school’s playground when a bully gets his (or hers) or typically reserved for the Yankees.

The reality is that we are a very contradictory bunch: we love a good underdog story, but Americans aren’t underdogs. We loathe the empire building of sports teams while never understanding that America is an empire of its own. We hate corporate America but can’t do without our daily Star*ucks. (I can safely speak for myself when I say that I can do without bad, overpriced coffee, but you get the drift.) We love LeBron…as long as he’s in a small market and has to really work for any success.

No, LeBron is the hero here. He is the only one who can truly control his own destiny. We hate him (as in sports-hate) because he has something we generally don’t: the ability to shape the universe to his liking. Existence, for him, precedes essence. And, given the opportunity and the desire, he will opt out of his contract a year from now and return to Cleveland, to home and to our good graces. The narrative isn’t ours to dictate; in the same way that we’ve eschewed the old values and norms, for better or worse, we must respect the decision to want to succeed and the fact that he has done so should silence our ultimately unwarranted whining.

This is the postmodern age, and LeBron James is the postmodern athlete. We dislike him, not unlike the bully, because we dislike ourselves. Instead, we should appreciate the fact that he has overcome the burden of the talented and has come into immense and inordinate success becoming of his talent.

It’s a celebration. Enjoy yourself.


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