The LeBron James saga is a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
How do we categorize LeBron’s success?
Success through the prism of sports is in a lot of ways gauged too simplistically.
Is it not an overwhelming success that the son of a teenage mother and an estranged father would break the cycle of systemic poverty by creating a billion dollar empire?
Is it not a success, by any measure, that this same son would miss 100 days of school in the fourth grade because poverty forced that boy, and his mother, to move from place-to-place like nomads?
We’re bombarded with hordes upon hordes of useless entertainment. Amazingly, at the same time, incredible, real stories about the athletes we adulate float by without much consideration at all.
Success is concrete in sports. “In America we’re obsessed with winners,” proclaimed Gregg Popovich after the Spurs won their fifth championship. Of course he was actually talking about the team’s success the previous year, when it finished a close second to LeBron’s Heat.
LeBron James faced nearly incalculable odds in order to accomplish what he’s already accomplished, and still we demand more. It’s as if a three-foot tall man has defeated a seven-foot tall man in the Roman Coliseum and the mob demands an eight-foot tall man for an encore.
But I digress, because with LeBron James there’s always more. The masses demand more. There’s no endpoint that satisfies the absurd expectations heaped upon him.
LeBron James inhabits a world all to himself. He’s the first superstar to come to life in the dawn of the social media age. Social media didn’t create opinions; it provided a platform for which to espouse these opinions. That, like anything else, is both a blessing and a curse.
We have continually judged LeBron on an incomplete sample. His career was born, has grown and now mastered in this knee-jerk, judgmental social media spotlight.
Mickey Mantle was a cultural icon in a world where the media didn’t cover true personalities. LeBron James lives in that bizarro world, and as different as those two worlds appear, they’re actually much closer than you’d expect.
How would social media have reacted if the masses knew Mickey Mantle was getting head from an underage girl under the bleachers of Yankee Stadium, while his wife was in the stands before a game (as Jane Leavy describes in her book, Mickey Mantle And the End of America’s Childhood)?
The Decision doesn’t seem so bad now, huh?
Social media skews the truth. The ultimate irony is before we had very little information about the stars we loved, but today we have an overabundance of information about contemporary stars, and yet we still don’t know anything. We think we do. We have much more information at our disposal, information that shapes and consequently convolutes our perception.
People are different in real life than they portray themselves to be on social media. Athletes are no different.
So what’s the answer to this riddle?
Transcendent talent is rarely recognized during moments of greatness. Muhammad Ali was an arrogant draft dodger. Michael Jordan was too selfish. Tiger Woods didn’t respect the game. Jim Brown was a coward for walking away in his prime. Jim Thorpe played football, baseball and ran track before Native Americans were recognized as American citizens.
Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting during his life. It was sold to a friend. Good luck finding a Van Gogh that’ll cost you less than a small fortune today. Van Gogh died believing he was a failure.
Even though sports are a communal exercise, we internalize the art of sport individually.
You can’t tell somebody what they should love about a Van Gogh much in the same way you can’t tell somebody what they should love in LeBron.
The masses wanted LeBron to be a killer like MJ, they wanted him to take the last shot and not defer, they didn’t want to see him flee Cleveland and they resoundingly didn’t want him to win with the help of an All-Star supporting cast.
The masses will never be satiated. The driving force for transcendent greatness is the boldness to persist amongst the noise.
One day when LeBron’s career is over and all that’ll be left is what he gave to the game, it’ll be our persistent noise that drove the madness to achieve greatness.