Understanding other legacies is the key to understanding the legacy of LeBron James

Over Memorial Day weekend I attended a bachelor party. A frequent topic of discussion was LeBron James. As the weekend progressed (and as more beer was consumed) LeBron generated a dizzying multitude of praise, contempt, and outrageous opinions that would make Steven A. Smith blush. When it comes to LeBron, there is no simple answer.

I have probably thought more about LeBron than any other professional athlete. LeBron and I are the same age. I was in high school when the hype machine began and this teenager from Ohio landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I had just graduated college when he dropped his 48 Special on the Detroit Pistons in 2007, elevating to that next level of superstardom. In 2010 I was at the Boston Garden screaming obscenities at him when LeBron melted down with nine turnovers against Celtics, ending his first stint in Cleveland. I watched in horror in 2012 when LeBron’s 45 point and 15 rebound effort ended the Big Three era. And I watched in amazement last year when LeBron put together the single greatest three game stretch I have ever seen to take down the 73-win Warriors.

For many people, including me, that win cemented LeBron as one of the all time greats. Had he lost that series, he would be 2-5 in the NBA Finals. We are a nation of simple narratives. We like our champions to falter, but not fail. Michael Jordan was 6-0 in the NBA Finals. Bill Russell was 11-1. Tim Duncan was 5-1. And Kobe Bryant was 5-2. Those people are champions. By overcoming a 3-1 deficit against a 73 win team and leading Cleveland to its first championship, LeBron improved to 3-4 in the finals and saved himself from being labeled a loser who couldn’t win without Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen.

But even after overcoming that tremendous hurdle, people still struggle with LeBron’s legacy because it is so complicated. In doing so, we forget that most careers are. We forget that in order to win one actually has to lose. Kobe Bryant was a villain, the Black Mamba, a gunner who couldn’t win without Shaq. Then he won two more titles (albeit while shooting 6 for 24 in Game 7 of the last one – I’m a Celtics fan it had to be mentioned), and could walk away into the sunset. Tim Duncan suffered six straight seasons of disappointing playoff losses from 2007-20013 before finally cementing his legacy with a fifth title in 2014.

Even Tom Broady, the GOAT, could easily have a different legacy. He is 5-2 in the Super Bowl, though every single one of those games was decided by one possession. If Adam Vinatieri didn’t have ice in his veins in 2001, if Malcom Butler didn’t make the most clutch defensive play in Super Bowl history in 2014, if everything didn’t go perfectly for the last quarter-and-a-half and OT of this year’s Super Bowl, Brady would be 2-5. Would that change his legacy? Probably. But because things shook out the way they did, we can call him the greatest and not overthink it. With LeBron, we don’t have that luxury. We overthink everything about him.

Which is what makes this year’s NBA Finals so interesting. As he showed with his mystifying disappearance in game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, LeBron is still capable of confounding us. But as he showed in virtually every other game this playoffs, he is fully capable of astounding us as well. He is going up against a juggernaut, a team that added a bona fide superstar to a 73-win squad. It’s the rubber match of the Warriors-Cavaliers trilogy. For LeBron, it’s a chance to simplify the narrative, and to change his legacy status for good.

Featured image by Keith Allison via Flickr.