At this time last October, LeBron James was about to insinuate himself, with uncharacteristic inelegance, into the NBA’s China controversy. That’s how this strange and tragic season began, if you care to think so far back. Nearly full calendar year — feels like a couple of lifetimes — later, James stands atop the sport again, cloaked in glory.
The longest, most chaotic basketball season is finally over. It proved to be an extreme endurance test, and so it figures that James, the King of the league, would carry the Los Angeles Lakers past all the obstacles. He was destined to win his fourth championship now because he’s the quintessential sports icon for this time: an untiring, transcendent, socially engaged celebrity with the nerve to step wherever he thinks he can make an impact and back it up by performing on the court at a historic level.
In guiding the Lakers to a six-game NBA Finals victory over the Miami Heat, James led a third team to a title. He has done all of this wandering and winning over the past decade, influencing the way superstars think about their careers, polarizing fans and turning his legacy into a fascinating labyrinth.
This triumph represents a perfectly exhausting, yet fitting end to James’ decade of dominance. In 2010, he left Cleveland to go to the Heat franchise he just defeated, and that’s where he learned to win at the highest level. When James came to Miami, Kobe Bryant had just led the Lakers to back-to-back titles, bringing his personal total to five. Now, in the most LeFinals of his career, James’ present upended his past. Make that his present merged with his past. James is a singular talent, but it’s his multiplicity that propels him.
Many try to use convention to define James’ legend, and it leads to inane for-and-against debates. But LeBron is neither simply the closest thing to Michael Jordan nor a more athletic Magic Johnson with a greater scoring knack. He is neither simply Wilt-like for his superior size and agility at his position nor any other comparison you attempt to make. His story possesses traces of what made those players unforgettable, for sure. But he’s his own thing, and we should respect him as such.
This mythical Greatest Of All Time cannot be a designation for a single player, just as the appreciation of greatness cannot be confined to a single era. The GOAT is a hybrid of all the mesmerizing immortals who have ruled for a significant period of time. And let’s be clear: It is an incomplete creation without James.
The legend of James matches the way he plays. He’s complete, multifaceted. He’s also everywhere. That can be good and bad. Younger folks would say he’s “extra,” as a player and a celebrity. Here’s the thing about someone who aims to do everything well, who doesn’t even squint in the spotlight anymore: Sometimes, you get caught doing too much. To understand James, you must acknowledge all of his dimensions. He’s a captivating icon because of all the things you see when looking at him.
He’s sort of a dynasty all by himself. When a team acquires him, it hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy and lives in the Finals. With a 4-6 Finals record, he is also the most frequent, dominant runner-up since the days of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. James fills out basketball consciousness like he stuffs the stat sheet. And he does it in a modern way, from his addiction to social media to his burgeoning entertainment company. It is different from the Jordan obsession. With James, there’s an omnipresence. He’s always in the middle of something. He can inspire substantial criticism along with heavy praise, but his relevance doesn’t diminish.
“I think personally thinking I have something to prove fuels me,” James said. “It fueled me over this last year and a half since the injury. It fueled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career to this point, there’s still little rumblings of doubt or comparing me to the history of the game. And has he done this? Has he done that? So having that in my head, having that in my mind ... I think it fuels me.”
James was all over this difficult season. His annoyance with Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet complicated the China controversy. As the current superstar of the franchise mourning the loss of Bryant, he was in the middle of the NBA’s most heartbreaking story. His voice has been loud during this period of racial reckoning, and he started the More Than a Vote initiative to combat voter suppression. And, of course, he advocated for a conclusion to this NBA season despite a novel coronavirus pandemic that halted the season for four months. Although he spoke often of the strain of being isolated from his family and the rest of society for more than three months, he is now a bubble champion.
“He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen, and if you think you know, you don’t know, OK, until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group,” Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel said. “You think you know. You don’t know.”
When he joined the Lakers as a free agent in 2018, James vowed to restore their championship reputation. He fulfilled that promised in two seasons and won his fourth Finals MVP while doing so. The Lakers are back, and James is right there with them, the game’s most captivating player in an ideal partnership with the sport’s most glamorous franchise. It felt like a ring L.A. had to get, with James fending off Father Time at age 35 and several contenders and younger stars rising in stature. But considering the ageless dominance that James exhibited, as well as the chemistry he has with new co-star Anthony Davis, the Lakers just might have a nice little run in them.
Seventeen seasons into his remarkable career, James is determined to stay on top for as long as he can. He’s inescapable, as usual. And a little insufferable, too.
“We just want our respect,” he said during the trophy presentation. “Rob [Pelinka] wants his respect. Coach Vogel wants his respect. Organization wants their respect. Lakers Nation wants their respect.
“And I want my damn respect, too.”
There he goes, finding fuel.
In victory, James got carried away with the disrespect angle. To the victor go the spoils and the straw men, I suppose.
Love it, hate it. Deal with it. The reign of King James continues. And you’re going to hear about it, a lot. There’s no avoiding it. At the end of an unusually taxing season, this is one thing that feels familiar.