I do not know who will win the 2015 NBA Finals. Sure, I’d pick the Warriors in 7. But I don’t know how the Cavs reconfigure their defense, or how healthy Kyrie or Klay are. I don’t know, and it’s not the end all be all. Sure, it matters to legacy, it matters to social media, talk radio, and the people who want to compare and contrast LeBron James to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and anyone in between.
What I do know is I won’t get this again. Late summer of 2001, as a 15 year old sports obsessed teenager I discovered LeBron in a magazine article (SLAM, issue #54). It was the first national magazine article LeBron had made an appearance in, months before the Sports Illustrated cover that put him into the mainstream. Had this occurred 3 or 4 years later, I would have scoffed and sought out a negative that I could find. What has he done yet? He’s only 16. Older player X is better. But in that moment? It was what can he do? I believe your imagination slowly deteriorates – at least it has for me. Those lucky enough to imagine and create late into life are an enviable bunch to me. As a 15 year old, I still dealt with the imagination of what could be. Later in life, the reality of what can’t be has become prevalent.
It didn’t take much to reel me in. I like to think that at an early age I had a good understanding of basketball. And LeBron had it. I felt anyone who couldn’t see it just didn’t understand. Here he was, 6’8 200 and whatever with athleticism that was unparalleled. We’ll see that part again. We are not seeing the mind paired with it. Sure, he needed to refine his game – defense, shooting – later on a post game was needed as well. But as a baseline? There wasn’t anything else you could want. What were you missing? Because Carmelo Anthony had accomplished more in a team setting? No, those accomplishments can’t be taken for granted, but 12 years later I wonder the same thoughts when he’s compared to inferior basketball players of the past.
Perhaps other people are drawn to musicians, or artists or writers. I envy the potential of having a lifelong relationship and a following with a figure. Here, in the sports arena, there is a 15-20 year window, max. I struggle with the inevitable ending of it all. As early as the 2011 Finals and his biggest failing to date, I began to ask myself – if the run is near over, where or how can I find this again? I’m 24 at the time and worrying whether I’ll ever get this experience again in my life. Sure, I had childhood heroes (Jordan, Shaq, Griffey) but that was childhood heroship. LeBron combined what was left with that with a growing intellect and desire for knowledge. I don’t feel as if I can shake the cynicism that exists when viewing athletes to combine those two aspects again. They can’t do this and they can’t do that and they sure aren’t LeBron.
Between now and the 2011 Finals, LeBron piled on two more MVPs, two titles, and a barrel of stats dumped into his career resume. I have enjoyed every stop along the ride. I’ve long stopped telling people through the internet that they need to appreciate what they’re watching. The relationship isn’t the same, and in a way, I assume the people who have criticized him are likely long gone from having a figure to experience such a journey through. They may have had it before with Dr. J, Jordan, Bird, Magic or Kobe. And soon enough I’ll be the one nitpicking after every Andrew Wiggins misstep or Kevin Durant playoff failure. It’s just easier in this day and age to root against someone than for them.
For now? I’m still on a LeBron-high through sports that can’t be replicated in my day to day life fandom and escape from reality, aside from when Georgetown plays. It taps into my fading childhood that I get further from each passing day. Between the summer of 2001 to now, I’ve gotten my drivers license, graduated high school, graduated college, moved 1,400 miles from home (to Miami coincidentally), lost friends, gained friends, gone from Craig Esherick to John Thompson III. With LeBron, I’ve seen it all: from a culmination as the greatest player in the world (pick your date), a Game 7 shootout with the original Big 3, a string of summers that seemingly piled on top of each other until it hit rock bottom (2009, 2010, 2011), to the triumphs of 2012 and 2013. He’s met the expectations, which made this 14 year continuous ride possible in the first place. He has total mastery of his craft, which is a book unto itself on why it has been a joy to watch him play the game.
So I’ll be watching June 4th, as I have with nearly every LeBron playoff game since he started out post-season play in 2006. The result will matter, as it always has. A win is the defining moment of his career over a more powerful Warriors roster. A loss creates a damning 2-4 Finals record. You’ll find me on the internet afterwards dissecting who, what, and why it occurred. Admissions of failure, praising of greatness, condemning of teammates – it’s all in play. But the aspect that matters most for me is the emotion that these events can evoke and the fear that it fades away. For now, I have another Finals series to watch, another shot at glory. And for a couple of days the potential of what could be… the imagination of the unheard-of plays through my mind.