Love him or loathe him but there’s no ignoring King James

To watch LeBron James play basketball is to witness the qualities that distinguish the truly great player in every sport.

Love him or loathe him but there’s no ignoring King James

His extraordinary mix of grace and power, skill and determination, is underpinned with an intelligence and a work-ethic that allows him stand alone as the greatest player in his sport.

Indeed, he has also earned the right to be included in the conversation about who the greatest basketball player of all time might be.

The raw facts of what LeBron James did this week are sensational. He led his team — the Cleveland Cavaliers — to the NBA finals where they face the raging hot favourites, the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.

But to say that he merely ‘led’ his team to finals by starring in the defeat of the Boston Celtics is to misuse the English language.

It is more that he threw his team-mates up on his shoulders and carried them to victory. To say this is not to insult these players. They are, in their own right, brilliant. You do not get to play in the NBA without being a top player.

But there are no players on his team who would make the Golden State Warriors team.

Indeed, there are probably no players on his team who would even have made the Boston Celtics team.

More than that, it is impossible to think of one other current player in basketball who could have won such an important match with the teammates that James has.

To win the game, James had to play every minute of the match — every other player on the court was rotated. It means he has now played more minutes across the season than any other player in the league; in fact, this game was his 100th consecutive in the league.

So the best player is also the one who works harder than everyone else.

More than that, in this instance it was his third game in five days, played with a leg injury that required repeated treatment in the 48 hours before the game.

This is the ferocious durability of the truly exceptional.

And in the last few minutes of play against the Boston Celtics — when everything was on the line — LeBron James owned the game and won it for his team.

The only current player who matches LeBron James’s profile in any way is the Golden State Warriors star, Steph Curry.

Curry is a pure joy to watch playing the game. His skills are unmatched, his style of play is less dependent on power than James, but he too is a fierce competitor.

After watching the decisive game between the Cavaliers and the Celtics, Curry said James had been ‘amazing’ and that his performances throughout the play-offs had been ‘unbelievable’.

He also used words like ‘consistency’, ‘longevity’ and ‘greatness’.

By any measure it was a powerful tribute from one man to another, not least given their rivalry.

Curry also noted, however, that he hated the way people dismissed LeBron’s team-mates and considered that the way the Cavaliers were imagined to be a one man team was wrong: “Don’t disrespect the other guys out there. They fought hard too.”

And there is a truth to that — but it is equally true that it is LeBron James’s transcendent genius that defines what they have achieved in a way that is difficult to imagine happening in any other team sport played with a ball.

For all that, say, Diego Maradona pulled Argentina to victory in the World Cup in 1986 or Johnny Sexton is central to so much of what the Irish rugby team currently does, what James is able to do is more than that.

Perhaps it is because of the size of the court or the fewer number of players on a team, but no athlete currently competing in team sports is achieving comparable things.

And it is hard to think of too many who have done so in the past.

Despite this, there are people in America who cannot accord James respect. They deny that he is in the very highest reaches.

They claim, for example, that the league he is in is weaker than before and he is the brightest star only because the rest of the sky is dulled by cloud. This is unfair.

Others point out that although James has previously reached seven NBA finals, he has been on the winning side just three times.

Thus, it is claimed, as a winner he pales in comparison to such stars of the past as Michael Jordan, who won six titles or Kobe Bryant who won five.

Basic arithmetic, it is considered, means that James must be deemed to be inferior.

Again, though, this doesn’t cut it as decisive argument. The story of every era is different and the mere accounting of titles won dismisses the context in which such titles are amassed.

At its most basic, it ignores the significance of being part of a team that is essentially stronger than all the others. James does not have that luxury.

Getting to the bottom of why it is that LeBron James divides American sports fans so thoroughly is not easy.

It is a simple fact that he has polled as the most loved athlete in the country — and the most hated.

The hatred partly stems from the fact that he starred in his own made-for-TV event called ‘The Decision’.

This was a one-hour show broadcast in 2010 where James announced he would be signing with the Miami Heat instead of returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers (only later to return to Cleveland).

And there is the fact that he also clearly is comfortable about his own genius.

He dubbed himself ‘King James’ and he is not given to false modesty.

Against that, he is routinely noted as a kind and generous human being who has a stable family life, a collection of loyal friends, and an admirable and vocal disdain for Donald Trump.

Unlike Michael Jordan, who took no political stands, LeBron James has been a powerful advocate for a whole range of causes, not least his vocal anti-racist positions.

This week, as the Cavaliers celebrated reaching the NBA finals, LeBron James reflected on the night and said: “It’s been roses.”

And he added, in respect of the season to date: “There have been thorns. There’s been everything that you can ask for. I’ve said this has been one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had.”

And so it is that a team that lost most of its better players is back in the NBA finals courtesy of the best player of his generation.

The stark reality is that even LeBron James will most likely be unable to help the Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the Golden State Warriors.

As well as Steph Curry, the Warriors have a collection of brilliant, hardened, successful stars.

They are odds-on favourites to win — and it is hard to see another outcome.

Nonetheless, it already feels to be the greatest achievement of LeBron James’s career to reach the final in 2018.

And if he were actually to win it...

Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

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