How will LeBron James be remembered when he retires? Will he be widely regarded as the best ever or will the debate be as controversial as it is today?
Who the best ever is matters to the media and to the fans, but maybe LeBron doesn’t care about being better than Michael Jordan—he just wants to be the best that he can be. That seems sacrilegious to the mindset of a professional basketball player, doesn’t it? In a sport defined by who’s the most alpha of them all, what does it say when one of the best players in the history of the game no longer strives to be the best ever?
The knock on LeBron early in his career was that he wasn’t clutch enough, that he didn’t want the ball at the end of the game and that he was scared of the big moment. The truth was, he understood that everyone in the building knew he was getting the ball in crunch time when his team was down one with 10 seconds to play. The defense would be leaning in and looking to help, and his basketball mind knew that if he played percentages, his fadeaway one dribble pull-up was a slightly worse look than a drive-and-kick to an open teammate. Less glory? No doubt. I don’t see many YouTube mixes or highlights of the game-winning pass, yet what matters at the end of the day is a win. That’s LeBron’s legacy … making the right basketball play.
When Dr. Naismith invented the game of basketball, he foresaw a game that utilized five individuals in harmony to use strategy and skill to beat the other team by scoring more baskets than the opponent did. LeBron is what someone would create if they were looking for the ideal basketball player: tall, athletic, strong and skilled. Elite level play on both ends of the court and a mismatch for every player on the opposing team.
LeBron could put up 35 points and 10 rebounds per game, if he really wanted to. The greatness of LeBron lies in his feel for the game of basketball. He has a feel for how his team is feeling, who’s feeling hot, who needs a little encouragement … what he really understands is that basketball is a team sport.
LeBron’s legacy is in being the ultimate team player. He has all the tools to be the most dominant player of all time and can single-handedly win a game for you. There are stretches where he simply looks unstoppable. You can’t double and triple team him, because he’ll pick your team apart with his passes, so it’s picking the lesser of two evils when you let LeBron stroke a jumper over a shorter defender.
LeBron and Magic Johnson will go down as the greatest teammates one could want, and it isn’t just due to assist totals, otherwise John Stockton would headline that list. It’s more about how fun it is to play with LeBron. I mean, what player wouldn’t want to play with LeBron? He makes you want to play hard for him, because you know he’ll reward you for your effort. On defense he’ll cover for some mistakes and on offense he’ll make the right basketball play, so you just have to focus on finding yourself open.
It simply looks like a joy to play with LeBron—he revels in the success of others, is the first one off the bench when something exciting happens and is the first to congratulate his teammates when good things happen. Does it really matter if he ever manages to win the same amount of championships as Michael Jordan did? LeBron might be closer to a Magic than a Jordan, and that’s OK. We’re comparing apples to oranges at this point. At this point it’s impossible to compare the two of them anyways.
In the end, LeBron will leave a legacy as someone who burned his own trail, who did things the way he wanted to. He did things that would win basketball games, and more importantly, he saw the importance of team basketball and that the game was bigger than himself. Truly an ambassador for the game, he led by example both on and off the court.
The legacy of LeBron will always coincide with Jordan, and that’s what comes with the territory of being one of the best to play the game. Inevitably, comparisons will arise when discussing the greats of the game of basketball. Soon there will be a generation that have never seen LeBron play, that will surely have never seen Jordan. It’s on those who love the game to make sure the legacy of the greats live on. That’s one of the biggest reasons people like Kobe strive to be the best day in and day out. When they’re gone, will they be remembered? What’s their legacy going to be like when they are far gone from the game? When a player dedicates their life to the game of basketball, they want their reward to be everlasting memory and respect. The Mount Rushmore of basketball greats is the pinnacle of where every great basketball player wants to reach, and LeBron will very likely end up on that mountain when he’s done.
To read Part 1 of this two-part series on LeBron’s legacy, go here.