It’s obvious LeBron James doesn’t mind pressure. His career choices have glued the athletic, cultural and corporate bullseye to his broad back for years. Indeed, you could argue that there’s more pressure on him to win now that he’s come back home than if he’d never left in the first place.
Leaving Cleveland, with the sparks flying from bonfires made out of his jersey, made a championship essential. That would be the only way to justify his hardwood treason. Then when he lost his first trip to the Finals with the Miami Heat and vanished from the court at crunch time, it stretched the narrative that he shrivels in the biggest moments.
No one thinks that anymore.
LeBron could have stayed in Miami, bagged a few more rings and been beloved almost everywhere beyond Ohio. But he came home, to the delight of the Buckeye State and anyone who sees athletes as little more than pituitary cases for hire, mercenaries whose sense of sympathy runs the length of a contract. Only Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade could truly object to the notion of a man finishing what he started, on his ancestral acreage.
As heartwarming as that move was, it also spread the bullseye around his back and his brand. LeBron James is doing more than just trying to win an NBA title. He’s doubling as a sports messiah, a glowing avatar for millions of natives and neighbors suffering the aggregate agony of 50 years without a world title, in any sport. When you need to invoke Jim Brown to recall your last championship, then you’re far away from Titletown.
LeBron is playing with a pep in his step and acute purpose in his eye. He’s not saddled with nagging pulls or bumps or bruises. By nearly all accounts, this is the freshest he’s looked this in late in May since he last played for the Cavs. And, unlike last year’s title chase, when he was basically alone, the hardwood equivalent of Paul playing without John, George, and Ringo, he’s got the band behind him.
But still, at 31, his chances at that brass ring are dwindling. He’s at the back end of his prime and, after 13 NBA seasons, his legs are that of a man much older. There is no college vacation, no one-and-done campus hiatus in his past.
LeBron can still be a great player for a long time. But he’s only got a few years of transcendence left. Magic Johnson was just 29 when he won his last title, as was Larry Bird. Kobe Bryant was 31. And the NBA player nonpareil, Michael Jordan, was 34. (Tim Duncan was older, but big men rely less on the physical hallmarks of youth, like vertical leaps, speed and quickness.)
The Golden State Warriors are quite a wall to scale. Between their confluence of timing and talent, of age and wage, the Warriors are here for a while. But that’s what LeBron signed up for, and he knows it.
Still, it’s a little befuddling, if not nauseating, that Stephen Curry has so quickly eclipsed LeBron on most lists as the world’s greatest player. Gracious in defeat, LeBron said it’s hard not to give the NBA MVP award to the best player on a team that just won a record 73 games.
But fans and pundits seem to have already dismissed LeBron from his titular perch as King James. Like everyone else, I find myself spellbound by Curry’s NASA accuracy from anywhere on the court. His ability to keep his eyes on the ball and opponent, while relying on his nanosecond release to squeeze the ball through microscopic cracks in the defense, is astounding.
But two years of stardom doesn’t equal LeBron’s epic body of work. No one has his complete palate of gifts, or can spread numbers like butter across the stat sheet. When LeBron walks onto a court, he’s instantly the best combination of size, strength and skill.
Unlike Curry, LeBron can get anything a team needs at anytime, from a post-up layup to a rebound to a blocked shot. Because of his size, he can’t possibly have Curry’s ankle-snapping handle, and no one has Curry’s patriot-missile range. But LeBron has everything else over the diminutive guard with the nuclear offensive game. Not to mention LeBron is 10-0 so far in these playoffs.
Yet every sports show leads with Thunder-Warriors as the de facto NBA Finals. Granted, the Western Conference is way more ornery than the enervated Eastern Conference. But LeBron has a singular hold on the hardwood right now, even more so than his heralded colleague in Oakland.
Indeed, King James is still royalty in this writer’s eyes. He has lorded over basketball for a decade, and thus has already earned his place among the immortals. If he retires tomorrow, he’s one of the 10 best players in NBA history. If he bags a Larry O’Brien Trophy for Cleveland, he retires as one of the five greatest players of all-time.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.