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The Legend of LeBron Keeps Growing

The basketball world is in the palm of James’s hand. After a fourth ring and fourth Finals MVP, mythology is the only way to talk about his career.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The times we live in require us to think critically: to second-guess, to interrogate, to fact-check, and to doubt. Anything less, and our entire worldview will be determined by whatever story is spun in our general direction. To be a sentient human in 2020 is to resist the mythology being written all around us and understand that most things are too complex to be the story of one Great Man changing the course of history. But how the hell, then, are we supposed to understand someone like LeBron James?

On Sunday, James won yet another championship, the fourth in a storied career. Did he score every bleeding point for the Lakers on the way to the title? Of course not. Over the full run of these playoffs, he might not have even been the best player on his own team. But that line of thinking seems so small when LeBron is making his own reality. We can (and have, and will) talk about all the ways that James can dominate the game. This title is more about the way he holds the basketball world in the palm of his hand.

Back in 2014, LeBron announced he would be leaving the Heat—a franchise he led to two titles and four straight Finals appearances—to join the young, unproven Cavaliers. By the time he arrived on the scene in Cleveland, the roster had already been reworked to suit his needs. A 33-win mess became an overnight contender. When LeBron decided to leave Cleveland for Los Angeles in 2018, he did so with the understanding that the Lakers, for all their cultural cachet, hadn’t even made the playoffs in five seasons. Within a year, the front office shipped out its recent draft lottery winnings in a trade for Anthony Davis, a burgeoning superstar James had courted openly. Their partnership led to an immediate title.

This is the way it goes. LeBron has now changed teams three times in his career, and in each case has won that team a championship within two seasons. On Sunday he became the first player in NBA history to win Finals MVP as a member of three different franchises. The only player to win more total Finals MVPs (Michael Jordan, naturally) did so with just one team. This is something entirely different—something more than dominance. It’s authorship. James wanted to play with Davis, and lo and behold, AD became a Laker. LeBron insisted that Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard could help a championship team despite years of evidence suggesting otherwise, and in time he was proved exactly right.

“I told Jeanie [Buss] when I got here that I was gonna put this franchise back where it belongs,” James said in the midst of the championship celebration, with his Finals MVP trophy in hand. Scores of franchise players have surely made and broken similar promises. But what distinguishes James from even his contemporaries atop basketball Olympus is the preposterous rate at which he delivers. This was a hard-fought series against a formidable opponent. Yet in the final game, the Heat’s tempestuous rallies crashed like waves on a beach. Intensity met stability, and the final 48 minutes played out with all the punishing inevitability of a LeBron drive.

For James to operate this way at nearly 36 years old defies everything we know about basketball. The vast majority of superstars to even play at that age have accepted their prime as a memory. LeBron’s seems only to extend, from season to season and team to team, long enough for star after star to challenge him. It should be possible; James is just a man in a tank top, ostensibly the same as any other standout athlete in any other uniform. The reality is more complicated, hewing closer to myth. Kawhi Leonard tried to turn another Los Angeles team into a juggernaut by hand-picking his own superstar teammate off a list. The Clippers lost in the second round. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the back-to-back MVP and the heir apparent to James, looked to be turning a small-market franchise into an establishment, as LeBron did in Cleveland. The Bucks hit the wall of the Heat’s playoff defense and never recovered. James Harden teamed up with Russell Westbrook in the hopes of propelling the Rockets into the NBA Finals, just as he had teamed up with Chris Paul, and with (current Laker, and now champion) Howard before him. James and Davis dismantled Houston’s playoff hopes themselves in the West semifinals, proving the Lakers immutable to small ball in the process.

Every contender eliminated too early is its own reminder of LeBron’s exceptionalism. So many fall so short of their championship aspirations, whether by their own folly or the hand of James himself. Meanwhile, one of history’s greatest basketball players moves from city to city, transforming teams and keeping promises. Every championship is won by dozens of people, from players and coaches to scouts and support staff. It is an organizational achievement. Yet the increasingly inarguable legend of LeBron is that the man is an organization unto himself—transcendent beyond even our contemporary ideas of basketball stardom. Player empowerment seems like a cute idea when James is out in Los Angeles doing his own kind of empowering, ensuring that even if Davis surpasses him on the court next season, or the season after that, he will have engineered the arrival of his own successor.

LeBron takes the court in the same way any other star would, but he is playing an entirely different game at an entirely different scale. At a certain point, mythology is simply our most efficient means of understanding the vastness of his impact and how it makes a championship like this one possible. It is the closest we can get to the truth.