I’ve had little to say in recent weeks about LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, partly because others have had so much to say.
What I will say is this: Cleveland has been lucky to have LeBron James for these past seven years, and would be fortunate to have him stay with the team.
If he leaves for another team this summer, Cleveland will still have been better off for having had him wearing the wine and gold. If he leaves for another team, that franchise will be the new lucky one.
To hear some tell it, however, James is either overrated, a choker, arrogant, selfish, or potentially the worst traitor since Benedict Arnold.
I’m not sure when or why, exactly, the culture of mocking and hate began to overtake the world of sports. Maybe it dates back to the days of the gladiators.
Imagine the complaints of a disgruntled Roman citizen as he filed out of the Colisseum on a warm summer afternoon: “That Euripides, he’s no gladiator! He lacks the killer instinct.”
Or the taunts of unimpressed onlookers at the first Olympiad: “Ulysses, what a joke. He clearly doesn’t have the genitals to be a winner.”
Those are just guesses, however. I can only attest to what I read and hear today, which, when it comes to James, is puzzling, and at times downright startling.
LeBron James is a sensational basketball player. He’s one of the best in the game, already one of the best in history, and certainly the best to ever wear a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.
Watching him these past seven years has been a treat. The highlights have far outweighed the lowlights. The times he has left jaws on the floor are too numerous to count. He has done things—many things—that no one else ever accomplished by the age of 25.
Some would argue that, since there have been no championships during those seven years, LeBron’s stay in Cleveland has been a disappointment.
I disagree. Without question, the last two years have been a letdown, and this year—the postseason, anyway—was downright mystifying.
You think LeBron doesn’t know that?
Overall, however, the man has given Cleveland more to cheer for, individually, than any athlete in the city’s history. Jim Brown set records, too, but not in the intensely public and rather personal way that LeBron has.
Brown was the best, but it wasn’t in an era of 24-hour sports radio, 24-hour cable sports, and a never-ending stream of sports consciousness on the Internet. He had to wait his turn like everybody else to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. LeBron made it there his junior year in high school.
Watching the Cavs’ struggles these past two years is a telling reminder of an era 20 years ago, when they had a remarkable team: Mark Price, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, Craig Ehlo, Hot Rod Williams, Mike Sanders—and Lenny Wilkens running the show as head coach.
They began to jell so well and so fast that Magic Johnson dubbed them, “the team of the ’90s.”
Then Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, and the Chicago Bulls changed the face of the league and made history.
That Cavaliers team was quickly forgotten, but they were very, very good.
Daugherty said last year he thought they could have beaten this era’s Cavs. I disagreed at the time, but now I’m not so sure. After watching the Cavaliers disintegrate in this year’s playoffs, I’m inclined to believe Daugherty was right, because they were a better team.
So how on earth did this year’s Cavaliers, and last year’s, lead the league in wins? How did an even less-talented group make it to the NBA Finals three years ago?
LeBron James, that’s how.
Which brings me back to my point. The guy is simply sensational. There isn’t a team in the NBA that wouldn’t put him front and center on their roster if they could, or a city whose fans wouldn’t embrace him if he signed with their team.
I don’t care if he’s better than Kobe Bryant, or if Kobe’s better than him. The same goes for Dwyane Wade, or Kevin Durant, or anybody else. What difference does it make who is better than whom?
You could shout from the rooftops about how 20 guys in the NBA are better than Kobe, and Kobe wouldn’t care. He’s got the rings, not them.
That’s where LeBron wants to be. To hear some tell it, that’s where he needs to be if he’s ever to be considered among the best of the best.
I don’t know if that’s possible in Cleveland. LeBron’s young, but he’s played seven NBA seasons, and those take a toll even on the youngest of players. Assuming he plays 15 years, that means he has eight more to go—eight years to win a title or two.
Is it possible? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely. Guys like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and John Stockton toiled as long and never made it to the promised land. Ultimately, it’s a team game, and even the Russells and Jordans and Bryants will tell you they had more than a little help.
So let others argue about championships and LeBron’s place in basketball history.
What James does next will have a ripple effect across the NBA, and perhaps change the face of the league for the next decade or more.
Up until now, however, Cleveland has been lucky to have him. It only makes sense to pause and appreciate what an exhilarating ride it’s been.