Appreciating LeBron, now and then

Dear Kids,

Greetings from the year 2013.

I'm not sure how far into the future you'll be reading this, but I asked your mom to save a copy and show it to you when you get a little older, if only to help explain why your dad looked so mentally haggard in the summer of 2013, the year you girls turned 3 and 1.

Maybe you didn't notice amid all the "Dora the Explorer" episodes and adventures on the playground, but it was a strange time. You see, your dad has done a lot of maddening things in his life, especially as it relates to sports. Remember when I used to prop you up on my knee during big golf tournaments on TV and tell you we were pulling hard for Phil Mickelson, that this was going to be his week? I'm lucky the neighbors didn't call child protective services after each U.S. Open.

But the most infuriating thing I think I ever did when you two were growing up was unabashedly pull for LeBron James and believe that he represented everything I loved, everything I thought was beautiful, about basketball.

Do you remember LeBron? He's probably old and slow by now. Probably put on some weight. It happens to the best of us, trust me. Maybe he's retired. Maybe he left the nightly grind of the NBA behind for the posh life of a global icon. Who knows, maybe he's spending his days as an owner of a European soccer team, sitting on the board at Nike or building Boys and Girls Clubs in urban areas around the country.

But when you kids were little, when he was at the absolute height of his powers, he was probably the most fascinating athlete anyone had ever seen.

And, he was probably the most infuriating.

Why do I feel the need to explain all this to you? Good question. I guess it's because even though I know they can be empty and exploitive and infuriating, sports still mean a great deal to me. It's one of the few places in life where artistry and brute strength can not only coexist, they can work together in concert. Athletics can be stirring and inspiring, but they can also be joyous and beautiful. Few players helped me understand this better than LeBron James.

For the longest time, I thought people were dead wrong about him. That fans, certain members of the media and even some of his peers kept obsessing over all the stuff he wasn't instead of embracing everything he was. In 2013, my bosses sent me on an odyssey that spanned multiple cities to try to prove my thesis that LeBron James was all that was right with basketball in this country. He just about drove me nuts. When it was over, I was as conflicted as ever.

I loved the fact that, despite all his physical gifts, he was vulnerable. He was human.

But it was also kind of exasperating to defend him.

You see, before LeBron came along, there was this guy named Michael Jordan. Have I talked about him? If not, I should have. He was so good, it was scary. He played for the Chicago Bulls, and his reign on the basketball throne was so hypnotic, so mesmerizing, so impressive in the way he didn't just defeat opponents, he left them broken and humiliated, that it kind of altered our perception of every athlete who followed him.

This Jordan guy, he didn't step on a court to make friends or to have a good time. He did it with the intention of asserting his dominance, of destroying anyone who got in his way. There is much to admire about this, of course. You know how I've always tried to explain the value of hard work? Well, Michael Jordan worked harder than anyone. And he wasn't just remarkable at basketball -- he was without peer when it came to narrative, and considering your dad makes his living as a writer, I had to admire that. He was handsome and media-savvy and for most of the people I grew up with, he embodied cool.

Jordan lusted after the big stage, and he wanted to take every single shot if the game was close, even if three guys were hanging on his back. Early in his career, people thought that was admirable but selfish, but he changed everyone's mind through sheer will. And once he made it to the NBA Finals, he never lost. People couldn't help but use this as the measuring stick for greatness, and by comparison, this made LeBron James look a little silly.

LeBron wasn't the Second Coming of Michael Jordan, even though we all predicted that he could be. He just wasn't. I can't imagine that changed after 2013. They were both brilliant athletes, but they were such different people.

For a long time, I was convinced this wasn't a bad thing. In fact, I thought for a long time it was a glorious thing. It felt like one of the great happy accidents in the history of American basketball. Because even though LeBron James grew up worshiping Michael Jordan, he became an entirely different artist on the court. He was proof you didn't have to be callous and cold-blooded to be a winner.

You see, that Jordan guy? He wasn't exactly the nicest person. He could be kind of a jerk, in fact. He was so tightly wound, legend has it he slugged a few of his teammates in the face when he got frustrated with them during practice. When they screwed up, he'd mock them with such fury, they'd frequently be reduced to tears. (Grown men crying. That's how competitive he was.) One time, in 1998, he stormed into the training room the day after a playoff game and saw one of the role players on his team, Scott Burrell, lying on the table getting treatment for a hamstring injury. Burrell was holding up the start of practice. Jordan, who was sore and tired from playing 48 minutes the night before, was so mad he flipped over the table in a rage while Burrell was still on it.

People excused this kind of behavior -- celebrated it and glorified even -- because Jordan's ruthless perfection was so intoxicating. It's a weird life lesson to learn, I guess, but it's true. There is only so much room in sports for kindness. Nice guys might not finish last, but they don't often finish first.

But you know, LeBron was different. He wasn't comfortable being the guy everyone feared. He smiled a lot, danced during warm-ups and put his arm around teammates when they were struggling. Basketball was a lot like family for him, and you could trace the roots of it back to his childhood. Unlike you girls, he grew up without a dad. His mom went through some personal struggles, and there were times in his life when he didn't know where he was going to sleep at night. Basketball sort of became his port in the storm. He'd ride his bike all over Akron when he was 12, and eventually he'd find a pickup game, and he'd always get picked. Not just because he was such a good player, but because he was unusually unselfish.

He reminded me a lot of my all-time favorite athlete, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Magic, who had the best nickname in the history of sports, was this really tall point guard with an infectious smile, and he was the kind of leader who embraced his teammates, who trusted and encouraged them and never seemed to belittle them. He could score, but what he loved the most about basketball was finding wide-open guys and setting them up for easy baskets. And until Jordan came along, people really admired his approach. For a while, they thought it was the best way to win a championship.

But by the time LeBron reached the NBA, the perception of greatness had changed a little. Sharing the ball was what you did in high school and college, when you were working on teamwork and fundamentals. But at the highest level, if you wanted to be remembered as the Greatest of All Time, you had to play the hero when it mattered. If you relied on other people too much, it meant you were soft. That you didn't want it enough. People got paid a lot of money to say that on TV or write columns about it. It was an interesting time.

It's not that people didn't appreciate LeBron. They undoubtedly did. Your dad's employer, ESPN, spent almost as much time and resources covering LeBron as Robert Caro did writing about former president Lyndon Johnson. But LeBron frustrated people in a way Jordan never did. Maybe it had something to do with the era and the way we expressed ourselves on social media, without a filter or remorse. Is Twitter still around? For a while, it seemed like a great way to make yourself Internet-famous was to get on Twitter and call LeBron a coward, a fraud or a choker.

It bugged people that LeBron was friends with some of his closest rivals, like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Once, during a terrific playoff game against the Indiana Pacers, he traded jaw-dropping baskets with a great young player named Paul George, and when the quarter was over, LeBron slapped George's hand as a sign of respect. Michael never would have done that, people said.

There was a time when criticism ate at him, when he bit his nails down to the cuticle and tried to please everyone. When he arrived in Miami, he tried to play the villain, sneering after dunks, acting haughty and distant from reporters, and the internal conflict in his head seemed to paralyze him at the worst possible time. When he played miserable in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, everyone had a good laugh at how lost he looked.

But then something fascinating happened. He started playing the game like a kid again. He danced in warm-ups, he smiled more, he stopped forcing shots just because people insisted he do more, and he trusted his teammates. He was introspective about his failures. He was goofy instead of angry. He retweeted pictures of kids dressed up like him for Halloween. He made eye contact in news conferences. He joked about his disappearing hairline. He seemed like a real person again.

It looked as if he was proving you could be great, maybe even the greatest, without being selfish, without being a robot. When he won his first NBA title in 2012, handing out 13 assists in the clinching Game 5, people had to acknowledge the beauty of it. It wasn't just the stat wonks awed by his game -- it was all of us. I felt like Magic's unbridled joy lived on, spiritually, in LeBron. Here's what LeBron said when asked about how he found himself:

"When Dallas beat us in the Finals two years ago, I just went back to the basics," he said. "I went back home, I went back to Ohio. I worked out with my high school coach. I went back to my high school gym, and just put myself in the mindset of what made me fall in love with the game, and it's because I had a lot of fun with it. Every night I stepped on the basketball court, I wanted to have fun. At the end of the day, it is just a basketball game."

Of course, it couldn't last. Even though the Heat had an amazing regular season the year after they won a championship, winning 27 games in a row at one point, all it took was a little slipup and the Jordan Narrative came roaring back to life. Your dad watched LeBron score 36 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, but when he turned the ball over twice in the final minute (trying to swing the ball to a wide-open shooter), a few reporters circled the Heat locker room like sharks smelling blood.

"Do you ever wish LeBron was more selfish?"

That was an actual question a reporter asked multiple times. To his teammates!

That night, I hustled over and talked to one of the Heat players -- forward Shane Battier, a pretty good basketball player and smart guy who graduated from Duke University -- to try to make some sense of it.

"That's the post-Jordan narrative of the era we live in," Battier said. "People think, 'You can't be great and lead a team unless you're Ivan the Conqueror.' Well, that's not him. His competitiveness manifests itself in other ways. I don't think we really, truly appreciate it right now, but I think we will looking back in 50 years. We're going to study film and say, 'Watch how LeBron always found the open man. Why can't the stars of today be as unselfish as he was?' He's a bit of a victim of his era, where every moment gets devalued because people are trying to fit it into a tweet, or blurb about it on Instagram."

I couldn't help but chuckle a few nights later against the Pacers, when LeBron backed Paul George down into the post three times in the first half and banked in a left-handed jump hook, silencing the crowd inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It felt like LeBron could do anything he wanted. When I asked him about it after the game, he laughed a little.

"I do everything else with my left. Write. Eat. I just shoot the ball with my right," he said. "I'm just weird, I guess. I don't know, man."

Your dad joked with a friend afterward that he might as well have been watching Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride," smiling as he toyed with an opponent. I know something you don't know. I am not left-handed. (I know, I forced you to watch that movie too often. I apologize, but to me, it's like the "Citizen Kane" of romantic comedies.)

In the locker room that night, when LeBron yanked his tired legs from a therapeutic ice bath, I couldn't help but glance down at his feet, specifically his toes. He has the toes of a ballet dancer, and that's not a compliment. They're twisted and bent, tangled and right-angled like the ends of a tree root, the victims of a lifetime spent smashing against the walls of designer sneakers, bearing the brunt of every hard cut, every violent landing, every acceleration through traffic. That's the price to be paid for basketball immortality, I thought. Toes snarled together like a five-car pileup. Maybe people don't appreciate how hard he's worked to get here, to do this his way.

When he finished off the Pacers, I was filled with so much wonder. I decided I couldn't wait to see him in the NBA Finals again. I planned to sit you both in my lap and make you watch one of the games -- even if they didn't tip off until after your bedtime -- just so your dad could one day tell you that you'd seen a little slice of history.

But now we're in the middle of the NBA Finals, and suddenly I'm full of doubt. I've become the concern troll I warned you about. We've reached that point in the season where every moment is cast as a referendum on LeBron's status as one of the all-time greats, and right now, even though I believe people are overreacting a bit, I have to agree, it's not going well.

I find myself wishing LeBron has just a little more Jordan in him, which is a hard thing to confess.

The Spurs -- a beautiful basketball team in their own right, stocked with unselfish, intelligent players -- are picking LeBron apart with poetic precision, and he once again looks lost. His stats are OK, but he's clearly not the player he was even a week ago. It's like watching Eric Clapton suddenly forget how to play the guitar, or Adele lose her voice. (You know who those two musicians are, right? Don't make me feel old.)

Even Magic, who has often defended LeBron's pass-first mentality, was incredulous after he watched LeBron flounder around in Game 3 and look for everyone else's shot first, scoring just 15 points as the Spurs won 113-77.

"I was very disappointed in LeBron James, and this is probably the first time I've said that," Magic said. "He was so passive. You cannot rely on the other guys when you're the superstar and the best player in the league. Especially on the road. You have got to set the tone for everybody else. You take 30 or 40 shots if you have to, and you try and win this game. If he doesn't step up, this series is going to be over."

Is he once again feeling overwhelmed by the burdens of greatness? Is that really what happened in Cleveland all those years ago? It used to drive me crazy when people would suggest it reflected poorly on LeBron's character when he drove the lane and zipped the ball to Chris Bosh (he's another Heat star, sort of) for a wide-open 3-pointer. Now I find myself thinking: Should he have a little less faith in the teammates he says he loves?

I hope by the time you read this, you've learned not to twist yourself into a pretzel trying to "explain" the ever-changing narrative surrounding a professional athlete. Much of it is nonsense. LeBron James is one of the best basketball players anyone has ever seen, but he's human, and he had a bad game. Maybe it's as simple as that. I hope you embrace sports as entertainment as something beautiful and unexplainable, but you don't seek to justify your worldview in the career arc of a NBA basketball player.

It's too late for your dear old dad, of course. I'm exhausted by my inability to figure this guy out.

But I doubt I'll ever stop trying.



P.S. Actually, if you're reading this in like 2025, and I'm still trying to figure out why big moments turn LeBron into a shrinking violet, tell Mom it's time for me to take up wood carving or Sudoku or something less mentally taxing.