• Jay Christian

“The Chosen Won”

Sometimes I go down internet rabbit holes. The most unassuming YouTube clip will send my mind racing, and before I know it, I’ve watched two hours’ worth of Saturday morning cartoon theme songs from my childhood. My biggest rabbit hole guilty pleasure is old Sports Illustrated covers. I like the idea of trying to decipher what was happening in sports at the time a particular cover was taken. While recently trolling some friends over the topic of LeBron James versus Michael Jordan, I remembered the SI cover from February 18, 2002. On it, high school junior LeBron James, clutching a basketball and clad in a green headband and a St. Vincent-St. Mary home jersey, appeared next to the words, “The Chosen One”. The article speculated that James, a year away from his senior prom, could be that year’s top pick in the NBA draft.

Fifteen years after that cover hit newsstands, the basketball world is preparing for another LeBron James title run, his seventh NBA Finals appearance in as many years. In his wake is a host of accolades and awards that seem to confirm Sports Illustrated’s moniker bestowed upon him all those years ago.

This is not an article about why LeBron James is the greatest player ever. This isn’t science; it’s religion. And like all religions, there are empirical truths. It is true that James entered the NBA loaded with expectations that have not been placed on arguably any other player before him and certainly none since. It is true that regardless of where you rank him in the pantheon of players, he has lived up to those expectations. And it is true that no other player can make such a claim-not even Michael Jordan.

Factors outside of James’ control converged to create the perfect storm of media and celebrity when he was the first pick of the 2003 NBA Draft. Fans were starting to leverage the internet to consume sports content. Reality television, people famous for “being famous”, and the idea of total access were taking hold. Shows like Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption were immensely popular and would lay the groundwork for the “embrace debate” sports programming model. This was the sports world James inherited, and he handled it all flawlessly.

Michael Jordan’s career did not exist in this world. It is not his fault or any type of demerit on his legacy. It is simply a truth. It is also true that, for all his accomplishments, Jordan was not saddled with the same expectations as James. In fact, in Jordan’s case, the notion of exceeding expectations has been a major part of his origin story. He is the kid who got cut from his high school team. The college freshman who hit the game winning shot to secure a national championship. The draft prospect that the Blazers passed on in favor of Sam Bowie. The high-flying guard who, though entertaining, would never win like Magic Johnson. The Jordan narrative has always been, “you doubted me and I proved you wrong.” This idea was the thesis for the Jordan Shade Fest that was his 2009 Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech. Hell, the Jordan brand is essentially built on this concept, excellence for sure, but excellence earned in the face of detractors and nonbelievers.

Compare this journey to that of James. On the cover of Sports Illustrated before he could vote. Televised games on ESPN. Number one overall draft pick, tasked with reversing the fortunes of his hometown team which hadn’t enjoyed championship success since the early 1960s. And this all at the dawn of the social media era and before James even played a minute in the NBA. As the comparisons between Jordan and James continue to mount, it is important to consider how expectations inform the narrative of each player’s career. Jordan’s accomplishments are presented against the backdrop of him succeeding against the odds; James’ accolades are often saddled by the weight of people’s projections for what his career should be. Remarkably, even under this standard, James has managed to live up to those outsized expectations.

He is headed into his seventh straight trip to the NBA Finals and shows no signs of loosening his grip on the Eastern Conference. During this span, James has dismantled entire organizations. The Doc Rivers’ Celtics are still so salty about losing to James, that they have projected those feelings onto former teammate Ray Allen, who teamed up with James in Miami in 2012. Paul George, the last remaining key piece of a Pacers team built to defeat the Heat, is headed out of Indiana, leaving no vestiges of a squad that went all in to try and dethrone the King. And more recently in Toronto, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri has called for a “culture reset”, ostensibly to defeat James and the Cavaliers. To borrow a line from Legends of the Fall, James is the rock other teams broke themselves against.

Even if we disregard all of James’ professional feats, his failures are still impressive, and they are considered as such because of the expectations attached to his career. His four Finals losses, though unbecoming for anyone looking to be considered the best ever, are still the envy of any number of hall of famers who would be so lucky to have four such losses on their resumes.

Presenting LeBron’s failures as a feat invites the requisite amount of eyerolls. The reason for these reactions is based on the premise that the potential G.O.A.T. cannot lose multiple times in the Finals. It follows then, that to be underwhelmed with James’ championship record is to have believed that the expectations associated with his career, however lofty, were nonetheless attainable in the first place.

Not that the viewing public accepted these expectations in the beginning. From Bill Walton lamenting about ESPN giving so much attention to someone so young in his first nationally televised game, to NBA veterans telling anyone who would listen that James’ entry into the NBA would not be a walk in the park, the sports world couldn’t wait to make LeBron James a cautionary tale. The prep to pro pipeline issue was reaching its zenith when the 2003 NBA Draft rolled around and for every Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett to cite as examples of success, there was a Korleone Young or Leon Smith to present as evidence that coming to the NBA directly from high school was a mistake. LeBron shattered the most optimistic prognostications and forced basketball to reevaluate how it measured success on the court. The dated exercise of checking the box score for points and rebounds gave way to analyzing advanced metrics like plus/minus, true shooting percentages, and win shares.

LeBron was literally playing a different game but in our post-Jordan world, we just didn’t understand it. We were using 20th century methods to solve new millennium equations and it took a few years for the game’s math to catch up to him. As we have evolved, so has our appreciation for James’ talent. We used to lament that he lacked the “killer instinct” to shoot his way out a bad basketball situation, but now we understand that he is a basketball savant, Will Hunting in high-tops.

We have also come to understand the initial expectations placed on LeBron were a bit unfair. Make no mistake, there is still a cottage industry that trades on LeBron James not living up to the letter of the expectations bestowed upon him 15 years ago. But sports culture has for the most part moved beyond the binary “ring equals good, no ring equals bad” type of analysis. It is that progressive thinking that has led to the first unanimous MVP in NBA history and the acceptance of a player leaving his current team for a better location with better players as smart, rather than simply weak or selfish. Which brings us to the 2017 NBA Finals.

LeBron is currently down to a Golden State Warrior juggernaut that features, among others, the second and third best players in the world depending on your preference. The Warriors have been dominant and at 35 points per game, Warriors forward Kevin Durant is headed to his first title and Finals MVP. But the other storyline is how Durant’s decision to come to the Warriors was ultimately correct. There was an initial backlash of the decision but KD’s move has come to be viewed as shrewd and obvious. Who wouldn’t want to leave the dust bowl of Oklahoma for the Bay Area, trading a ball dominant sidekick for a group of basketball savants in the NBA’s version of a high performing Montessori School. That Durant’s move is viewed this way is evidence of the LeBron Effect.

In 2011, LeBron’s move to Miami, though similar to Durant’s, was not seen in the same light. Just six years ago, LeBron’s choice was the reason why he could never be like the great players of the past, least of all Jordan. Teaming up with friends and creating super teams was cowardice and displayed James’ willingness to take the “easy way out” if there was such a thing. LeBron James endured all types of critiques while waiting on the basketball world to arrive at a place where it could praise moves like his and Durant’s, and he did so while maintaining a level of on-court excellence befitting of the best player in the world.

Despite the sports intellectual renaissance, James is still graded on a different curve. His legacy is on the line in this year’s Finals or any other Finals he plays in until he retires. Sure, if the Warriors somehow lose after adding Durant, they will spend the better part of the offseason in meme purgatory, but a loss will not have the same impact on the legacies of Durant, Curry et al. James is different. He is the one chasing ghosts. Our expectations of him are grandfathered in from another era. The scariest part is that despite all this, he has delivered.

In an era of TMZ, 24-hour news cycles, and a proliferation of talking heads, James has lived up to the expectations placed on his precocious shoulders back in 2002. No matter what happens over the next two weeks, James has fulfilled the prophecy; his career has unfolded as it was written.

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