At the start of every sporting year it’s customary — for columnists and commentators, at least — to wonder what the following 12 months will hold. So, it is with 2018, with most of its big questions revolving around the confirmation of greatness.
Here at home, can anyone stop Dublin pulling off the four in a row? In soccer, will Messi finally win the World Cup and put to bed the one thing Maradona has over him in the argument of who is football’s GOAT? In golf, can the man currently ranked the world’s 656th-best player, a certain Tiger Woods, contend again 21 years after he first left Augusta and the world reeling in his wake?
And then in Tiger’s native land and far beyond, so much of the fascination will hover over that other megastar and Nike overlord that needs only to be referred by his first name: LeBron.
Can he somehow knock off the four-headed monster that is the Golden State Warriors to land his fourth NBA title? Or will he once again lose in the Finals, his sixth time in all, giving his critics another stick to beat him with and any notion he can rival Michael Jordan’s as basketball’s GOAT?
And just as intriguingly, where will he be playing in the autumn? Will he be staying at home in Cleveland? Or after he becomes a free agent in the summer, will he be taking his talents to LA?
It has already been the subject of almost daily speculation for over months now. But then, LeBron James has been the subject of constant national attention since his senior year in high school, sport’s first Truman Show, and incessantly so since overtaking Woods and Kobe Bryant as the pre-eminent athlete in US sport a year or two into the current decade.
During that time not just social media has exploded: so have other forms of conventional media, especially the televised or audio sports talk show format.
Whether it’s Stephen A Smith with his First Take on ESPN, or James’s No.1 fan Nick Wright over on Fox with First Things First, or James’s No.1 critic Skip Bayless on Unguarded, or the more measured Michael Wilbon, whatever time or channel you wake up to in America, talk sport is there 24/7. LeBron is there almost 24/7. There’s no escaping it or him as hardly a day goes by on any of those shows without some segment and discussion concerning Akron’s – and America’s – finest.
Even in the offseason it’s endless. How does this latest Finals win or loss affect his legacy? Could he be as great as Jordan? Is he even better than Kobe? Is he still better than Kevin Durant? What members of the NBA fraternity is he holidaying or working out with this summer? Even the merciless Spanish media with their football-only papers will give Messi and Ronaldo a break for a few weeks in the summer.
Add it all up and LeBron James has to be the most publicly scrutinised athlete in the history of sport. Even more so than Ali; as irresistible and quotable as he was, Ali only had 61 professional fights throughout his whole professional career; James typically plays 100 games in a single NBA season: That’s a hundred nights either sitting behind a podium mic or the doors of the Cavs locker room being opened so a herd of reporters can surround you while you’re half-naked, looking for and usually getting some nugget explaining your latest win or loss.
He isn’t just the face of the Cavaliers’ franchise or his city. He’s the face of his league and sport and, with it, the most spoken-about public figure in American life other than its president.
And yet for all the scrutiny and fame, he carries himself impeccably to the point he is probably the most impressive and rounded megastar sport has known, as much for his class away from the arena as in it.
A couple of weeks ago on the eve of Tiger Woods’ comeback, the aforementioned Michael Wilbon of ESPN argued that in his first half-century on the planet, sport — which, him being American, basically meant American sport — had a holy trinity: Ali, Jordan, and Tiger. Where everyone stopped what they were doing to watch these guys and see could they do it again. And time after time, year after year, they did. They just did it.
As Johnathon Eig’s brilliant new biography explains, Ali may have been a champion for social justice and an often-generous man, but he treated women, especially his wives, dreadfully.
Jordan, in the ’80s, chose to forego social activism, even though there is a case that he advanced the struggle in his own way, taking the fight from the street and into the boardroom where he made corporate America respect and pay the talent and appeal of the black athlete; prior to Jordan, few white Americans, Republican or Democrat, were willing to pay for a shoe named after a black athlete.
And as the writer Dave Hannigan has observed, in his own way Jordan contributed to the phenomenon of Barack Obama; along with fellow ’80s icons Prince and Michael Jackson, he made it acceptable, even cool, for white America to adorn their bedroom walls with posters of black men, in time making it acceptable to vote for a black man to become president of their country.
Today Jordan continues to hold clout, being the only black owner in the NBA. But when he was the world’s most recognisable sportsperson, he could have been doing so much more.
According to William Rhoden, the author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, an athlete like Jordan “abdicated [his] responsibility to the [black] community with an apathy that borders on treason.”
Woods — not some hoopster like Grant Hill — was the next Jordan. A winning machine. A Nike god. Even some of his philandering activities in Vegas were picked up from hanging with his mentor. And of course he would disappoint a Rhoden even more than a Jordan would. If you’re still willing to play golf with Donald Trump, you’re willing to play Sun City.
James isn’t. He’s routinely criticised and challenged Trump, his summation of him as “a bum” capturing succinctly for millions what they feel about their commander-in-chief. All the while in his comments and social media platforms, he makes his objections to police brutality and racism known, including Trump’s Muslim Ban.
He gives back enormously to the community. In 2004, before he turned 20, he established a foundation for children and single-parent families in need. He recently partnered up with his hometown university, the University of Akron, and set aside over $41m to send up to 2,000 at-risk local kids to college. Not only has he continued to wield influence in Nike and other boardrooms a la Jordan and Woods, he’s re-established the tradition of the socially aware athlete. Instead of being a $40m slave, he’s looking to liberate his folk and others.
In a league notorious for its nightlife and temptations, he is a devoted family man, still married to his high school sweetheart, Savannah, and a proud father of three kids.
And on top of that, he continues to excel on the court. Last Saturday he turned 33 and yet he’s playing some of the greatest basketball of his career. His shooting has never been better, due to a technical adjustment with his elbow he made in the off-season; how many other greats would be willing to make such an alteration that far into their careers?
Physically, too, he remains in incredible shape, with a discipline and devotion that probably no other superstar in a team sport outside of Cristiano Ronaldo has matched for so long.
Maybe he’ll never surpass MJ as the GOAT. Maybe he won’t win this season’s MVP over James Harden. Maybe he’ll lose in the Finals again.
And maybe he’ll leave Cleveland, the town that he returned to and delivered a championship to, the city’s first in any sport in over 52 years. Four months after that victory parade, the same state of Ohio showed their gratitude by voting for Donald Trump and against Hilary Clinton, whom James had endorsed. Recently GQ magazine, in an edition proclaiming James as the world’s greatest living athlete, asked him could a state that elected Trump also love LeBron James?
“That’s a great question,” he said. “I think they can love what LeBron James does. Do they know what LeBron James completely represents? I don’t think so.”
In the same interview he was also asked if he owed Cleveland anything. He said no, he didn’t. “What I will give to the city of Cleveland is passion, commitment, and inspiration. As long as I put that jersey on, that’s what I represent... But I don’t owe anybody anything.”
Just as by virtue of winning a championship, they didn’t owe it to him to vote against Trump, he doesn’t necessarily owe it to them to stay. Either way, he’ll be his own man while giving back in his own way, able to take all the heat and the scrutiny.