On the court the 33-year-old can only rely on himselfby Benjamin Markovits / June 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
About seven years ago, I interviewed LeBron James in Barcelona. It was the summer after he lost his second NBA Finals. His Miami Heat team had been upset by the underdog Dallas Mavericks, partly because James himself had underperformed, panicking or deferring at crucial moments, and he’d come in for a lot of criticism afterwards. In person he was extremely impressive. He looked like a statue of himself, solid and larger than life, and in every situation I saw him (I was allowed to follow him around for the weekend), he seemed like the grown-up in the room: patient with the foolishness that surrounded him, serious and in control.
Last week he lost again. These days he plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, his hometown team, and they were just “swept” (beaten four games to none in the championship-deciding best-of-seven series) by the Golden State Warriors—a kind of super-team that has changed the way basketball is being played. It’s the third time in four years that Golden State has beaten LeBron in the Finals. For complicated reasons I usually find myself rooting against him. The simplest is that I’m a Michael Jordan fan, he was one of the gods of my childhood, and James has now become so good that even reasonable people like to talk about whether he has supplanted Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time. This bugs me, and the easiest way to stop these conversations is for James to lose.
But there are other reasons. What makes basketball so absorbing is that it’s an almost equal contest between grace and power. In soccer, by contrast, grace (skill, quickness of thought and foot, etc.) tends to win—in rugby and American football, even the “skill” players tend to be big and enormously strong. Basketball is really the only sport I can think of where grace and power go head to head, guard each other, play the same positions. And basketball is at its best, most exciting and watchable, when grace wins… which is what made Jordan so easy to love, because he took on the “bad boys” of Detroit and New York, tough, strong, dirty teams, who liked to push people around, and out-graced them.
There has never been a player like LeBron James. He’s listed at 6’8”, two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, and is taller than many, and stronger than almost all NBA big men. He’s also quick and deft, can shoot and pass, and do all the graceful things that graceful players do… but he seems to get bigger every year, stronger, too, and somehow the balance has shifted, and watching him play now, driving against smaller athletes, using his weight against them, forcing them back, it feels like power exercising itself against grace. There have been times in his career when he seems like a bully—dominating weaker opponents but liable to flinch first when anyone stands up to him. Star teammates have come and gone, in part because they don’t want to play alongside him, and a recent article has even suggested that in spite of his extraordinary passing skills, he makes his teammates worse.
And yet it’s hard not to feel for him right now. At 33, he has just finished playing the best basketball of his career—his run of form in this year’s playoffs has been almost unprecedented. Against Golden State, maybe the greatest team ever assembled, he was a controversial foul-call away from winning game one of the NBA Finals, on a night when he became only the sixth player in finals history to score 50 points. But after that loss, Golden State ran the tables against them… Cleveland seemed to give up at the end, losing the last game of the series by 20-odd points at home. Somehow the equal contest between grace and power has shifted, and grace is doing the bullying. Golden State has four all-stars—they can win without playing particularly well, which may be why they play the game like it’s fun, like it’s a game. James can rely only on himself.
There was a telling moment towards the end of that disputed first match. Golden State had pulled away in overtime. One of their stars, Steph Curry (the epitome of the graceful player—he’s small by basketball standards, normal-human skinny, and widely acknowledged as the greatest shooter in NBA history) drove to the basket for a layup, which James rose up to block. You couldn’t give me that one, Curry said to him afterwards with a smile… or something like that. His lips are hard to read. Curry is a joy to watch, and plays the game with joy, but it’s easy to smile when you’re winning. James, frowning, pushed him away. (His lips are easier to read.)
After that game, in frustration, he punched a whiteboard in the team locker room. A “self-inflicted” wound he called it, when the series was over. “Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand, so. That’s what it is…” He had kept quiet about the injury, hiding the soft cast he wore outside of practice, because he didn’t want Golden State to know. But it also sounded a little like a playground excuse: the only reason you beat me is because…Like an older brother, saving face in front of the kids. “Part of his addictive appetite to control narrative” one reporter called it. But it’s also part of his job, to explain away failure, to maintain status—as the greatest basketball player in the world, as the grown-up in the room. Even if the kids don’t care, because they’ve just won the NBA championship.