The Point 20201116

The Point: An Essay On Appreciating LeBron James

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

It will start soon enough. If LeBron James looks a pinky toe slow, if the Lakers drop a couple of these 2020-21 games coming Ferrari-fast on the heels of the Lakers’ 2019-20 title, if he doesn’t have enough red in his Christmas Day game sneakers, the critics will not wait to pounce.

Don’t take the bait. Don’t be sucked in by the negativity.

James has earned the benefit of every doubt.

As eye-opening an experience as it has been for Anthony Davis to team up with James and learn the ways of such a consistent performer and regular winner, consider one more way it has been a brow-raising revelation for Davis: “I know he gets criticized,” Davis said of James, “more than any basketball player ever.”

Such is the nature of climbing in life. A lot of people look up to you. Some put you on a pedestal.

Others delight in swinging an axe at that pedestal’s legs.

What is beyond debate is that James spends his days and years accomplishing—especially this season, which featured him at age 35 poetically playing 35 minutes per game as the regular-season MVP runner-up, then becoming the second-oldest NBA Finals MVP ever (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 38 in 1985).

James heard enough rumblings entering the season to issue himself the #WashedKing challenge. No one else could’ve been eligible to participate. And he passed the test at a level only he could.

Which is why, holding the gold in the end, he said: “I want my damn respect.”

LeBron

It has been a turbulent time for us all in the basic ways reflected by the NBA juggling issues of social injustice inside a pandemic-driven bubble. But what a wild ride the season was especially for James.

Consider how normal it’d be for a player’s season to be summed up neatly and impressively by saying he led the league in assists for the first time. A great achievement for any point guard … although James isn’t truly a point guard, of course.

It’s simplistic even to say James’ season went from one legacy bookend—filming Space Jam: A New Legacy—to another, carrying the Lakers’ “Leave a Legacy” mandate to the NBA championship. His didn’t just prance where his grass was greener. He planted seeds for growth all over the place.

Quick recap: From June to September 2019, James was on the movie set, including what co-star Don Cheadle told ESPN were 14-hour work days aside from James’ basketball training. From September to March, James played his game—while also navigating a political situation when the Lakers were in China, furthering an entertainment empire that promotes his heartfelt community-oriented passion projects such as allowing college athletes to earn money or his I PROMISE School and all its affiliated programs. He also steadied the Lakers’ grieving organization upon Kobe Bryant’s death. By July, James was serving as undisputed spokesman as the NBA and players worked through the bubble experiment, and he from there led an impactful More Than a Vote initiative in a key election year.

Volley it back and forth, if you wish, the simplistic question whether any basketball player before or after is greater than James.

What needs to be truly understood is how impossible it is even to imagine anyone could be more “more than an athlete” than James is in our world today.

It’s not his way to say, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.” But on the heels of everything mentioned above and delivering a championship in just his second Lakers season, it’s a time when we really should stop and smell this rose.

Lakers LeBron James

When you do so much, you create a lot that others can criticize. The safer way is to play basketball and just go home to eat your tacos on Tuesday quietly.

At heart, though, James is a dreamer. He believes the uncommon is within his reach. Because he opens his mind, he becomes better educated on that uncommon. Then at that point, it isn’t just in his reach; it’s in his wheelhouse.

He’s the best kind of dreamer, the one who believes his dreams are calls to action. Somehow, James finds the energy to follow through on so much action—from beloved cartoon movie sequels to innovative social reform.

But that is, if you get right down to it, the most common thread when you tie the great ones together. Threads might be about fashion in one era and about social media in another, but those determined to do something can get results at any time, in any place.

Think about how much this list of names has done beyond playing basketball: James, Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West.

That’s the exclusive list, newly updated with James, of Lakers players to be NBA Finals MVP.

They want to make things happen. They need to leave that legacy. They insist on being true to that dreamer within.

How did Bryant win a freakin’ Academy Award? Because he tapped into that little boy inside him and shared his voice. How did Johnson become an entrepreneurial sensation? Because he remembered how it felt when a youthful Earvin would slip into the executive chairs of his neighborhood business leaders and visualize life from that perch.

The mutual respect between Johnson, Bryant and James became more evident in recent years. And now James’ Lakers championship is in some ways his most impressive championship. Everyone can understand leaving home to conquer the world, as James did with Miami. Everyone can understand coming home to your people, as James did with Cleveland.

James still yearned for more, going west to live up to the Lakers’ brand that he’d always put on a pedestal. The transition was a struggle in various ways, even as basic as adapting to the Pacific time zone for the first time in his life. As he is determined to do, James did adapt.

He lives for the challenges.

That’s the real irony for his eager critics. The fodder is just more fuel.

Lakers LeBron James

Given his emphatic statement about James being the most criticized of all time, Davis sees the pressure that James shoulders. Davis also hears advice directly from James on how to handle it. That’s why Davis reports about his own pressures: “He makes it a lot easier for me.”

James does not lack for appreciation from those alongside him now. They are the ones who really know the level of biomechanics and bounce passes, the responsibility and reads. As beautiful from an outside perspective as we might admiringly see what James draws up for himself and his teammates, only the inner circle truly understands when such an artistic genius colors so vibrantly and sharply inside the lines.

“If you think you know, you don’t know, OK?” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group. You think you know. You don’t know.”

From afar, we can still try.

Find inspiration in the pregame chalk toss, revived with the Lakers this season after about a four-year layoff. Admire how his work ethic with the lovely deep three enhances his ability to keep truckin’ to the rack, as always, with lunchpail and hard hat. Enjoy the ride through iconic Warner Bros. motion-picture worlds when LeBron and Bugs Bunny release their movie next year.

Understand how absolutely no one else could have said the words that this community needed to hear before the Lakers’ first game upon Bryant’s death.

The memorial service that was put together later was a wonderful tribute. James’ speech came almost a month earlier, when the wound was still so raw. Standing on the Lakers’ logo at center court of Staples Center in those white Nike Kobe 1 Protro sneakers from Bryant’s 81-point game, James’ free-flow speech was the hug we needed from someone who really understood him. It was so true and tight that we practically could feel James’ heartbeat through the No. 24 jersey covering his chest.

It remains hard to believe that James passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list the very night before Bryant’s death. James gushed about Bryant for nearly five continuous minutes late that night in Philadelphia. He actually used the word “immortal” to describe Bryant.

The last post from Bryant’s Twitter account remains his last now: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”

For as neatly and effectively as James was able to check off boxes on his lengthy to-do list, this season was the ultimate experience to remind him and us all: Stuff happens.

It always does. And the stuff brings unforeseen challenges to go with the known ones we already have to steel ourselves to tackle.

Sometimes those challenges are too much for us. That’s one reason some resent James when he is so often able to meet his challenges.

It’s also why others so appreciate having James around.

He reminds us what’s possible.

We need that.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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