Miami’s LeBron James (6) high-fives teammate Dwyane Wade as they head to the bench during a timeout against the Portland Trail Blazers in Miami Tuesday.
Since LeBron James was in high school, the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue has been Michael Jordan.
Despite the game’s coming so easily to James, the perception of him slowly transformed from heir apparent to Jordan’s legacy into overgrown child biting his fingernails and trying to hide in big moments of playoff games.
Then came the Decision. All of the good will he built up by being the kid from Akron, Ohio, born to play basketball, was burned away in 30 minutes of awkward television. When James declared he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and taking his talents to South Beach, he suddenly became a villain. In professional wrestling terms, he had gone heel.
But while many have called it the worst moment of his career, it freed him from being Cleveland’s savior. He had become his own man, rather than a fabrication of Nike and Sports Illustrated and Cavaliers fans’ imaginations.
In the past seven months, James has flourished, winning his first NBA championship with the Miami Heat and an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. national team. He has been remarkably consistent: scoring 20 or more points in all but one of Miami’s 49 games. Earlier this season he put together a stretch of 254 minutes without being called for a personal foul.
And Tuesday night, in a win over Portland, he scored 30 points on 73.3 percent shooting, the sixth consecutive game in which he had scored at least 30 points while shooting 60 percent or better, an NBA record.
On Thursday James will match up with the current player he is most often compared to, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, although it is likely to be Durant’s teammate Serge Ibaka who is asked to put an end to James’ streak. Last season in the NBA finals, Ibaka tried to goad James into a fight, but James did not take the bait.
“I don’t really care what he says,” James told reporters when asked about Ibaka’s criticisms of his defense. “It’s stupid.”
A relaxed approach to the game is what has come to define the post-Cleveland James. Where the Jordans and Kobe Bryants of the basketball world seem to be in an unending fight with an unseen enemy, James has achieved some form of basketball nirvana in which every move he makes is the right one and any goal he sets he will soon achieve.
The truth is, James is not Wilt Chamberlain or Magic Johnson or Bill Russell or Jordan. In basketball terms, he will need to win more championships, and have success for much longer, before he can be viewed as a titan of the sport.
But in terms of how well he is currently performing in his given field, and the ease of his current success, there are plenty of comparisons to make when opening up the discussion beyond basketball.
Francis Ford Coppola, the writer and director, would understand what it is like to be James right now. In 1974, he produced perhaps his signature movie, “The Godfather: Part II,” which earned him 1975 Academy Awards for writing, directing and best picture. In his spare time, he did a smaller, quieter movie called “The Conversation,” which also earned him nominations for writing and best picture.
James’ ability to dominate in every facet of the game, including smaller things like limiting fouls, is reminiscent of Ken Jennings, who mastered “Jeopardy.” In 2004 Jennings won the TV quiz show 74 consecutive times, earning more than $2.5 million. Jennings’ success has been credited not just to his vast knowledge of trivia but also to his mastery of the buzzer the show employs, a detail James would seemingly appreciate.
In terms of James’ simultaneous success as an individual, with the Heat and with the national basketball team, one could look to the run Barry Gibb had in the late 1970s. He led the Bee Gees, who had the most No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1970s. And in 1978 he took things up a notch by becoming the first person to have written or co-written four consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard list. In 1979 he and his brothers even managed to hit the country charts with “Rest Your Love on Me.”
But perhaps the most fitting comparison in terms of someone who experienced struggle before easing into a period of relatively easy success was someone with an equally lofty nickname to King James: Alexander the Great.
The Macedonian king set off on a mission to conquer the world, and after a few years of struggle securing the Balkans and fighting his way through Asia Minor, he found a James-like groove in 332 B.C. After many struggles and fierce battles, Alexander was greeted largely as a liberator in Egypt, taking the region into his kingdom without struggle and earning the title of Pharaoh for his trouble.
Of course, other than Jennings, these stories ended rather poorly. Coppola made just one more great film,
“Apocalypse Now,” with much of his talent seemingly burned away by the ill-fated production. Gibb and the Bee Gees turned from hitmakers into punch lines. And even Alexander, who would go on to other significant military victories, eventually succumbed to either illness or poisoning, with his original kingdom of Macedon weakened to the point where it eventually fell to Rome.
Nothing so dramatic is expected of James. He will most likely just keep playing basketball. But the limits to his game once perceived by many have all been disproved and the ceiling for his greatness is currently unknown. It turns out, to get out of the shadow of Jordan, a man who seemed to care about nothing other than winning, James simply had to relax and become himself instead.
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