LeBron James isn't fearless, and he doesn't need to be.
Superstars are often criticized for showing weakness, even if it exists. Which it always does. Shortcomings don't win championships, they don't strengthen legacies. At least, they're not supposed to.
The King has taken a different route on the path to greatness. He won't deny that he's afraid; he won't create this illusion of a bulletproof persona.
"That's one of my biggest obstacles," he said in an interview with Chris Broussard for ESPN The Magazine. "I'm afraid of failure. I want to succeed so bad that I become afraid of failing."
LeBron has, because he's not Jordan or Kobe. And that's fine.
"Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way, he told Broussard. "Everybody wants everybody to kill like MJ or kill like Kobe."
"But there are different ways of killing," he added.
There are different ways of "killing," of succeeding. LeBron's diverges from that of MJ and Kobe's, among others, which is exactly the edge he needs avoid the failure he openly fears.
He's Gotten This Far, Hasn't He?
There's no time like the present. And presently, LeBron has accomplished a great deal while attempting to elude a fear of failure.
He's already joined Oscar Robertson as the only other player in league history to average at least 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game through the first 10 years of his career. He's also won two NBA titles, two finals MVPs and four league MVPs. Nine All-Star appearances and All-NBA team honors, and five All-Defensive team selections, are the pudding to an accolades buffet already loaded with dessert-style exploits.
Not to say a decade's worth of individual dominance has made LeBron the G.O.A.T. That title, for now, belongs to Jordan, who LeBron himself (subtly) recognizes as the player he's chasing.
"But I definitely look at MJ as the greatest," LeBron told Broussard. "Without MJ, there's no me. He gave me hope. He gave me inspiration as a kid."
He won't come right out and say "I'm after Jordan," because that's not his style. But we know he wants to become the greatest of all time and to get there, he'll have to hurdle Jordan's legacy. It's that simple.
Despite a prevailing tendency to romanticize the past, LeBron has already left his mark as one of the greats, one who is worthy of being pitted against His Airness.
|Player||PTS||REBS||ASTS||FG%||3P%||PER||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.|
You wouldn't look at the above numbers and conclude LeBron is better than Jordan. That's not the point. Point is, he's comparable.
Distinguishing himself from the greats, from Jordan is what it's going to take for LeBron to reach his ultimate goal. Fear of failure in mind, he's already gotten the conversation rolling.
All that's left for him to do is hold the course, continue to confront his phobia and advance the discussion even further.
Unlimited Supply of Motivation
LeBron's work is never done. He'll always have something to play for, something to keep him going.
Complacency is a real danger in professional sports. Content athletes aren't driven to accomplish more, to always improve. Same goes for famed players who have yielded results.
LeBron, following two championships and a slew of MVPs, could settle in and get comfortable, and take the "he is who he is" approach. Ten years already in the books, everything about him could be etched in stone.
At times like these, I'm drawn to something Carmelo Anthony said during New York Knicks training camp.
"My game is not gonna really change much," he told reporters, per Hoopsworld's Tommy Beer. "My game is pretty much set in stone."
Anthony is no doubt a fine scorer, superstar and impelled seeker of championships, but LeBron would never say anything like that. He's pursuing something more profound than Anthony or any superstar currently in the league.
"I don't know the percentage, but I know I still have room for improvement," he told Broussard.
Championships—he's got 'em. League MVPs—he has a reservoir of them. All-Star credentials, All-NBA selections, a scoring title, Association-leading PERs and win-share accumulations—he has those too.
While that assortment of achievements could pacify some of the most determined stars, LeBron isn't one of them. Ask The Chosen One what keeps him motivated after all these years and, per Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick, he won't hesitate to answer: I want to be the greatest of all time.
LeBron: "I want to be the greatest of all time. And that's my motivation.... It's not simple, but for me it is. That's my mindframe."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) September 30, 2013
Simple, yet complicated.
Unparalleled greatness isn't something he can hold like a trophy or plaque. It's not something earned through instant gratification like actually winning a title or MVP. For the most part, it's a retrospective achievement.
LeBron must be able to look back on all that he's done and know he's the best. That may not happen while he's still playing, because there's no tangible measuring stick involved here. He doesn't truly know what it will take for him to stand above Jordan and everyone else ever.
Six MVPs? Six championships? Seven? More?
The ambiguous nature of the legacy he's chasing, coupled with his admitted fear of failing, will forever keep him on his toes. This isn't a star who will stop improving or accept what he's done, until he's actually done.
"I don't know. I don't know what it would take for the so-called experts to say that -- that's not what I'm trying to do," LeBron told Broussard of what he must do to become the G.O.A.T. "My goal is to be the best of all time, and that means maximizing everything I have."
That means never being satisfied. Never yielding his throne to a fellow superstar like Durant. Never passing his scepter off to a burgeoning prospect like Andrew Wiggins.
It means LeBron will never be without a reason to keep fighting, to keep striving for something more than he already has.
With Fear Comes Humility
Three years ago, if you asked LeBron what it would take for him to surpass Jordan and become the G.O.A.T., you would receive a much different answer than he gives now.
Young, successful and ignorant, he wasn't one for being noticeably humble. That doesn't mean he wasn't afraid. More likely, he just didn't understand his fear or how to deal with it. Not until another championship was lost in Miami did he transform into the humble, appreciative player and person he is today.
"I got swept in the Finals before, man," he explained to Broussard. "I think it just gets to a point where you just say enough is enough. I think the Dallas series was the enough-is-enough turning point.
Following the Miami Heat's loss to the Dallas Mavericks, he wasn't the same brash kid he was in Cleveland. He buckled down like he never had before, accepted or skirted criticism instead of publicly combatting it and came out of 2011-12 with his first championship.
Nine years—that's how long it took him to get there. The extent of that journey will never be lost on him. The success is something he will never take for granted, which is imperative to the task he's laid out before himself.
You can't get to where you're going if you don't appreciate and understand what it takes to get there. LeBron knows what those before him have done, what Jordan himself did. And he admires it.
"But I think the greatest thing about MJ was that he never was afraid to fail," he said to Broussard. "And I think that's why he succeeded so much -- because he was never afraid of what anybody ever said about him."
Having copped to dreading failure, LeBron knows it won't ever be that "easy" for him. He won't suddenly be unafraid, entitled or believe he's perfect. Fear has given him perspective, and that perspective has given him the means to comprehend the unwavering effort he must put forth to reach his ultimate goal.
Is LeBron's Fear Enough?
There isn't an easy answer to the question at hand.
LeBron still has so much basketball left to play, so much left to do before we can say he's the G.O.A.T. Before we can say he's better than Jordan or anyone else to ever play the game.
Will LeBron James go down as the greatest NBA player of all time?
But to dismiss his case after what fear has motivated him to do would be a great disservice. As a player and person, he's already worthy of consideration, of pursuing that legacy. Playing, and succeeding, with that same sense of urgency and comprehension will enable him to get there.
Continuing to respect his fear, not ingratiate it, will get him there.
"Just win," LeBron told Broussard of dealing with his fear. "Keep winning and I don't have to worry about it. Keep winning."
Keep doing what you're doing, LeBron. Keep winning. Keep fearing failure. Keep trying to transcend that fear, and you'll get there.