Athletically speaking, LeBron James has never been the underdog, or if he ever was, it was long, long before the world began paying attention to him when he was about 15.
Bigger, stronger, faster … blessed with the best training and the backing of corporate America … hailed and hyped by the media as a teen … expected to dominate and then proving dominant. The Chosen One, “Sports Illustrated” dubbed him when he was a high school junior; it sure got that correct.
He elicits few sympathies and even fewer warm feelings. He lacks the smile of Magic, the humor of Shaq. He wasn’t introduced to the world in the engaging, welcoming way of Michael … come fly with me.
And he hasn’t always helped himself. When he couldn’t win in Cleveland, he bolted to Miami. When he won, twice in Miami, it was perceived to be because he had a stacked deck. Now that he’s back in Cleveland, maybe some feelings have thawed but only so much. He’s still the physically imposing one.
When he does things like go for 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists – as he did in an otherworldly performance in Game 5 of the NBA Finals – he hears analysts say it’s about time.
Maybe though, just maybe, this is the four-day stretch in which some of that changes. Monday was the first step in an audacious effort to push the Cavs to become the first team in Finals history to come back from a 3-1 deficit. In this case, it would occur with two games on the road against the defending champions, who won the most regular-season games in history, to deliver a professional sports title to a city that hasn’t won squat since 1964.
This would be an unforgettable, impossible-to-dismiss performance. This would be the signature accomplishment of his career.
This would be LeBron James … underdog (sort of).
There is no need to feel bad for LeBron. Save that emotion for just about everyone else in the world who wasn’t born with such advantages. Still, it’s worth noting the complicated nature of his public persona.
There should be no denying his brilliance, although plenty do.
Some of the things he pulls off should inspire awe and excitement – yet for some it’s just what a 6-foot-8, 260-pounder should routinely manage. His stumbles – namely a PR disaster known as “The Decision” – shouldn’t turn so many against him, considering this is a guy who’s never been in any legal trouble, handles himself with relative grace and seems a heck of a lot better adjusted and more relatable than the average superstar.
Yet with such natural advantages, the wonder was in his ability, not the journey. LeBron is enjoyable to watch the way an excavator digging a trench is – the power is impressive, but entirely predictable. When people consider his career, it’s often not centered on the championships won, but on why he didn’t win more, sooner and without the need for so much help.
He’s one of the two or three or four best players of all time, yet seemingly everyone takes shots at him. He isn’t as good as Michael Jordan, they say. OK, but who is? He isn’t as tough or fear-inspiring as other stars. OK, but does that mean Mo Speights should feel comfortable tweeting a baby-bottle emoji at him? (Mo Speights? Really?) He’s easy and fun – and fair game – to root against, but he’s hardly some terrible guy or selfish player.
He plays hard. Every night.
“The game of basketball has given me everything, and I would never cheat the game, no matter how many games I win, no matter how many games I lose, that really doesn't matter to me because I really just give it my all,” James said.
He really hasn’t cheated the game. Thursday will be the 1,185th game of James’ NBA career, playoffs included. It’ll almost assuredly be his 1,184th start (he did not start a game in 2007 due to a minor injury). He’s been the focal point of every single game he’s played.
Add in 65 games for USA Basketball, including three Olympics, and he’s played the equivalent of 15.25 NBA regular seasons over the last 13 years. He’s logged major minutes in nearly all of them – he’s 39th all-time in minutes played in the regular season and fourth all-time in the playoffs.
He’s only 31 years old.
Yet is this, finally, when America begins rooting for him? Who doesn’t love the improbable comeback? Who doesn’t like a guy willing his hometown to a title? Who doesn’t appreciate someone putting a team on his back in the loneliest moments of the game?
Even if that guy is LeBron James.
The road remains long and steep. That’s the point, though. For a career of unquestioned production, LeBron has lacked many legacy games – his most famous is a 45-15-5 performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals against Boston.
Then came Monday in Oakland. And now maybe comes more.
For LeBron James, who has seen it all and done it all, and been cheered and booed doing it all on the basketball court, here’s something new, here’s a chance, maybe, all these years later, to rewrite the story of his career.
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