clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The LeBron Paradox

James’s move to Los Angeles seemed predicated on the assumption that he could bend events to his will—that he’s too big to fail. How does the Lakers’ doomed season change our understanding of his transformative powers?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the strangest aspects of LeBron James’s deeply strange career is the way it seems to occupy two realities at once. Or maybe that’s not strange: How could one reality contain a figure as gigantic, as contradictory, as divisive as LeBron? If physicists hadn’t already hypothesized a multiverse, he’d have forced their hand. Schrödinger’s cat would have sprung back to life, and also died hideously, at the moment The Decision was announced. Werner Heisenberg would have responded with a furious set of explanatory equations, in Comic Sans.

So: not strange. Say paradoxical, rather. One of the most paradoxical aspects of LeBron James’s wildly paradoxical career is the way it seems to inhabit two mutually exclusive, but weirdly overlapping, realities. Call them—since Michael Jordan is the figure to whom he’s inevitably compared, the creator of the template LeBron has been slotted into and broken out of, forced to fit and criticized for not fitting, his whole adult life—the Jordan Universe and the Anti-Jordan Universe.

In the Jordan Universe, LeBron is the clear inheritor of MJ’s mantle of basketball greatness. His career was predestined, on rails from the moment he dropped 25 points on the Kings in his first-ever NBA game. “Who’s the best basketball player on earth?” anyone asks; he’s the answer. Has been from the very beginning. Maybe not the only answer possible—Kobe stans would like to remind you that they have Twitter accounts—but the only one that doesn’t require a lot of extra justification and evidence. He’s a superhero, as he once said himself. “Basketball Man.” He’s inevitable, unstoppable, and whatever setbacks and obstacles he’s faced, whatever arguments you can muster about the Warriors or databall or West vs. Least, the overriding narrative of the NBA’s last 15 years is his glacial drift toward greatness.

In the Anti-Jordan Universe, LeBron is the opposite of a sure thing. The Jordan template is obsessed above all with two narrative tests: conquering big moments and protecting an unblemished legacy. And LeBron—well, say that for a player who was self-evidently designed in a heavenly laboratory so that basketball might come to touch God, we’ve seen him lose kind of a lot over the years. There’s the currently unfolding unleash-the-bats nightmare in Los Angeles, obviously (more on that in a second). But also in the kinds of crucibles that the MJ narrative insists a superstar has to own. There are the six NBA Finals defeats, of course, and some truly confounding box scores (2011: eight points on 3-for-11 shooting in Game 4 against the Mavericks).

Along with these come his share—more than his share, more than anyone’s share—of holy-goddamn unbelievable performances. But the android-avenger consistency of the Jordan legend? The sense of a coherent narrative arc stage-managed in real time by a ruthlessly driven genius? It hasn’t been as straightforward as that.

Getty Images

There’s more. LeBron is candid; Jordan stayed on-message. LeBron takes risks; MJ did that one baffling, unreadable thing—he went off to play baseball in Birmingham—but in basketball, he stuck to the odds. (I’m leaving out his old-age follies with the Wizards, which transpired during the years of the Star Wars prequels, and which had a similar quality of not quite belonging to the story they were meant to extend.) LeBron wants to influence society, and cares about his personal growth; society and the human soul are messy, unpredictable things, and MJ gave them a savvy berth. LeBron has self-sabotaged, plonked his foot in his mouth, outraged his fan base(s), and generally miscalculated his way into preventable awkwardness like any other old millennial in the age of the internet. Compared to the misstep-allergic Jordan, he’s seemed erratic, earnest, a figure of perilous contingency.

And yet. We don’t see the LeBron of the Anti-Jordan Universe modifying the LeBron of the Jordan Universe. We see them coexisting. We don’t think, “LeBron has talent and competitive drive similar to Jordan’s, but he’s less steely and more willing to take chances.” Or we do when we think about it abstractly, but we don’t feel it when we look at him. What we feel is that he’s one and he’s the other. He’s inevitable even when he loses. I can’t think of any other athlete of whom that could be said. Maybe Tiger Woods, a couple of decades ago? Maybe Serena Williams, intermittently. For LeBron, it’s always been true. The two narratives of his career are arranged like stacked lenses. You can’t see him without looking through them both. He is somehow, at all times, both the line-perfect media-fantasy GOAT algorithm and a person too complex and impulsive to stick to the script written for precisely that role.

How is that possible?

In Los Angeles, he’s encountered enough turbulence to make you question whether it really is. The move to L.A. looked at first blush like a triumphant synthesis of his two universes. Another risky reset, that is, another jump like the jump to Miami and then back to Cleveland, but this one committed under full, mature, late-career control—a move that would merge basketball and personal and business interests in a single victorious vision. Then the games started, and that is not what happened.

Need a quick reminder of how bad this year has been? Check the calendar. It’s early April, and LeBron has played his last basketball of the NBA season. It’s been more than a decade since that happened last. Before this year—maybe you’ve caught this factoid if you’ve been within shouting distance of a sports TV broadcast in the past four months—he’d played in eight straight Finals.

What’s been so queasily riveting about the implosion of the Lakers’ season is not just the scale of the disaster, though the disaster has been gigantic: the failure to put together anything more than a half-assed Franken-lineup after one of the biggest free-agent signings in history (that is, LeBron’s); the failure to make the playoffs; the seismic fiasco of the botched trade for Anthony Davis; the disintegration of the team after LeBron publicly activated “playoff mode”; the mounting injuries, including the first serious injury of LeBron’s career; the fact that “sitting far away” is now my first suggested Google result after typing in “Rajon Rondo”; finally, LeBron’s decision to skip the final six games of the regular season after previously suggesting that he wouldn’t. Nor is it that this is the first time we’ve seen LeBron fall short to this degree. What’s been riveting is the sense that the move to L.A. has done exactly the opposite of what it promised: Instead of fusing LeBron’s realities, it’s pulled them out of phase with one another, and in doing so, it’s offered an unexpected glimpse of his persona’s fragile machinery.

Getty Images

“Fragile,” though: that’s hyperbolic. Nothing that happens in California is going to wreck LeBron’s legacy. He’s won four MVPs. Three titles. He brought a championship to Cleveland, for God’s and Art Modell’s sake. His jersey sales have done a merry capitalist dance on top of his rivals’ jerseys’ graves. He’s a figure of national cultural importance, and JaVale McGee’s plus-minus isn’t going to jeopardize that.

Still. At LeBron’s level, where players are evaluated against history, interpretation counts for a lot. And that’s especially true in this case, because LeBron, having been so good at such a young age, has been unusually thoughtful about how he wants us to interpret him. He was inducted into the Jordan Universe while he was still in high school, after all. Most top athletes spend their playing days establishing a legacy, but LeBron, from very early on, was able to take the inevitability of his legacy for granted. He was free to begin thinking about it—assessing it, shaping it, weighing its advantages and obligations—almost before he’d even started creating it.

How does he want us to see him? In interview after interview, LeBron has been frank about his vision of himself as a figure of sport-transcending significance. “I’m the biggest figure that my hometown has ever seen,” he told GQ in 2014. That’s been his message to the world for most of the past 16 years. He sees his gifts as setting him apart from other people, and he sees that distance, his elevation, as something he can use for good.

This vision has helped shape some of his most admirable moments. He refused to apologize after being criticized by conservatives for his famous “u bum” tweet aimed at President Donald Trump in 2017. Last year, when Fox News host Laura Ingraham told him to “shut up and dribble,” he framed his refusal to keep silent as an obligation of celebrity, not citizenship. “I mean too much to society” not to speak out, he said. “I mean too much to the youth.”

His sense of his own significance has also spurred some of his most damaging controversies. His infamous tirade after losing in the 2011 Finals—the “all the people that were rooting for me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before” monologue—can be interpreted in various ways. What’s revealing is that in a moment of defensiveness and frustration, his mind went to the gulf separating him from regular people.

Modesty isn’t a quality that counts for much in NBA stars. Michael Jordan wasn’t modest; neither was Kobe Bryant or Larry Bird. Extreme self-belief is a necessary state for great basketball players, who have to make the astoundingly difficult look easy night after night, again and again. With LeBron, however, there’s a strange, statesmanlike humility that you can sometimes perceive behind his most frankly self-assertive comments. The forthrightness of his self-belief is so complete that it almost becomes self-effacing because it implies that LeBron sees his career as something greater than himself, a trust from on high, which it’s his responsibility to shepherd. He has no need to pretend to be humble, the way other players might to sell you on their likability; for him, the issue is bigger than that. He sometimes talks as if he were a museum curator in charge of a priceless painting. “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach”: a pompous comment from one angle, but from another, it suggests someone who conceives of his talents as fundamentally separate from himself. If he can boast about them, it’s because they’re impersonal, a monumental public fact. “Even my family gets spoiled at times watching me doing things that I do,” he’s said. People mocked him for it, but rephrase it a little; cut him a little slack. Even my family gets spoiled watching me carry the Mona Lisa.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be him. Can you? With any confidence? To have gone in the blink of an eye, while still an adolescent, into a state of almost unfathomable fame, cameras everywhere you turn, so many people to tell you “yes,” so few people to tell you “no.” If I’m talking too much about his image, the reason is partly because I don’t know how to find my way inside it. With some athletes, sure. With LeBron?

What I keep coming back to is the fact that he seems genuinely concerned about doing good. Even when he appears arrogant or unlikable. In fact, especially when he appears arrogant or unlikable because those are the moments when he’s most often trying, with some awkwardness, to talk about how he wants to deploy his influence. He wants to be an inspiration for kids, which, OK, sounds corny, but he truly seems to mean it—and he knows what it’s like to be a kid in need of inspiration. He wants to be an inspiration for African Americans. (“It’s my responsibility to show them it’s not a bad thing to be someone who’s changed,” he’s said.)

When I hear him say “I mean too much to society,” my first reaction is that it’s a tasteless thing for a person to say about himself. My second reaction is that this person is LeBron James, and therefore, in this case, the comment is strictly accurate. My third reaction is that it’s kind of a marvel that someone who beamed into infinite celebrity at 17 could be so thoughtful about his influence on society. That you could have more than you could want of everything you’ve ever wanted, and still want to make a positive difference.

He wants to be a mogul. He wants to be a movie star. He wants to be a billionaire. None of that is speculative; we know because he’s told us. Being a billionaire is “my biggest milestone,” he said a few years ago. In the same interview, he said he wanted to be Picasso. He’s starring in the Space Jam remake produced by Ryan Coogler. (Literally, the Jordan Universe.) He’s ramping up his own production company. None of which is wrong, on any level. It’s what we’d do. But it presents the obvious commercial problem of sports greatness in practice. For the massive grown-up corporate-entertainment-lifestyle-basketball hybrid to feel like more than a distraction, the basketball has to work.

The bigger danger of the L.A. meltdown, however, is that the sheer massiveness of LeBron’s move seems predicated on the assumption that LeBron can bend events to his will—that he’s too big to fail. Like: Of course, he can conquer Hollywood and revive the Showtime era and expand his brand and win championships; he’s LeBron. And that, in turn, plays into the dynamic that drives the people who hate LeBron most out of their skulls, which they’ll explain in lots of different ways but which I think comes down to the belief that he’s allowed to treat basketball as a foregone conclusion, and that there’s something obscurely unfair about this.

Imagine, for a quick second, that you are someone who hates LeBron James. You remember, say, the time he playfully predicted he’d win more than seven titles with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami—“Not two, not three, not four, not five…”—and instead of seeing this as a moment of slightly oblivious goofing around, you see it as indicative of his entire approach to the game. After all, he’s always been (to your mind) obnoxiously open about his sense of his own importance; his greatness has always been treated as a fait accompli by everyone around him; he’s been allowed to stay inside the Jordan Universe despite clearly deviating from its laws in all sorts of ways.

Now imagine, please, how absolutely foaming you, the LeBron hater, would feel over the botched Davis trade. The idea of this guy, this poseur who isn’t fit to polish Michael Jordan’s bronze ankle socks, thinking he can act like the behind-the-scenes CEO of the NBA. That he can manipulate the league on a corporate level, use agents as illicit go-betweens, obviously tamper with another superstar in an effort to form another unbalanced superteam (not his first), all because he thinks he’s entitled to win thanks to some media narrative he’s been fed since childhood. Look (you say, scooping up a fresh palmful of bar nuts), obviously he’s a great basketball player. But he’s overrated, and he’s gotten too big for himself. Wouldn’t you just longtime/first-time out of your own skull over this?

You feel, in other words, like there should be more basketball in this basketball story. And that, in a way, is the crisis of the L.A. collapse, and the contradiction of his whole career, from which all the rest of this springs. LeBron has perfected basketball to the point that basketball itself is at risk of becoming an afterthought. You take the impossible things he does on the court for granted. He takes them for granted. I take them so completely for granted that I haven’t even mentioned them till now, and I’ve mentioned both The Phantom Menace and Donald Trump.

And yet what he’s done with the sport is astonishing. From game to game, from minute to minute, astonishing. I once switched directly from a midround NCAA tournament game to an NBA game in which LeBron was playing. It felt like—well, it felt like another dimension had opened up. Another universe. The angles that suddenly appear when you’re watching him see them. The impression of speed that slows down time instead of making it faster. (“My game is really played above time,” he said in 2005; it’s one of the most astute things I’ve ever heard an athlete say about himself.) The power that makes movement look softer instead of harder. The joy of watching LeBron is not the purely athletic joy of watching Zion Williamson—the joy of watching the human body do seemingly impossible things. That’s part of it, sometimes. But LeBron’s effect on the game goes down into its inner workings. I don’t mean that in some advanced-stats, smartypants way; I mean that when LeBron is playing, the entire game seems visibly animated by a different sense of purpose.

The trouble with performing miracles so consistently that everyone forgets they’re miraculous is that when you try one and it doesn’t work, the whole foundation of your magic suddenly seems suspect. Everything you’ve built on it, too. It’s possible that the Lakers will ace their long summer, win 70 games and a title next year, and sweep this whole misbegotten season into oblivion. All I know is that next year, for the first time in a long time with LeBron, the basketball will not be a foregone conclusion. We won’t be able to take it for granted. And what happens, if we watch him with fresh eyes, could affect the way we think about him in ways that are hard to predict. It’s a fascinating moment. We are all witnesses.

2021-22 NBA Preview

Draymond Green Has Something to Say

New York, New York

Another Rough Week for the Giants, the NLCS, and Over/Unders for the NBA Season

The Mismatch

Ten Questions About the Upcoming Season, Plus Zion Williamson’s Health and Kyrie Irving’s Instagram Live

View all stories in NBA