I’m of the belief that greatness is easily recognized, even when greatness doesn’t necessarily move you.
While I don’t necessarily dislike him, I’ve never been a particularly big Bruce Springsteen fan (which I believe is a Class E felony for white, 40-something male sportswriters). Springsteen does have a handful of songs I really enjoy. “Hungry Heart” (which was nearly given to The Ramones to record!) is absolutely wonderful. “Rosalita” is fantastic. And if “Born to Run” doesn’t get your blood pumping, I’m fairly certain you’ve been clinically diagnosed as “dead.” But generally, I’ve never gravitated toward The Boss’s catalogue.
Still, it’s no mystery why Springsteen’s music speaks to so many others. That greatness is evident, and I’d never claim otherwise, because doing so feels like an exercise in pointlessness. Greatness is obvious.
LeBron has become the personification of excellence in modern sports.
Along these lines, LeBron James is about to embark upon his sixth straight NBA Finals. That’s a streak unmatched by any player* since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics of the 1960s, one of the most stacked squads in sports history, playing at a time when a smaller league was just becoming integrated and the playoffs lasted fewer rounds. Since then, no other superstar has reached more than three straight Finals without LeBron leading the way. Not even Michael Jordan. (Blame baseball if you want, but them’s the facts.)
With this staggering tally, LeBron has become the personification of excellence in modern sports, much less basketball. But given our age of reflexive cynicism, critics have predictably gone into overdrive looking for reasons to dismiss this feat.
LeBron has spent his entire career in the Eastern Conference, which hasn’t been consistently strong since MJ’s heyday.
The first four appearances came with the Miami Heat after bolting Cleveland to stack the deck in his favor by joining fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Then he stacked the deck again by joining younger stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for his Cleveland return.
He’s 2-3 in the finals, and was one Ray Allen miracle shot away from 1-4.
These people are the worst. Really. Truly. The worst.
In particular, the myopic focus on championships, which shoves sports into a box robbed of any context whatsoever, is exasperating. Every athlete agrees that titles are the ultimate goal. But to treat that title as a zero-sum game risks missing the larger point about LeBron. His greatness isn’t manifested by his ring count, but rather by how you always have a shot at a ring by virtue of his presence. The guy shows up, and you’re automatically in the mix. LeBron equals an instant shot at something special, and that kind of math rarely comes around.
As a comparison, consider Prince in the ‘80s.
As a comparison, consider Prince in the ‘80s. From 1980 to 1989, Prince released nine albums, and they were all good. Some were more revered than others. Some were more commercially successful than others. Some were even revered blockbusters. But bottom line, they were all good.
Think about that. Nearly an album a year for an entire decade. All worth your time. Not a dog in the bunch. During those 10 years, an album from Prince met the assumed promise of a winning product, whether the musical equivalent of a championship or merely just a round or two into the playoffs. It’s a staggering achievement, which explains why that string is universally celebrated, rather than mired in backlash because only three records — Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, Sign O’ The Times — qualify as undisputed masterpieces/championships. Any rational person understands the magnitude of Prince’s prime, which by definition means recognizing the inanity of trying to pick apart that period.
This is also akin to how any Shonda Rhimes project is almost immediately a watercooler hit. Or the way Christopher Nolan is trusted to strike a winning balance between box office and artistic ambition. Or how Radiohead seems incapable of releasing a mediocre album. Or how Julia Louis-Dreyfus is incapable of not being funny. Or how Marvel seems incapable of producing a movie rejected by audiences.
In all of these cases, a track record rightly enhances the lore. Yet somehow there’s a line around the corner to discredit LeBron’s run, which is just lunacy. Nobody would declare him invincible. His teams don’t always win the biggest prize. It doesn’t happen often, but he has played poorly in the Finals. But the bottom line is this: LeBron always gives his team a legitimate shot at winning, even when he’s playing on an otherwise overmatched squad.
Those arguing against LeBron and his legacy are trying to disprove the basketball equivalent of gravity. Root against James if you’d like, because that’s what makes sports fun. But at least allow a few moments to appreciate him. We might not see another run this great for a long time.
* – Yes, James Jones, a deep reserve wing for the Cavaliers who followed LeBron to Cleveland after four seasons alongside him in Miami, has also reached six straight Finals. But c’mon now.
Image: Keith Allison