The 10 topics we want covered in a LeBron James documentary
“The Last Dance” is over.
Ten hours of meticulous examination of the most iconic sports figure of his, or perhaps any, generation, stirred emotions on all sides.
The reminder of Michael Jordan’s greatness as a transcendent athlete, public figure and global icon was strengthened with every frame of the documentary.
It also riled up the debate about Jordan’s G.O.A.T. status and whether or not anyone, before or after, could compare. That dialogue will rage on for generations to come, with today’s version of Jordan — LeBron James — entrenched on the other side of the debate.
What if we could give the same treatment to LeBron 22 years after his “Last Dance” NBA season? What would his legacy look like held up to the test of time? What would our opinions be of him with the aid of hindsight and never-before-seen footage from his career? How would we view his every move — good, bad and otherwise — through a 22-year lens?
In effort to assist some future filmmaker who decides to tackle the project, we’ve come up with a cheat sheet to fleshing out LeBron’s story in the form of these 10 must-include plot points that would have to be addressed.
Some things to consider:
• LeBron changed teams three times (from Cleveland to Miami to Cleveland and finally, the Lakers), leaving no linear route to take in this examination. And since he’s in the midst of chasing the Los Angeles portion of his legacy, the final episode of this hypothetical documentary is to be determined. But there were far more teammates, coaches, front-office executives and others directly impacted by LeBron during his time in the NBA.
• Jumping into this theoretical time machine is different than what happened in the Jordan retrospective.
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10. Just a kid from Akron to the ‘Chosen One’
Moments covered: Early life through pre-2003 Draft
Every tale needs a compelling foundation. And Gloria James is the source from which this entire story flows. The fierce single mother of LeBron Raymone James sits at the epicenter of the LeBron ecosystem. If she was born, raised and say living in Albuquerque when her only child was born, LeBron’s northeast Ohio narrative doesn’t exist. He doesn’t fall into the lap of Gordon Gund, the Cavaliers’ owner in 2003, who became the beneficiary of perhaps the greatest bit of serendipity in Draft lottery history. As a star at nearby St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, LeBron went from a schoolboy prodigy to a national sensation, complete with a Sports Illustrated cover story at 16 and his team having games broadcast on ESPN his senior season. That “Chosen One” nickname reverberated around the basketball world as LeBron transitioned from poverty to the NBA.
9. Becoming a global icon in Cleveland
Moments covered: 2003 Draft through 2005-06 season
Roughly 45 miles separate Cleveland from Akron. But the distance between the life of struggle and poverty LeBron lived in his hometown and that of his life in Cleveland (as the multi-million dollar face of the Cavs) spans light years. “The Chosen One” quickly assumes the self-titled role of King as he launches an all-assault on the league and drags the previously moribund Cavaliers with him. LeBron fights through the growing pains in the process, grinding to push the Cavaliers to the top of a crowded field in the Eastern Conference. In the process, he becomes the crossover success his supporters from around the globe believe him to be. Simply put, LeBron put a forgotten city and fan base on his back and squarely on the map.
8. The first Finals trip
Moment covered: The 2006-07 season and playoffs
Just as Michael Jordan had to overcome a “Bad Boys” Pistons to reach The Finals, LeBron had to lift the Cavaliers over the new millennium version of Detroit led by Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton. He did so in spectacular fashion in the Eastern Conference finals in 2007, including an epic Game 5 explosion — he finished with 48 points, including 29 of the final 30 the Cavaliers scored and 25 straight — in his team’s double overtime win. He rallied the Cavaliers from a 2-0 series deficit to win four straight in the series as Cleveland reached its first Finals. Vanquishing the Pistons was the highlight for Cleveland, though, as the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavs in The Finals. LeBron had reached The Finals and the Cavs could be a contender for years to come with the right pieces around LeBron. At least, that was the plan …
7. ‘The Redeem Team’ & the first Cleveland exit
Moments covered: The 2007-08 season through 2009-10 season and playoffs
The high of reaching The 2007 Finals set high expectations for the Cavs that they were not equipped for … and it showed. In 2007-08, the “Big 3” Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) and Orlando Magic (led by Dwight Howard) burst onto the scene to give the Cavaliers two new formidable East rivals. The Cavaliers never upgraded their roster to keep pace, relying on LeBron’s ability to elevate whatever supporting cast he had to a championship level. Ownership and the front office might not have realized it at the time, but LeBron developed a wandering eye. During his time with “The Redeem Team” at the 2008 Olympics, the seed was planted for his eventual departure from Cleveland, a move that would change both his and the NBA’s trajectory.
6. ‘The Decision’
Moment covered: The 2010 NBA offseason
“This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” Those 11 words solidified LeBron’s transition from hometown hero to the greatest villain in Cleveland sports since former Browns owner Art Modell. LeBron’s free-agent choice was a live TV special designed as a charity event. It all went terribly wrong when he ripped the hearts of Cleveland sports fans out by choosing Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Miami. He was not only leaving home, he was doing when he seemed to be at the height of his powers. That devastating blow to Cleveland was made clear by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in a vicious open-letter post to the team’s website denouncing LeBron as the “self-titled former King.” While LeBron simply exercised his free-agent choice, it wasn’t understood until later that he had altered the NBA landscape forever.
5. The Heatles’ darkest hour
Moment covered: The 2010-11 season, playoffs and offseason
At a laser-light show introducing their union, the plan was for “not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4,” but more championships than that when the Heat trio of James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. Everything was going according to plan after a bumpy 9-8 start to 2010-11 and they entered The Finals as a heavy favorite over the Dallas Mavericks. But the Mavericks had plans of their own and shocked the Heat in The Finals, where LeBron came up woefully short in the fourth quarter of critical games. As the title dream slipped away and an offseason filled with questions smothered James, a lockout threw things into even more disarray. LeBron even admitted to contemplating his future in a different sport — football — as he began training for a potential dip into that world. There was some rumored interest from the Dallas Cowboys, but it never happened and LeBron emerged from the lockout prepared for the challenge ahead.
4. Back-to-back titles in Miami
Moments covered: 2011-12 season through 2012-13 season and playoffs
The heartbreak of that first season in Miami gave way to a new era for the LeBron and the Heat. The pressure of perfection was replaced by the sobering reality that every season and moment in Miami presented a win-it-all or win nothing proposition. With Wade and Bosh comfortable in their roles and LeBron the clear leader of the pack, the Heat went about the business of dominating as they were expected to. It culminated in back-to-back Kia MVPs (’12, ’13) and Finals MVPs (’12, ’13) for LeBron as he led Miami to back-to-back titles. That era also featured a gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012. Every season, it seemed, would end with the Heat in The Finals for as long as “The Heatles” stuck together … well, nothing lasts forever.
3. Coming home to Cleveland
Moments covered: Summer of 2014 and 2014-15 season and playoffs
In the summer of 2014, northeast Ohio’s native son did the unthinkable and returned home after four straight Finals trips with Miami. What Cavs fans got was a supercharged version of LeBron who had the championship mettle he lacked in his first Cleveland stint. Kyrie Irving was already in place and after Cavaliers GM David Griffin traded for Kevin Love, LeBron had everything he needed to chase a title in Cleveland. He played for a coach he’d never heard of (David Blatt) and with teammates he wasn’t completely familiar with. The 2015 Finals began with LeBron on the stage, but injuries to Love and Irving kept him from prevailing in the series. However, it was just the beginning of a Warriors-Cavaliers Finals rivalry that would be renewed over the next three seasons. The only downside for LeBron is he was facing a dynastic outfit in the Warriors that would dominate the league in ways that even James’ Heat didn’t during their own four-year run.
2. A title (at last) for Cleveland
Moments covered: 2015-16 season and playoffs through 2017-18 season and playoffs
From 2010-18, LeBron managed eight straight Finals trips while building his media empire off the court. He also embraced his social activist role while cementing his status as the best player in the game thanks to his tour de force showing in the 2016 Finals. James’ play helped Cleveland make NBA history in climbing from a 3-1 Finals hole while simultanously giving the city its first title in 52 years. What no one knew is that he was solidifying the Warriors’ dynasty as they signed Kevin Durant in free agency in the summer of 2016. He and the Warriors outdueled James and Co. in the ’17 and ’18 Finals. Unlike Jordan, who was 6-0 in The Finals (taking Finals MVP honors each time), James was 3-6 on that stage. However, he was free from the burden of carrying Cleveland on his back and no one could fault him for chasing the next phase of his career elsewhere.
1. LeBron’s L.A. story
Moments covered: 2018-19 season through present
LeBron ended his second Ohio trip to head west to Los Angeles and chase the ghosts of Lakers legends past in a seismic, summer of 2018 move. Diving into the fishbowl environment that is Lakers Nation, while Kobe Bryant watched from afar, is a move few players would have the confidence to attempt. Before a December groin injury ended his 2018-19 season, LeBron had restored the Lakers to the West elite. Johnson’s shocking resignation on the final night of 2018-19 led to more drama (Luke Walton fired as coach, Rob Pelinka taking over as GM, the Anthony Davis trade completed). With a reconfigured supporting cast, LeBron re-established himself as a legit Kia MVP candidate as the Lakers led the West before the 2019-20 season’s hiatus. A devastating run of emotional storylines (the death of David Sten, Bryant, his daughter, Gigi and seven others in a helicopter crash) followed by the COVID-19 pandemic stalled this chapter of LeBron’s story.
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