He’s the greatest basketball player on the planet. He’s a gold mine for endorsements with his squeaky clean image and his on-the-court prowess. And after an upbringing in Akron, Ohio, he’s doing everything he can to bring a championship to his city. He’s LeBron James. And he’s one series away from being back in the NBA Finals for the fifth straight year.
Since Day 1, James has put forward a lot of efforts to his reputation in the NBA. He wants to be known not only as one of the greatest right now, but one of the greatest ever. This vision that he pushes himself for has caused him to be loved and hated throughout the league.
That binary opposition was never stronger following his ESPN-aired decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami in 2010. Of all those offended, Cleveland Cavaliers fans obviously took it the hardest. Their beloved home-grown hero had betrayed them in an effort to go win championships. While Cavs fans fumed, James achieved his goal by winning four consecutive Eastern Conference championships and two NBA titles.
While many felt James took the easy way out by going to the Heat, he was still the vital component to that team’s success. On the contrary, it was James that made surrounding players better. As Wade’s abilities decayed and Bosh blossomed as more of a perimeter shooter, James’s success forged the success around everyone else.
That hasn’t been any different in Cleveland either. Even without Kevin Love, the Cavaliers gritted their way to a victorious series over the Chicago Bulls. Players like J.R. Smith (following his suspension) and Iman Shumpert have percolated after all seemed lost just months ago as members of the Knicks. James has revitalized both of their careers.
James’s desires to be loved by fans and the league couldn’t have been more evident upon his return to Cleveland. It had to have hurt him to see Cavaliers fans burning his jerseys, and he wanted to revitalize that bond he first felt when the Cavs drafted him at age 18. A championship in Cleveland would stand as a true testament to James’s abilities and remind everyone in the NBA that he can win anywhere he plays.
The reason for that is simple: He has an astounding ability to make players around him better. While many stars flourish from the spotlight and isolation play, James is among the league leaders in assists in both the regular and postseason. As the only small forward to finish in the top 10 in assists (he finished seventh with 7.4 APG), it’s a real tribute to his versatility.
But while James desperately drives for universal respect, the obvious comparison of him to Michael Jordan almost becomes inevitable. This is an unfortunate distortion that the media often has a field day with for no particular reason. Perhaps it’s because James embraces the challenge to be known as one of the best ever, but quite frankly it’s an unnecessary conversation to have. Two different players, two different eras.
And yet, while James’s legacy grows more and more, the true mystery behind him remains: his personality. James has learned how quickly the media will hang him out to dry, and as a result has become extremely reserved whenever anyone sticks a microphone in his face. Naturally this keeps him more likely to be endorsed and financially valuable to the NBA, so it’s inevitable that he’d act this way. But if anything, it’s a shame that the best basketball player in the NBA has to hide who he is.
Love him or hate him, his legacy is still improving. His peak has perhaps not yet been reached. And after what he has done with Cleveland this season, no one can deny that he’s the best in the game.
He’s LeBron James.