The first time I saw LeBron James play basketball was during his final year at St Vincent-St Mary High School. By then he was already a national sensation – Sports Illustrated had featured him on the cover months earlier under the headline “The Chosen One” – and his senior season was essentially a barnstorming tour that filled smaller arenas around the country and sated the intense curiosity of a pre-YouTube world. Several of his games were broadcast nationally on ESPN2, a rarity for high school basketball. Still more were available on pay-per-view, which is unheard of. When the circus came to my hometown of Philadelphia, a sellout crowd packed the Palestra to the corners. Allen Iverson watched from courtside. The multimillion-dollar industry that would be constructed around LeBron’s image was still years away from completion, but even then you could see the scaffolding in place. It was three days before Christmas 2002.
Watching him that day it wasn’t so much the size that belied his age – though to behold the 6ft 8in, 225lb teenager picking his teeth with high school defenders no doubt lent to the spectacle – but that he operated with the maturity and sophistication of a seasoned professional. Was he really only 17? The combination of skills he commanded was more than just rare: it defied categorization. Sure, he could score from anywhere on the court but plenty of players make their mark that way. LeBron devoured rebounds like each was his last. He whipped passes from outrageous angles with pace and uncanny precision, finding his team-mates in perfect position for easy baskets. He could play the one through the five and defend them just the same. Every action was exacted with economy of movement and effortless calm, the way a Formula One driver can navigate a car with the casual indifference of a channel surfer idly flicking the remote.
The funny thing is, the LeBron of today is not all that different. Even against the best competition in the world, he can still bend the game to his will and make grown men look no more capable of stopping him than a gaggle of high school kids. Fourteen years after that first look LeBron has somehow realized the impossible expectations heaped on those teenage shoulders, never more than Sunday night when he fulfilled a promise to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers by leading perhaps the most snake-bitten team in professional sports to their first NBA championship.
LeBron James leads Cleveland Cavaliers to NBA title and ends 52-year drought
The tears he wept uncontrollably at center court after the final buzzer sounded on Sunday were proof positive that LeBron’s third title – after back-to-back wins with Miami in 2012 and 2013 – meant a little bit more. Surely it made him more likable to non-fans: it’s one thing to win with a cadre of superstars in a party city, it’s another to do it with grinders in your gritty, terminally unfashionable hometown. Few are more intimately familiar with the wounds of Northeast Ohio’s sports psyche than LeBron, a native of nearby Akron. To bring about the end of Cleveland’s mythical 52-year championship drought was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
Finally the boy who would be king has a victory worthy of his limitless promise.
When Golden State won Game 4 to move within one victory of a second straight title, the entire world outside the Cleveland locker room believed the NBA finals were done and dusted. And with good reason. Thirty-two times had a team faced a three-games-to-one deficit in the championship round and never once had one come back to win the series. And these were the Warriors: a dynasty apparent that not only ripped through the regular season with a scant nine losses in 82 games (to eclipse a record set, notably, by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls) but who represent something of a New World Order in basketball: a team that embodied how the three-point shot is changing the sport more completely than any other.
But that’s when LeBron took his game from a typically high level to a different place altogether. His stat lines in the decisive contests were preposterous: 41-16-7-3-3 in Game 5, 41-8-11-4-3 in Game 6, 27-11-11-2-3 in Sunday’s clincher – only the third triple-double ever in Game 7 of the finals.
His crucial block on Andre Iguodala on Sunday night with less than two minutes left and the scores tied might not go down as the signature moment of his career, but it deserves to. As the players on the floor traded missed baskets and fought through exhaustion – it was Cleveland’s 103rd game of the marathon season, the 106th for Golden State – it seemed the team that scored the next basket would win. But when Stephen Curry found Iguodala wide open on the block for an easy two, LeBron seemingly teleported 45 feet within two seconds to pin the ball against the backboard. It’s the kind of play, a marriage of breathtaking athleticism and hair-trigger instincts, that only he could make.
The Cavaliers' brilliant title turnaround shattered the NBA landscape
No one has ever closed an NBA finals like this, certainly not against a 73-win team. Given the caliber of opponent, magnitude of the deficit and what it required to reverse it, it’s not completely unreasonable to call it the greatest comeback in sports history.
There’s never been anyone with a wide-ranging a skill set as James, who became the first player ever to lead both teams in all five major statistical categories – points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots – over the course of an entire playoff series. But to many observers it will never be enough. A few years ago I asked the emcee J Cole where he stood on the LeBron or Jordan debate that’s persisted for years among basketball fans and his response has stuck with me: “The world won’t even allow LeBron James to be as great as Michael Jordan because at this point Michael Jordan is just an untouchable legend. He is a myth. He’s like a tall tale that only gets bigger with each passing year.”
What hope does LeBron have when he’s graded on that curve? How do you compete with a ghost?
The debate endures because it is compelling. Jordan was like a regular-shaped guy with superpowers. LeBron is a freak of nature. The dichotomy has bred a strange resentment of the latter, who is perceived as a genetic child of privilege.
LeBron was the can’t-miss prospect whose upside had agents and shoe companies salivating before he’d entered high school, while Jordan was the guy who didn’t even make the varsity team until his sophomore year, a slight that, as the narrative goes, forged the near-sociopathic competitive edge that pushed him to the top. Therein lies the downside of being the Chosen One: Jordan’s brilliance is perceived as hard-won, while LeBron’s is preordained.
The truth is few elite athletes have more misguided critics than LeBron, whose life story embodies the American Dream. He grew up with his single mom in a modest apartment in Akron, worked thousands of hours to cultivate his craft, found gainful employment after turning 18 and has been handsomely compensated for his skills. He’s come of age during a time when social media exploded in popularity – when if a celebrity so much as picks his nose it’s disseminated globally within minutes – yet he’s behaved impeccably on and off the court.
That conduct only amplifies the backlash to his rare missteps. When he became a free agent after his seventh season with the Cavaliers, he announced his move to Miami in a 75-minute television special branded The Decision. Was it tacky and insipid? Without question. But the public’s reaction, the way the critics have held it against him for year after year and still do today, was as if he’d gone on TV and clubbed baby seals for an hour.
Even Sunday’s universally lauded performance will only earn him a brief reprieve – six months, perhaps – before he’s cast into the fire again. But it’s already time to call LeBron what he is: the greatest to ever lace up a pair of basketball sneakers.
His career haul at 31 years-old (three NBA titles, four Most Valuable Player awards) compares favorably to Jordan’s at the same age (three titles, three MVPs). You could argue – and plenty do – that Jordan never lost in the finals, just as you could argue that LeBron has done more with less, carrying far inferior teams to the championship round.
Regardless, this is no longer a matter of the smell test: LeBron is on pace to surpass Jordan in silverware.
LeBron James was born from our collective and often unhealthy obsession with young people endowed with phenomenal gifts, a class of celebrity whose exponents range from Bobby Fischer to Charlotte Church to Freddy Adu. These seductive tales almost inevitably end in disappointment. But how often do these prodigies not only meet but surpass our expectations?
I know of at least one.
We are witnessing an all-time great at the peak of his powers. If we can’t appreciate what he’s done – and everything that’s to come – then why even watch?
LeBron James, in full LeBron Raymone James, byname King James, (born December 30, 1984, Akron, Ohio, U.S.), American professional basketball player who is widely considered one of the greatest all-around players of all time and who won National Basketball Association (NBA) championships with the Miami Heat (2012 and 2013) and Cleveland Cavaliers (2016).
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A locally known basketball prodigy since elementary school, James was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball (high-school player of the year) three times while leading Akron’s St. Vincent–St. Mary High School to three Ohio state championships in his four years on the team. He became a national media sensation in his junior year after appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, where he was billed by the magazine as “The Chosen One.” James was the consensus national high-school player of the year in his senior season, and he was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the first overall selection of the 2003 NBA draft. Additionally, he signed an unprecedented $90 million endorsement contract with the Nike shoe company before he ever played a professional game.
Despite the pressures brought on by these singular circumstances, James led the Cavaliers in scoring, steals, and minutes played over the course of the 2003–04 season, winning the league’s Rookie of the Year award in the process. A 6-foot 8-inch (2.03-metre) “point forward” who was as adept at bringing the ball down the court as at playing near the basket, James presented a unique challenge for opposing teams; his unmatched athleticism and well-muscled body would not have been out of place in the National Football League.
His game progressed over the following years. He was voted one of the starting forwards on the Eastern Conference All-Star team during his second season, and in his third season he led the Cavaliers to their first play-off berth in nine years. These accomplishments were exceeded during the 2006–07 season, when James guided Cleveland to the franchise’s first berth in the NBA finals: after the Cavaliers upset the favoured Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA finals, but James’s impressive postseason play led many observers to place him among the very best players in the league. He led the NBA in scoring during the 2007–08 season and earned first team All-NBA honours, but the Cavaliers lost to the eventual champion Boston Celtics in a dramatic seven-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals. James piloted the Cavaliers to a team-record 66 wins during the 2008–09 season, which helped to earn him the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. The following season James averaged nearly 30 points per game as he was again named MVP.
At the end of the 2009–10 season, James became arguably the most sought-after free agent in NBA history when his contract with the Cavaliers expired, and he began a prolonged courtship process with a number of teams that had in some cases been planning for his free agency for over two years. In an unprecedented hour-long television special, criticized by many for its undue grandiosity, James announced that he was signing with the Heat. He helped Miami reach the NBA finals in his first year with the team, but the Heat lost the championship to the Dallas Mavericks. In the 2011–12 season James averaged 27.1 points per game and won his third MVP award while helping Miami advance to its second consecutive NBA finals appearance. Backed by his stellar play—James was named the finals MVP—the Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the championship. He had arguably his greatest individual season in 2012–13, as he averaged 26.8 points, 7.3 assists, and a career-high 8.0 rebounds per game while posting a .565 field-goal percentage, a remarkable rate of made shots for someone who so frequently played away from the basket. James also helped Miami win 27 consecutive games that season (the second longest such streak in NBA history), and he was rewarded with his fourth league MVP award. In the following postseason, the Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series to win the NBA championship, and James was again named the finals MVP. He continued his stellar play in the following season, even increasing his shooting percentage by .002, and he again led the Heat to an appearance in the NBA finals. However, Miami lost that rematch with the Spurs in a five-game series.
After that finals loss, James opted out of his contract with the Heat, leaving an aging Miami roster, and—after a week of frenzied speculation among fans and media—he decided to return to Cleveland. Although his 25.3 points per game was James’s lowest scoring average since his rookie season, he nevertheless guided a young and inexperienced Cavaliers roster to the second best record in the Eastern Conference in 2014–15. In the following postseason he led an injury-laden Cleveland team to just two play-off losses en route to a berth in the NBA finals. There James had one of the greatest individual performances in finals history, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game while leading the undermanned Cavaliers to the franchise’s first two finals victories before ultimately losing a six-game series to the Golden State Warriors. James had another strong regular season in 2015–16 but, once again, truly shined in the play-offs. He led the Cavaliers to a rematch against the Warriors, who had set a league record with 73 wins during the regular season, in the NBA finals. There the Cavaliers became the first team to come back from a 3–1 finals deficit to capture the first title in franchise history and end a 52-year title drought for Cleveland professional sports teams. James averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks per game in the finals—becoming the first person to lead all five statistical categories for players on both teams in the finals—and was unanimously named finals MVP. In 2016–17 James had arguably his best regular season by setting career highs with averages of 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game while still scoring 26.4 points per game. He sustained his excellence in the Eastern Conference play-offs, scoring 32.5 points per game (which included his 5,988th career postseason point, breaking Michael Jordan’s all-time NBA play-off scoring record) while leading the Cavaliers to a third consecutive match-up against the Warriors in the NBA finals. There Cleveland could not overcome the team James referred to as a “juggernaut,” losing to the Warriors in five games despite James becoming the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of the finals (with 33.6 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists per game).
In addition to his achievements in the NBA, James was a member of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball teams that won the bronze medal at the 2004 Games, the gold medal at the 2008 Games, and the gold at the 2012 Games. He also published a memoir, Shooting Stars (2009; cowritten with Buzz Bissinger), that chronicles his years as a high-school standout.