NOW Is He the Most Compelling Sports Figure of the Modern Era?

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The NBA finals are finally over and the Miami Heat have EARNED their second championship in as many years. After the South Beach celebration parade, warranted uncertainties have surfaced about whether or not Miami will not be able to 3-peat with their current roster. More likely than not, changes will be made. Yet, the one constant we can count on for the 2013-2014 season is that the League’s premier player, LeBron James, will remain in a Heat uniform.

 

So what does James’ current situation look like?

 

Well for starters, he is settling in nicely as one of the NBA’s most decorated players. The NBA MVPs certainly don’t seem to be slowing down at all. It seems like every time we turned on the TV this past season, ESPN would come up with another record he broke. Here’s the top shelf of the LeBron James trophy case (via Wikipedia.org):

 

NBA champion: 2012, 2013

NBA Finals MVP: 2012, 2013

NBA Most Valuable Player: 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013

NBA Rookie of the Year: 2004

NBA scoring champion: 2008

NBA All-Star Game MVP: 2006, 2008

NBA All-Star: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

All-NBA:

First Team: 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Second Team: 2005, 2007

NBA All-Defensive:

First Team: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

NBA All-Rookie First Team: 2004

 

Although critics and skeptics still linger, the anti-LeBron craze has certainly died down. Think, just three years ago videos of Cleveland Cavalier fans burning James’ Jersey flooded the Internet. Even two years ago when Miami turned off the heat against Dallas in the 2011 NBA finals, LeBron critics were still easier to find than Cokes in a convenient store.

 

He can’t close games. He will never win a championship. He’s a great athlete, but has no heart. They said.

 

It was around that time that I realized that LeBron was perhaps the most scrutinized athlete of all time, more than the gambling Pete Rose, and more than the swinging Tiger Woods. But what did he do wrong? Was it because of The Decision? Hmmmm…. Cleveland is cold, it smells like factory smoke stacks, and the other players on the Cavaliers were just awful. On the other hand, Miami has exotic women tan in bikinis, shining sun, and two other superstars. Can you really blame LeBron? Oh yeah, and the whole live, on television thing… It was for charity!

 

After that loss to Dallas, LeBron was at the lowest point in his career. But the King preservered. He found peace in solidarity. He shut off the outside world—listening to classical rather than critics—and began to focus solely on LeBron.

 

It worked. LeBron read Hunger Games, and the Miami Heat prevailed over the Oklahoma City Thunder for their first NBA Championship of the Big 3 era. Suddenly everyone rushed to hop aboard the LeBron bandwagon.

 

Jersey sales spiked, and LeBron overtook Kobe as the most popular athlete in China.

 

The accolades kept pouring in: a 2012 league MVP, a 2012 finals MVP, a 2012 Olympic gold medal. By the time the 2013 season began, seats on the LeBron bandwagon had become scarce.

 

If you weren’t yet a LeBron fan before this past season, how does a 27-game winning streak, another League MVP, another finals MVP, and another championship ring sound?

 

Now, at 28 years old and with two rings, James has all-of-a-sudden solidified a place in our hearts. The other day I was eating at Red’s on Shem Creek when I overheard a group of elderly women talking about James:

 

Women #1 in summer straw hat: I’m just amazed at what that LeBron guy is doing right now. I can’t help but to cheer for him!

 

Women #2 eating loaf of bread and drinking apple martini: I love his smile. Oh, I hope he wins the championship!

 

Women #3 gazing blankly at the television that hung over the bar: Which one is LeBron?

 

Women # 1: The big one. Right there. He’s number six.

 

Women #3: Oh yes! My husband wears his jersey. I want him to win after everything he’s been through!

 

I just smiled, knowing I would sound just as foreign to them if they overheard me yapping about magnolias and poinsettias.

 

The soap opera aspect of LeBron’s life has allowed even those who care very little about basketball to identify with him. It’s almost like we perceive him as a character, not a real person, but rather a movie/reality star. Think of a 6’8’’ 250-pound version of Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.

 

But the show must go on, and thus, I must continue to muse…

 

Evaluating LeBron James alongside other basketball legends is fun, but the comparisons really don’t equate. There are a number of ways to gauge the greatest of all time (best athlete, most rings, best skills), and the argument tends to be a never-ending cycle of player preferences. That being said, if LeBron had the me-first, cut-throat mentality like Kobe or Jordan, perhaps the debate over the best player of all time would favor James. But that’s not LeBron’s personality. James is a giver, not a taker or receiver. A player who gets a greater satisfaction out of seeing his teammates succeed than he does himself. He cares what others think about him. His mannerisms include pouting in sorrows, awkward whining to the refs, guerilla grunts, and flamboyant arms flails. But all of it is real. All of it is LeBron James.

 

Next season LeBron will see more endorsement deals, more publicity, more love, and a greater following than ever before. He will continue to evolve and grow as a player. Yet, even more so than how he develops on the court, we will see improvements in his mind and confidence. After a question by the media about being unstoppable when hitting outside shots, LeBron responded, “You’re right, I am unstoppable…” To many, this may seem like a typical arrogant athlete attitude. Actually though, a statement like this is very out of character for James. In the past, he has been overly humble in situations where it was obvious he was outstanding. As I see it, for the maturation of LeBron’s game: the more bravado, the better.

 

With confetti falling from American Airlines rafters and basketball legends everywhere you looked, LeBron stood holding the playoff MVP trophy in one hand and the Larry O’Brien trophy in the other. Doris Burke asked LeBron about the constant scrutiny and pressure he receives from the outside world. He smirked, “I’m LeBron James and I’m blessed. So whatever anybody says about me off the court… I ain’t got no worries.”