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Living With LeBron

LeBron James is a basketball player like none we've ever seen before. That's not news. But maybe we can finally figure out what to do with that, and how to enjoy him.
Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In the moment in which he made me happiest, Michael Jordan was cringing. The backboard above him was spiderwebbed all the way up, rocking and shattered in place. Jordan had been guarding Chris Morris, a spindly, springy forward who is to this day one of the most outwardly disinterested basketball players I've ever watched. Jordan slipped off him to challenge what he thought was a shot by Tate George, who in turn laid the ball off to Morris, who was streaking past Jordan's back along the baseline and then catapulting into a two-handed dunk; the backboard collapsed into static as Morris kicked his feet out. That dunk, and I cannot tell you how definitively New Jersey Nets this is, cut the Bulls lead to eight points. Video from the game shows Morris heading to the bench with the same waiting-for-a-late-bus facial expression he always wore and blankly receiving congratulations from a grinning Kenny Anderson.


I had not seen it from that angle before, as it happens. I watched it from a seat in the arena, screaming and blacked-out with delight; a friend sprinted up and down the entire section in some sort of joy-induced fugue state. As I recall, he high-fived Ed Lover, the host of Yo! MTV Raps and someone whose frequent presence at Nets games seems retrospectively inexplicable. There is certainly some mis-memory at work, here, or at least a great deal of the sort of ex post facto editing for clarity that we do to the highlight reels rolling in our heads. I don't totally know if my friend high-fived Ed Lover. I do know that I high-fived everyone I possibly could, just fired them out right to left like some howling crazy-eyed tweenage sprinkler. The Nets apparently lost the game by seven. I didn't remember that, either.

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I was screaming because I was at the age when a person most needs to scream at a basketball game, and because my entire unfinished being was lashed both tightly and unwisely to my home state's stupid, stupid basketball franchise. But it mattered that it was Michael Jordan getting beat and getting embarrassed, being on the wrong side of a moment for once. I do not need to consult the box score to tell you that Jordan played brilliantly—24/9/8, the box score says, which sounds right—and I knew even from within my whirlwind of weird belief that his team would not lose. This was the thing with Jordan above all the others: not so much that he would not and did not lose, which is the overdetermined legend that has taken hold since he left the game, but that he felt so inevitable.


Even the best basketball players are smaller than and subject to the game, which has a much longer horizon and crueler sense of humor than we generally remember in the moment. But Jordan felt, and at times actually was, above all that. This was just for a moment or two, but even these moments were uncanny and unforgettable. He would just hang up there in that way he could, the game's chaos churning and swiping helplessly below him, and do whatever he wanted from that commanding height. It was amazing, and I absolutely hated every fucking minute of it.

This is very normal. — Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

There is something about that sort of ease—which is not really ease, just a brilliance so refined that it looks startlingly unlike everything around it—that seems almost rude. The sight-beyond-sight passes, the momentary defiance and defeat of gravity and logic, the agape confidence of a shooter on a hot streak—these are all great in part because they are exceptions to all the surrounding struggle; that's why they stand out. Those spikes of transcendence are thrilling to watch both because of their grace and their scarcity; there is a very real high to it, even when experienced from the couch. It's a broadcast from a place most of us don't get to visit very often. It felt unfair, somehow, that Michael Jordan seemed to live there.

It was widely known even then that Jordan was legendarily driven, that his dedication to living in the red made him toxic and cold. It was the grace that everyone wanted, the elevation and the ease. We know, and must have known then, that he himself was not graceful or elevated or easy. The extent to which he consumed himself in his pursuit is what has made Jordan seem almost pathetic in retirement. He's chasing a thing he'll never again catch, he's grumping about old slights and putting $75,000 bets on reruns of "Chopped," and he's doing it because he drove himself for years until he forgot how to do anything else. Raging deities don't get to enjoy graceful retirements.


There is the sense, whatever else we may say about him when he is finished playing basketball, that this will not be a problem for LeBron James. Which is an amazing thing, because basketball does not appear to be easier for anyone—no one seems more custom-built for the game, more uncannily engineered for its various impossibilities—than it is for LeBron James. He is not a glider like Jordan or a player slipping through glitches like Stephen Curry; James is bulky and his play is effortful. The unprecedented part is having a basketball intellect as acute as his at the wheel of such a terrifying war machine of a body. We are still figuring out how to deal with all this, I think, but we are maybe getting closer.

This is not so much because he seems to be a significantly better-adjusted, kinder, and more human human than Jordan ever did—he does, as it happens, but that is a bar low enough for Kendrick Perkins to hop over it, and LeBron also has a full-time staff of marketing professionals whose job is to project just those attributes. There's that, but also LeBron seems more intimate with struggle and defeat, and more toughened and changed by his experience of it, than anyone with his talent should. He is playing in his fifth straight NBA Finals, and the distance between the player he was in the first of those (a defeat) and the one he was in the last (another one) is staggering. Broadly speaking, he is probably in the decline phase of his career. In every other way, he seems rather astonishingly unfinished, vital, and engaged. This is the better part of why watching him is so bracing and weird and, if we can permit ourselves to enjoy it, such a jaw-dropping blast. LeBron is changing with the game, becoming the player that the team and the moment demands, without so much as slowing down. The impression is of someone doing advanced telemetry while hanging onto the wing of an airborne fighter jet.

Absolutely a normal thing to do with your body in real life. — Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow this god-bodied genius is an underdog as the NBA Finals begin, which probably helps some in the near term of now. Whatever defiant reflex it was that had me high-fiving strangers and believing in Chris Goddamn Morris at 14 can now somehow be used to fire up cheers for LeBron James, who plays basketball like a combination of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and is roughly the same size as Karl Malone, and who famously remembers seemingly every detail of every play in every game. The Warriors are startlingly great, the Cavaliers are depleted, and basketball is a team game—LeBron cannot simply smash his brilliance up against the five-man membrane of the Golden State defense until he blasts through it. Or, anyway, he cannot do that and win.

But that is just this series, though. We have been living with LeBron long enough, now, that we've gotten lazy about it. He brings us something that we've never even seen before and we grumble amongst ourselves that it was served late, or at the wrong temperature, or that we're not hungry for that anymore. He's pinned, helpless, in a series of stupid, airless binaries—not just Skip Bayless' avant-garde Tim Tebow comparisons, but (inevitably) in a longstanding comparison with Jordan, who was a different player in a different age. There are championship rings to count and apples to compare to oranges, there is the pseudoscience of killer instinct and various experiments in amateur vibology. These are unwinnable arguments—they are not even arguments—but they will roll out noisily over the next four to seven games and for some time after. They'll be easy enough to ignore, and I doubt you need me to tell you that you'd be wise to do just that.

You don't need me to tell you anything about enjoying LeBron James or not enjoying him, really, but I am going to do that anyway. I am going to tell you, I am telling you, to enjoy him. I am encouraging you to, anyway, so that you do not wind up like me with Michael Jordan, without a single joyful association with all the things I saw that I'll certainly never see or experience again. This does not mean you need to root for LeBron James or the Cavaliers, of course. Do what you want; these are basketball games on TV, nothing is compulsory, here. And there's no need to be over-reverent about it, either. Nike's grandiose "We Are All Witnesses" campaign for LeBron felt tacky at the time, and now feels awfully long ago. We do not need to be witnesses or acolytes, and we sure do not need to worship anything. But goddamn, if you like basketball and want to catch the shock-high of seeing something beyond belief—and you will see it, maybe tonight and certainly sometime soon—you might as well watch LeBron James with your eyes all the way open, while you can.