I spent a lot of time thinking about LeBron James this week.
The impetus? During a flight last weekend, the young basketball player seated in front of me had his headphones on and a laptop open and he was watching "More Than A Game." If you're unfamiliar, this is the documentary about the high school career of James. It's been awhile since I've seen it and I couldn't force my eyes from the tiny opening between the seats where the laptop screen was visible.
Remember when James was a high school phenom we were all so excited to watch? I remember this because I still feel that way. It's still exciting and exhilarating to watch him play the game that I love. After nearly nine years of professional basketball under his belt, there's a complexity that comes with watching, writing and thinking about his game.
Watching LeBron James play basketball leaves me feeling conflicted and it didn't used to be like that.
I'm not conflicted in the sense that I don't know how to feel about him, I do. Regardless of how you feel about him, he is the best player in the league.
I feel conflicted when I watch James play because I want for him to win so he can silence the chirping from the stands—the people questioning his abilities, his clutchness, how much he wants it, if he can lead a team to victory. You know, the ones who want to hate his game because they hate the decisions he's made in his career.
Over the course of last season, I went from being annoyed with the Heat to actively wanting them to succeed because the hatred being thrown at them was too much for me to support. This year, it's been different.
It feels like things have calmed down regarding the Heat as a whole. We're used to a team having LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, so we're able to focus elsewhere. We can enjoy watching the Thunder be ridiculously fun, the Lakers keep us all intrigued and Boston continue to make us eat our words.
And yet, whenever I watch the Heat, I still feel that pull inside that comes from wanting them to win. Or, more specifically, I want James to get a ring, even without actually wanting this. Does that make sense? Let me try to simplify a little bit: there are other teams and players that I'd prefer to see win this season, but I just want James to get that first ring so we can stop with all of the no rings jokes.
I'm not sure why I care so much. I think it might be because it feels like it will be a huge waste if a player as supremely talented as James isn't recognized because he doesn't have the jewelry to match the MVP awards and other accolades he has earned. Somewhere along the line, the rings argument overtook everything else.
I don't want us to take James for granted.
When he's gone, we will miss him. We will marvel, we'll watch YouTube clips and NBATV specials, that documentary about his high school years and we'll shake our heads at the talent that he had. Maybe we'll shake our heads and smile as we tell our children the story of a player who filled his trophy case with awards and championships in his later years after falling short in the first half of his career.
Maybe we'll shake our heads and smile regrettably about the player with all of the talent in the world who finished his playing days without winning that coveted prize. That part doesn't matter. Whenever his end is here, James will be remembered as a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
We need to learn to allow ourselves to enjoy this talent now.
I wish we could all agree that James isn't just a superstar; he's special. A uniquely gifted basketball player. Forget about the narratives you've been told, the decisions he's made (pun unintended), and the people he's playing with.
Focus on the play. The defense. The scoring. The ability to guard any position on the floor, to see every player, undeveloped play and passing lane. The blocks. The dunks. Those glorious moments in the open court when he becomes super human. Focus on those things and enjoy them, even if you don't want to. Allow yourself to be swept away watching a player who can do all of the things that we can't.
When I think of that high school baller who was sitting in front of me on the plane, I hope that he doesn't get caught up in anything other than the opportunity to be astounded by an absolutely incredible athlete. There's no need to wonder how things will look when James is finished playing. We just need to enjoy the ride instead.