This past summer, LeBron James had plenty of reasons to feel content. But he made clear that he won’t be satisfied until he achieves one distant goal: “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
And therein lies the curse that comes with being LeBron. No matter how consistently great he is, he will only be measured against a player who won six titles. LeBron has probably always known this, but if he didn’t, he seems to definitely know it now.
It is, of course, unfair to hold him to such a standard, because the standard isn’t real. There is something telling about his description of chasing Michael Jordan as chasing “the ghost.” Even if LeBron were to match, or surpass, Jordan’s six championships, or his five MVPs, one imagines that few would be willing to acknowledge his superiority. He is chasing something that is mostly legend, something intangible.
You hear this in particular when listening to the previous generation of NBA players, who seem unwilling to consider the possibility that anybody could ever be better than players who played during their era. Charles Barkley said over the summer that he will never consider LeBron to be one of the top five players of all-time, because he had already decided on the top five players, and he is never going to change it. Never. That’s just the way that it is.
Keep in mind that Barkley said this very soon after LeBron did the following: Down 3-1 in the Finals against the greatest regular season team of all-time, he posted 41 points, 16 rebounds, and seven assists in Game 5. Then another 41 points back at home in Game 6. And then a triple-double in Game 7, with an iconic defensive play down the stretch, to give the city of Cleveland its first major professional sports championship in more than half a century.
But he won’t ever be in Barkley’s top five. In this one respect, it seems like LeBron can’t win.
Realistically, it is unlikely that LeBron will ever match Jordan’s six championships. He’s only 32, but he’s already logged more regular season minutes than Jordan did in his entire career. It’s certainly possible that LeBron will be around long enough to win three more, but the odds do not seem to be in his favor.
I don’t mean to make it sound as though everyone underappreciates the greatness of LeBron. Plenty of people do appreciate it. He has certainly achieved immortality in Northeast Ohio. But, unless he manages to do the seemingly impossible and be the greatest there ever was, there will likely be a collective feeling that it wasn’t quite enough.
My sincere hope is that it is enough for him. He sounded most content, I think, after winning his second championship in Miami. Immediately after vanquishing the Spurs, he told Doris Burke, “I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio—from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough.” I hope he meant that, because it would be a shame for somebody with three titles, the best player of his generation, to feel like he fell short in some way.
Winning a fourth championship would make it that much easier.
If the Cavs have any chance to defend their title, it seems like he will have to deliver something like what he delivered in those final three games back in June. Only he might have to do it over a much longer stretch, because this Cavs team does not appear to be nearly as capable as last year’s version, for whatever reason. At least not right at this moment.
Can he do it again, at the age of 32, with all of those miles under his belt? Can he put an entire team, a franchise, and a city on his back? Can he live up to the impossible standard we will hold him to? Again?
I don’t know. But if he does, he would take yet another step toward that ultimate goal: being remembered as the greatest ever. It’s an unfair standard, but one he seems to have accepted.
And one that has driven him to do the seemingly impossible at least once before.