A lot has been written about LeBron James this summer, and understandably so. James just accomplished the seemingly unthinkable, as he and the Cleveland Cavaliers roared back from being down 3-1 to the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. James has erased seemingly every argument against him as one of the league's greatest players and validated the high expectations heaped onto him by both himself and the basketball community as a whole.
If you haven't already read Lee Jenkins' phenomenal piece on LeBron James and chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan, I suggest you do so. I would also strongly recommend reading David Zavac on LeBron solidifying himself in NBA lore.
Reading about James this summer, I couldn't help but reflect upon what I wrote in March of 2014, about the experience of rooting for him, to finally get over the hump and win a championship, only to be stuck with the growing pains and none of the payoff:
I've moved on from The Decision, I don't blame you if you haven't. LeBron brought us so close we could taste it, then he tore it all away. It took him failing in another situation for him to finally grow into the man he needed to become to get over the hump, but that is meaningless to the Cavs fans that were there from the beginning. We're left with fond memories, hurt feelings, empty highlights and an incomplete legacy.
All of this has made me reflect on how strange of an experience growing up watching LeBron has been. While I wasn't old enough to fully understand the hype surrounding him as he entered the league, my formative years watching basketball were largely centered around him.
Watching LeBron and learning the game along the way is an express route towards having a warped understanding of what is normal and what is possible within the game of basketball. There was an element of blind faith and trust that comes with following a player when you are young. Belief that they can elevate almost like a superhero and overcome incredible odds. The thing with LeBron is that he seemed capable of delivering on those unrealistic expectations. I remember betting my friend that the Cavs would defeat the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, constant back and fourth discussions over the merits of both teams. While he made good points, I would typically counter with "yeah, but LeBron." It was simplistic, narrow-minded thinking that ultimately proved to be correct.
The Chosen One, King James; the mythology surrounding him continued to grow as he took the Cavaliers to their first ever Finals before the age of 22. After coming into the league with unrealistic expectations, he began clearing the bars set for him by people even as they standard to which he was held continued to rise.
Then the failures started to add up. In retrospect it seems silly to see the judgement that was directed towards James for not winning a championship in his first stint with the Cavaliers. To this day, there is still the occasional mentioning of him choking against the Orlando Magic in 2009. It's a testament to LeBron that he could be considered a choker while averaging 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8 assists in a playoff series, but that was the place he had driven the expectations to.
I probably don't need to tell you what happened next. LeBron left. As I wrote in my Cavs rank article:
In sports we cheer when the team we root for scores. Not because we are satisfied, but because it is building towards a potential win. Wins provide you with the opportunity to play for something more. To be the only team to end their season on a win and reach that ultimate glory. If you were to watch a game on DVR and you knew your team lost, you wouldn't get as excited about each play that went their way. The LeBron James era is defined by the building up of hopes and dreams, only to have them ripped away prematurely. While there was tons of success, individual accolades and countless highlights, the ultimate goal was never reached. We followed up a 66 win season with a 60 win season, but when push came to shove our leader had already moved on in his mind.
LeBron's departure helped me move on from those silly childhood dreams. The idealistic view that your team is good, all others are evil. The silliness of hating stars of other teams because they are good and not playing for your team. I learned to appreciate greatness in all its forms and obtain a different level of appreciation for the NBA as a whole. I grew up as a fan.
I was able to find some joy in LeBron winning a championship in Miami. All of those years of following him, building towards that ultimate success, and being a "Witness". It was hard not to feel some bittersweet validation, even if the success wasn't yours to share in.
After LeBron returned, I'll call the lead up to a championship "awkward". There was the pure, uncut joy of his return. The excitement and hope of this newly formed superteam. Then there was the team struggling to reach expectations, LeBron subtweets, the sense of some hypocrisy surrounding him when it comes to consistent effort and emphasis on defense. The 2015 playoffs once again showed the "yeah, but LeBron" factor of the past as a wounded Cavs squad came back to defeat the Chicago Bulls and then sweep the favored Atlanta Hawks. The belief started to creep back into my consciousness after his Herculean effort in the 2015 Finals.
Sure the Golden State Warriors won 73 games, and would probably win the 2016 Finals about 7 out of 10 times, but when LeBron is in a series, anything is possible. A shot of pure fandom I hadn't felt in so long began to surge throughout my body. As James in the final minutes of a game seven, a decade after his first time stepping on that stage, managed to find the drive to rise up and deliver with a devastating chase-down block. The move was a signature move during his first stint with the Cavs, something that became rare since he returned to the team. But it was at that moment that the result felt predetermined. Everything had come full circle and out of nowhere the youthful, joyful, freak of nature LeBron came streaking from a distant memory to give the Cavs exactly what they needed at the moment they needed it most.
The faces around him have changed. Kyrie Irving is blossoming into a young superstar under the wings of LeBron, Tristan Thompson has cemented himself as a high-level role player that can be the difference maker on a championship team. The enigmatic Kevin Love found a way to contribute beyond the box score and J.R. Smith found the perfect balance between the confidence that can make him so devastating, and the sense of team that prevents him from being a liability. All of this was made possible by the return of LeBron. Everything came full circle in such a strange, unpredictable way, but that really has become the norm of following LeBron James throughout his incredible career.
I still haven't watched the Finals again. This is strange for me, as I watch every Cavs game every year at least twice to gain a better understanding of what's happened. Since the Championship I have watched game seven against the Celtics, with Pierce and LeBron going head to head in an epic duel. I've watched the Magic series, game five against the Detroit Pistons. The motivation behind these decisions wasn't clear to me until I sat down to put this into words, but I was reliving all of those moments, the hope, joy and untainted fandom that I had at that time because I knew that these moments had resulted in a Cavs championship. When I see LeBron against the Celtics, I still feel like there's a chance that the Cavs might win because I've seen him overcome incredible odds to win a championship for the Cavaliers. The belief is back, even if the way I write about the game is more calculated and removed from my fandom.
James has proven all he needs to prove and validated all of the praise that has been showered upon him. With the specter of the Golden State Warriors looming, now with Kevin Durant, I can't help but feel a sense of excitement. LeBron and the Cavs found a way to defeat the greatest regular season team in NBA history, and now they'll have to deal with arguably the most talented roster ever. For a player who's only rival has been the history books, this seems all too fitting. The bar has once again been raised for LeBron and the Cavs are once again the underdog.
LeBron's career feels like the scene in Space Jam where Michael Jordan has the Monstars hanging on to his leg. We're just piling on as many Monstars as we can to see how many it takes to stop LeBron from dunking from half-court. Fantasy and reality dancing in a way that blurs the lines of where one begins and the other ends. Not everything has to make sense, nothing in the future is guaranteed. The Cavs shouldn't be favorites to repeat as champions next year, but that's okay. The sense of hope, wonder and belief has returned to my jaded sense of fandom. The LeBron factor is very real, and only time will determine what his limitations are. In the meantime, we are all witnesses.