Nearly three years ago, The Decision baited middle-aged men into a TV trance—hands locked, jaws dropped and eyes superglued to flat screens like giddy cheerleaders watching The Bachelor finale.
Ten minutes before the announcement, James was an athletic demigod moonlighting as a franchise savior. After he uttered, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach," he was demoted to a fraudulent, subhuman two-timer.
The sequel to his vilification came in the form of the Big Three's introduction: a pyrotechnic ambush that purveyed a hint less color than a raving Teletubby.
The triad basked in the multicolored glow, channeling the aura of a band reuniting for one last surprise performance before accepting a lifetime achievement award.
Chris Bosh let out a Jurassic "Are you not entertained?"-like shriek. Dwyane Wade looked like someone who was keenly aware of the surrounding corniness but was contractually obligated to pay off a bet. James posed like he was just awarded silver in Olympic vaulting.
The shooting star's crash landing in South Beach buried Twitter's servers under cemented vitriol, and the lion's share of it was well deserved.
But none of it should define James' legacy—a word whose meaning has become watered down in the past decade.
Heat of the Moment
Before his first finals appearance in a Miami Heat uniform, it was clear that James' initial uphill climb wouldn't end at the mountaintop; it would end at the surface of the grave he had dug.
Either way, LeBron will never be considered the greatest player ever because he teamed with Wade, and because Jordan's legacy is too strong.— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) May 27, 2011
And it began.
Leading up to the 2011 NBA Finals, hordes of critics doubled as part-time psychics and capped James' legacy.
That trend only intensified throughout the 2012 playoffs—one year removed from the Heat's celebrated finals demise.
Legacy on the line, in a must win game, LeBron showed up huge: 40+18+9. And helped get D. Wade going when he struggled. Man's game.— Jim Rome (@jimrome) May 21, 2012
Ten days later:
Following his successful title run—in which he averaged 28.6 points, 7.4 assists, 10.2 rebounds and drained 82.6 percent of his free throws during the finals—James was greeted with two distinctly different sentiments.
A fragment of the sporting world took the feat for what it was: one championship. It wasn't a coronation, but it verified his greatness.
However, a larger faction of contentious critics rallied their troops, emboldened the letters on their picket signs and nostalgically protested down memory lane.
Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote:
Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and [Michael] Jordan all had help, but their championship teams weren’t store-bought. Jordan helped make Scottie Pippen an all-star. He nurtured his supporting cast. LeBron created his — at least the key elements of it.
Valid point. But if the Big Three's final destination would have rerouted to Cleveland instead of Miami, would that have added an extra coating of credibility to James and his championship?
Due to their organizations' quasi-monopolies on talent and disproportionate spending ceilings, should no New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox have a place in the pantheon of baseball? Should an asterisk overshadow Mariano Rivera's saves record?
On the hardwood, Jordan still hails as the greatest player of all time—the king of contrarians wouldn't dispute that. However, he wasn't as immortal as his glory years would suggest.
Before Pippen arrived, Jordan tallied a 1-9 postseason record throughout his first trio of seasons with the Chicago Bulls. At one point, the franchise was even tempted to trade the icon to the Los Angeles Clippers following his fourth year in the league. Meanwhile, James propelled a spectacularly average Cavaliers squad—whose second-leading scorer was Larry Hughes—to the NBA Finals in his fourth tour.
During Jordan's rookie campaign (age 21), the Bulls notched 11 more victories than the previous season; the win total for James' (age 19) Cleveland Cavaliers ballooned by 18.
But unlike Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, James had no help in Cleveland—a small market that, in the eyes of free agents, is dwarfed by the appeal of Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago.
Instead, the four-time regular-season MVP was a victim of his own success. Over the course of his stay, Cleveland consistently drafted in the latter half of the first round, if not the second. The Cavaliers were never in position to snatch a Pippen-like talent at No. 5 overall.
Ultimately, there were two choices: break hearts and join a title contender or remain stubbornly loyal and risk becoming basketball's Dan Marino—a legend whose only championship rings come in the form of echoed criticism for not winning any.
In the poorly constructed teeter-totter that was The Decision, legacy eventually outweighed its competition.
In an effort to satisfy their own vindictive narrative, the majority of James' antagonists still view his career through a narrow kaleidoscope. Choice media figures rope-a-dope their audience into judging No. 6's legacy through a narrow prism and buying into smoke and mirrors.
"This is a key legacy game for LeBron James." - @RealSkipBayless— ESPN First Take (@ESPN_FirstTake) June 13, 2013
In 2013, yesterday's obscure shock jocks have graduated to today's voices of reason (at least, for the large number of willing listeners). Ratings depend on headlines, and headlines' primary source of circulation aren't newspapers, but social media.
With a 24-hour news cycle, standing out from the competition is like finding Waldo at Busch Stadium.
Controversy sells, so bold statements get retweeted.
And judging by Twitter, James' legacy fluctuates like Metta World Peace's mood rings.
Over time, sports—alongside politics and religion—have become the third member of a molotov cocktail for public venues.
They used to simply be games melded with statistics. To a casual fan, the name of Ty Cobb is synonymous with one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, not with a racist who allegedly pounded on a handicapped heckler.
But today, in the court of public opinion, a player's character determines their value nearly as much as their talent. Tim Tebow's legion of fans—or at this point, groupies—can't ascertain why he's not a starting quarterback, despite the fact that he scans defenses like a Rubik's Cube and catapults passes that look like drunken frisbees.
Whether you base James' legacy on numbers or character, nobody with a shred of objectivity can relegate him to second-tier stature and justify it.
Rounded off, he currently averages 28 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals per game throughout his postseason career.
Amongst his scrapbook of achievements, James became the first player in league history to post at least 40 points in their road playoff debut; the only player to tally 2,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 100 steals in four consecutive seasons, and he holds the postseason record for most consecutive points (25) scored by a player for one team.
Has LeBron James restored his public image?
James captured the regular-season MVP, finals MVP, NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal last year.
If numbers are the argument for denigrating James' historical status, they don't add up.
People were right to lambaste his lapse of judgment throughout the 2010 offseason. But if bulletproof decision-making is a prerequisite for all-time greatness, Hall of Fames would house more tumbleweeds than busts.
If rings dictated legacies, sons would be begging their parents for Air Horrys.
The truth is that most of James' denouncers don't hate him. Conversely, they were on the verge of loving him in 2010, but he rejected their proposal and doused salt in open wounds.
But resentments shouldn't distort reality, and the reality is that the polarizing playmaker is a transcendent talent that comes along once every generation.
"Legacy games" aren't predicted; they're assessed.
Game 6 is just as likely to be forgotten by July as it is to sprout a defining moment in one player's career.
Legacies normally aren't written until the author's laid to rest.
In LeBron James' case, the only people writing him off are the ones that have already decided his fate.
Statistics provided by Basketball-Reference.com.
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