The narrative of LeBron James' basketball career has the scope of an ancient Greek drama.
He started off as a would-be hero—a young warrior destined to achieve great things and to bring fame and fortune to a weary NBA franchise. He ended up doing just that for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he failed to deliver a championship. And then he forsook his commitment to the team and the city when he chose to take his talents to South Beach.
LeBron then became a villain. When he and the Miami Heat lost the 2011 NBA Finals, he became a pitiful villain, more Gollum than Darth Vader.
Well, LeBron and the Heat won the finals this year, and in convincing fashion to boot. LeBron himself won the NBA Finals MVP, and it was well deserved. You don't have to call him a hero, but at least do him the courtesy of calling him a shutter-upper-of-critics.
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was just one of millions of people who watched LeBron achieve basketball's ultimate glory. However, he's the only man on earth who can relate to what King James has gone through over the last couple seasons.
“I know exactly how he felt, and I was very happy for him,” A-Rod said of LeBron, via the New York Daily News. “We probably haven’t seen the best of him and I think we will now.”
There's nothing but truth here. The list of things A-Rod and LeBron have in common is remarkably long. LeBron James is the Alex Rodriguez of the NBA, and Alex Rodriguez is the LeBron James of Major League Baseball. Indeed, it's a notion that's been suggested before, including by Matthew Pouliot of Hardball Talk and Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York. Evidently, the parallels are too obvious to ignore.
As obvious as the parallels may be, what's less obvious is just how deep the parallels between LeBron and A-Rod go. Here's a detailed look at what we're dealing with.
The Makings of Superstardom
Michael Jordan retired from basketball after the 1998 season. The greatest basketball player the world had ever seen would play no more forever (which, as it turned out, was to last just a couple of years). In 2002, word started circulating that the next Michael Jordan might be some skinny teenager kid from Akron, Ohio named LeBron James.
Here's what Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated wrote of a meeting between Jordan and James over a decade ago:
Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe. Here, together, are His Airness and King James, the 38-year-old master and the 17-year-old prodigy, the best of all time and the high school junior whom some people—from drooling NBA general managers to warring shoe company execs to awestruck fans—believe could be the Air Apparent.
The next thing anybody knew, LeBron's high school games were being televised by ESPN and his name started being floated around as a real possibility for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft.
Sure enough, the hometown Cavaliers ended up taking LeBron No. 1 overall in the '03 draft, which is now known as one of the best drafts in NBA history. LeBron James was a star before he was a star, so to speak. To a certain extent, the same is true of A-Rod.
When A-Rod was making a name for himself as a blue-chip prospect in the early 1990s, things were a bit different than they are today. The demand for constant news and updates on prep players that is the basis for so many Websites and publications today didn't exist back then. A-Rod went about his business in relative obscurity.
But people were definitely watching, and they were definitely impressed by what they saw.
Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated wrote about the scouting of Rodriguez a couple years ago. Initially, he was not viewed as an elite hitting prospect, as scouts instead admired him for his speed and defensive prowess. The offensive numbers started to come after A-Rod put on weight. He hit .477 as a junior for Miami's Westminster Christian High School, and he hit over .500 as a senior.
"By his junior year, I was predicting big league success for him and first-round draft status before most people did," said Rich Hofman, who was then A-Rod's high school coach.
A-Rod ended up being more than just a first-round draft pick. The Seattle Mariners chose him with the first overall pick of the 1993 First-Year Player Draft. The first round also saw players like Torii Hunter, Chris Carpenter, Derrek Lee, Billy Wagner and Jason Varitek come off the board.
The Mariners obviously thought they were getting a star, but even they had to be surprised with what they ended up getting.
The Birth of a Superstar
It didn't take long for LeBron James to make an impact in the NBA. He scored 25 points in his first game, a new record for a high school player playing in his first NBA contest. He averaged over 20 points per game that season, not to mention better than five rebounds and five assists.
LeBron was just getting started. He averaged 27/7/7 his second season, making his first All-Star team. The year after, he averaged 31/7/7 and would go on to make the All-NBA First Team for the first time. He won his first scoring title in 2008, and the first of three MVPs in 2009.
It took a little longer for A-Rod to make an impact. But when it came, the impact was significant.
A-Rod broke into the big leagues in 1994, and spent parts of the '94 and '95 seasons as a part-time player. He didn't become a full-time player until 1996, when he was just 20 years old.
That's when A-Rod's career officially took off. He led the American League with a .358 batting average, tacking on 36 home runs and 123 RBI. He made his first All-Star team, and ended up finishing second in the American League MVP voting.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, A-Rod's 9.2 WAR in 1996 is the best ever for a 20-year-old. A-Rod made the All-Star team in '97 and again in '98, a year in which he hit 40 home runs and stole 40 bases. Though he failed to make the All-Star team in 1999, he finished the year with a .285 batting average and 42 home runs.
By the time A-Rod finished the 2000 season with a .316 batting average, 41 home runs and 132 RBI, there was little question that he was the best player in baseball.
However, there was something missing.
So Close, Yet So Far Away
LeBron took the Cavaliers to the playoffs in just the third season of his career in 2006. He played well in the postseason, averaging 30/8/6, but he and the Cavaliers couldn't get past the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
They lost in seven games and it looked like LeBron would have to overcome his very own version of Jordan's famed "Pistons roadblock." The Cavs made it past the semis the next season, and LeBron got his revenge on the Pistons when he and the Cavaliers beat the Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. In just his fourth NBA season, LeBron had made it to the NBA Finals.
...Where he and the Cavs were thoroughly outclassed by Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. They swept LeBron and the Cavs in one of the most one-sided series in NBA Finals history. More disappointments would follow. Despite LeBron's best efforts, the Cavs fell short of the finals in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
When he and the Cavs got beat by the Boston Celtics and their Big Three in the 2010 Eastern Conference semis, LeBron was labeled as a choke artist after he failed to come up big in the moment. It was a growing sentiment at the time, one that would only grow bigger and bigger.
LeBron famously took off his jersey in the runway back to the locker room after the Cavs lost Game 6 of the semis to Boston. With unrestricted free agency looming, whether he would put it on again was anybody's guess.
It would be a while before A-Rod would face similar pressure to lead his team to glory. He was barely part of the team when the Mariners went to the playoffs in 1995. When the Mariners made it back in 1997, he did his part in Seattle's defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles by hitting .313 with a home run.
A few years later, in 2000, A-Rod was a key player on a Mariners team that ended up going to the ALCS. He hit .308 to help lead the Mariners past the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS, and he then hit over .400 with two home runs in the six games played against the Yankees in the ALCS.
The Mariners lost that series, but A-Rod had established himself as a big-time postseason performer. That was just one of many things he and agent Scott Boras could sell to prospective employers during the ensuing offseason.
The Decision to Flee
Soon after he and the Cavs saw their 2010 season come to a disappointing end, LeBron James became the most sought-after free agent in NBA history.
Many expected LeBron to remain in Cleveland. Many more expected him to sign with the New York Knicks. The New Jersey Nets were also floated as a possibility. But all the while, there were the Miami Heat. They had their eye on LeBron, and he had his eye on them.
On July 8, 2010, "The Decision" aired, and LeBron announced his plans to take his talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
"We are looking forward to the opportunity of building something that our fans in Miami will be proud of for a long, long time," said Heat president Pat Riley. "The journey is just beginning."
When A-Rod became a free agent after the 2000 season, the question wasn't so much which destination offered him the best chance to earn a World Series ring. The intrigue concerning him was how much money he was going to make.
He ended up making quite a bit.
A-Rod ended up signing with the Texas Rangers for 10 years and $252 million, a contract that doubled Kevin Garnett's then-record $126 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the largest contract in sports history. Rangers owner Tom Hicks had paid $250 million to buy the Rangers team just a few years earlier. He saw A-Rod's contract as a ticket to a World Series championship.
"Alex is the player we believe will allow this franchise to fulfill its dream of continuing on its path to becoming a World Series champion," said Hicks.
At the time, A-Rod was joining a franchise that had never gotten past the first round of the playoffs. To boot, he was joining a Rangers team that had finished the season with the worst team ERA in the majors just a year prior. A-Rod has always been a man of many talents. Pitching, however, has never been one of them.
Local Expectations and National Hate
LeBron's decision was met with jubilation on the part of the Miami Heat's fanbase. Both the organization and its fans started looking forward to the championships that were sure to come. LeBron himself promised many championships.
"Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," he famously declared at Miami's introduction of its very own Big Three.
Heat fans couldn't get enough of LeBron. Everyone else immediately started hating him. Cleveland fans reacted by burning LeBron James jerseys, and even Cavs owner Dan Gilbert got in on the fun by calling LeBron's decision to bolt to Miami a "cowardly betrayal" in an open letter to Cavaliers fans everywhere.
During the 2010-2011 season, LeBron and the Heat were booed wherever they went. Naturally, the boos were particularly loud in Cleveland.
A-Rod ran into similar problems in his first season with the Rangers. Baseball's richest player was not greeted kindly on the road, and the fans of Seattle were especially unforgiving when A-Rod and the Rangers visited Safeco Field. When Rodriguez showed up in Seattle that season, fans mocked him by waving Monopoly money at him and booing him to no end. For his part, A-Rod did his best to take it all in stride.
"I don't think it was animosity," Rodriguez said at the time, via ESPN.com. "I thought they were loud and not throwing things and supporting their team. I thought it was fun."
The Rangers ended up finishing in last place despite getting 52 home runs and 135 RBI from A-Rod. The Mariners won an AL-record 116 games.
The Grand Deception
The people of Cleveland were outraged by LeBron's departure to Miami in part because they were losing one of their own, in part because the Cavs had just lost their best player, and in part because of the coldness with which LeBron had spurned his home state.
But for the most part, the people of Cleveland were outraged because LeBron made them a promise well before he made a promise to the people of Miami.
“I got a goal, and it’s a huge goal, and that’s to bring an NBA championship here to Cleveland," James said once upon a time, via Pro Basketball Talk. "And I won’t stop until I get it.”
Presumably, LeBron meant what he said at the time. But as soon as he announced his decision to take his talents to South Beach, he was officially a traitor and a liar.
Just weeks after a trade that would have sent A-Rod to the Boston Red Sox was vetoed by the players' association, A-Rod and the Rangers brass called a press conference to announce that A-Rod was being named a team captain. What many people overlook today is what A-Rod said at that press conference.
"I feel a grand responsibility not only to the Texas Rangers but to our fans," Rodriguez said, via the Associated Press.
Well, sort of, anyway. He betrayed himself when he said this: "I definitely think I'm going to be here for a long time. I'm probably pretty sure it will work out for the best."
A couple weeks later, A-Rod was traded to the New York Yankees. At his introductory presser, Rodriguez made a LeBron-like promise when he turned to Derek Jeter and said: "Derek has four world championships. I want him to have 10. I'm here to help him."
So in a span of less than a month, A-Rod went from having a grand responsibility to the Rangers to having a grand responsibility to Jeter and the Yankees. In his wake were two franchises two franchises that only ever got big statistics from A-Rod.
Meaningless Heroics and Postseason Struggles
If A-Rod wasn't a villain before moving to New York, he certainly became a villain after he moved to New York. Yankee Stadium was the only safe haven for A-Rod in 2004. Fans in Boston booed him because he was a Yankee who should have been a Red Sox. Fans in Texas booed him because they felt he had quit on the franchise. Fans in Seattle still booed him because he took the money and ran to Texas.
Fans everywhere else booed A-Rod because he was a) rich, b) a Yankee and c) suddenly quite smug about being a Yankee. Still, A-Rod's first season in The Bronx went reasonably well. He failed to put up numbers similar to the ones he had put up in Texas, but he still managed to hit .286 with 36 home runs and 106 RBI. The Yankees hit 242 home runs as a team and looked primed to make a run at yet another world championship.
Rodriguez did his best to help the team's cause in the ALDS against the Minnesota Twins, hitting .421 with a home run as the Yankees won the series three games to one. Their victory set up a rendezvous with the Red Sox in the ALCS.
A-Rod was money in the first three games of the ALCS, collecting six hits in 14 at-bats with a home run, three RBI and seven runs scored. The Yankees won each of those games and needed just one more win to clinch a trip to the World Series.
That's when A-Rod stopped hitting. He collected two hits in his final 17 at-bats in the ALCS. The Yankees, of course, lost the last four games of the series in a historic postseason collapse and watched the Red Sox go on to win the World Series.
A-Rod's inability to come through with big hits in the final four games of that series would go on to become a trend.
He followed up his MVP season in 2005 by hitting .133 in the Yankees' defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS. He followed his 35-home run, 125-RBI season in 2006 by collecting one hit in 14 at-bats in the ALDS against the Detroit Tigers, which the Yankees lost in four games. He followed up another MVP season in 2007 by hitting .267 with a single home run and a single RBI in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, another series that the Yankees lost in four.
Much like LeBron James when he arrived in Miami, A-Rod teased multiple championships when he arrived in New York. He backed up his boasting by putting up big numbers during the regular season, but he couldn't come through when it mattered in the playoffs.
LeBron went through the exact same ordeal his first season with the Heat last year. He averaged 27/7/7 in the regular season and played pretty well in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but he all but disappeared in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.
After averaging better than 25 points per game in three series prior to the finals, LeBron averaged merely 17.8 points per game in the finals. He and the Heat went up 2-1 over the Mavericks, but they were outplayed, out-hustled and outclassed in the final three games to ultimately lose in six.
The crown that was meant for LeBron's head instead landed on Dirk Nowitzki's head, and everyone outside of Miami couldn't help but laugh at the self-proclaimed King's misfortune.
By the time the 2009 season rolled around, A-Rod was something of a forgotten man in New York. He'd had problems with injuries in 2008, and the Yankees spent the ensuing offseason signing free-agent stars like CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.
It was them, not A-Rod, who would deliver the Yankees to championship No. 27. Or so they thought.
By his usual standards, A-Rod's 2009 season was merely decent. He hit .286 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI, and he only played in 124 games due to injuries. It was clear that he was in decline as a star. In the postseason, however, A-Rod awoke.
The Yankees started by sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the division series. A-Rod helped the cause by driving in six runs and hitting two home runs, both of which were game-tying homers that came late in Games 2 and 3. The Yankees then beat the Los Angeles Angels 4-2 in the ALCS, a series in which A-Rod hit .429 with three home runs and six RBI. One of his three homers was yet another game-tying homer in Game 2.
In the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, A-Rod once again drove in six runs and homered once. He was the one who drove in the game-winning run in the Yankees' victory in Game 4, and the series ultimately ended with New York winning in six games.
All told, he hit .365 with six home runs and 18 RBI in the 2009 postseason. The Yankees would not have won the World Series without him, and everyone knew it. It took until A-Rod's sixth season for him to win the first of many championships that he teased. He had to put up with a lot of hate, and he didn't help himself by admitting that he used steroids when he was with the Rangers, but he finally got what he had wanted all along: a ring. In getting that ring, he shut a lot of people up.
LeBron James is feeling now what A-Rod felt back in 2009. Call it a mix of pure jubilation and the satisfaction of a job well done. LeBron arrived at this feeling by dominating the NBA's 2011-2012 regular season by averaging 27/8/6 per game. He then averaged better than 30 points per game in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and he simply would not be denied in the NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
LeBron averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game in the Finals, leading the Heat to a series victory in five games. He put an exclamation point on the series by recording a triple-double in Game 5.
After the game was over, LeBron summed it up best using just four words: "It's about damn time."
The Legacies of A-Rod and King James
Alex Rodriguez will never be a fan favorite again. He made it hard for people to love him when he left Seattle in 2000 to take the Rangers' millions, and he made himself even more unlikable when manipulated the Rangers into trading him in 2004.
As if being a boisterous Yankee wasn't bad enough, A-Rod made himself even less likable when he opted out of his contract in the middle of the 2007 World Series, and his PED admission in 2009 pretty much sealed his fate as baseball's ultimate villain. This is a label he still bears and it's hard to imagine him doing anything to shake it. It's not so much a label as it is a brand.
LeBron James is in a similar boat. He was basketball's most likable player when he was with the Cavaliers, and indeed one of the most likable athletes in all of sports. He was young, charismatic and, above all, talented.
He had an ego all along, though, and that ego is what got him in trouble when he left the Cavaliers in 2010. Leaving Cleveland wasn't the worst thing he could have done; leaving Cleveland and then rubbing Cleveland's nose in it, on the other hand, was the worst thing he could have possibly done.
The LeBron hate has cooled. We know that the people of Cleveland will never forgive him, but you get the feeling that he reminded people this season that LeBron the basketball player is a hell of a lot more endearing than LeBron the person. Just as the respect was there for A-Rod after the 2009 World Series, the respect is there for King James now after the 2012 NBA Finals.
There is still some lingering hate for LeBron, however, and there's a lot of lingering hate for A-Rod. The fact that they are both Public Enemy No. 1 in their respective sports is at the top of the list of things they have in common.
Just below that are championship rings. Just below that are the gaudy statistics. Just below that are the millions of dollars they've made throughout their careers.
Elsewhere on the list, perhaps buried somewhere down in the hundreds, is the creeping sense that A-Rod and LeBron were destined to live the lives they are living.
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