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LeBron James And The Dignity Of Labor

LeBron James was more valuable than any player in the NBA Finals, and he proved it. The rest is details.

by David Roth
Jun 17 2015, 8:00pm

Photo by Ezra Shaw-Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

Every meaningless sports argument has its own vibration, gives off its own sort of moist n' tepid heat. This is not a compliment.

But yes, every idle and overdetermined barber shop session of Who's Better/Who's Best, every stagy "That's preposterous, Skip" extruded by ESPN's round-the-clock debate-embrasure apparatus, every lumpen exercise in mutual default on sports-talk radio or thumbheaded exercise in debate team sophistry on Twitter—each is unique down to its defective DNA. They are little turd snowflakes; the nicest thing there is to say about them is that they melt quickly, albeit loudly. But each reiteration of these old arguments—LeBron vs. Michael Jordan; Stats vs. Whatever Their Opposite Is Supposed To Be—is in some way distinct, and could only exist as it does in the brief moment that it exists.

Read More: How Far Can Hero Ball Take LeBron James?

These anti-miracles of nature and nurture invariably reflect their context, as well as various rhetorical or argumentative fads. But they are, always and finally, about the person declaiming, or waiting for his (it's a he) opposite number to stop declaiming so that he can get started. The stylings vary. Television sports debate sounds like a bunch of seven-year-olds putting on bass-y dad voices and trying to re-enact "Meet The Press." Online sports debate has the rhetorical aesthetics of a bunch of seething Redditors calling each other "butthurt" over a continuity error in The Avengers, only without the sincerity. Sports radio is the sound you hear when you dial a fax number by accident, except there are also ads for Cialis periodically. In all of these places, in days past and probably also today, there are arguments—awful, stupid, just really awful and stupid arguments—about whether LeBron James deserved to be named the Most Valuable Player of these NBA Finals, which his team did not win.

Andre Iguodala has already been named the MVP of the 2015 NBA Finals, and in many ways he deserves it. Also this award, like most similar awards, is not worth much—it is a garish brass thing that a man in a suit hands to a sweaty dude in a sports uniform after a panel of writers votes 9-to-6 some way or another. If this is not an argument worth having, it's also an argument that's mostly over.

But let's have it anyway: LeBron James deserved this award because he was the most valuable player in this series, and more valuable than any player has been in any series in recent memory. This is not to say he'd want the award; him showing up at the post-game conference looking significantly more yoked than but exactly as haunted as Tommy Lee Jones at the end of No Country For Old Men, would have been a pretty profound drag. Also this sort of award never really matters, and also Argument Over How A Panel Of Sportswriters Voted is about the worst debate anyone can have, excluding conversations centered on Benghazi or Rachel Dolezal.

It will happen anyway, sprawling across media hours like a surly hypo-thyroidal bodega cat, as these sorts of arguments do. In time, the conversation will bestir itself and move on. No one will remember the debate over who deserved the NBA Finals MVP, and eventually the name of its recipient will be crowded out and mostly gone. The series will iris out in the memory, first to a series of moments and images, then again and again, until what's left is only the stuff we really want to keep. Warriors fans, who've waited for a generation and change for this, will hold onto overstuffed highlight reels that will stay louder and brighter for longer than others. Cavaliers fans will have their own bright moments of defiance in the face of the inevitable—albeit with a sadly familiar ending. Everyone else will mostly remember LeBron James. Giving him a trophy he probably doesn't much want would not do much to change this; its absence will do nothing to diminish the memory of what he accomplished. It's that last bit, assessing the sum accomplishment of what was quite possibly the greatest NBA Finals performance ever, where things get complicated.

"This country's hard on people. You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity." — Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

"Signature moments," Doris Burke said to Stephen Curry in ABC's post-game coverage on Tuesday night, "are reserved only for champions." To hear those words spoken aloud or to read them here is uncanny enough. It's like lorem ipsum placeholder text composed entirely from words on Successories posters. Stranger still is the fact that every sports fan unconsciously understands this bizarre sentence. The weird phrasing—the clotted buzzphrases, the syntax out of an ad for a luxury sedan—is incidental to the message, which is familiar enough that it feels like fact.

It is useful for athletes to believe that championships are everything, because the crazy things they will ask of themselves in their pursuit of champion-hood requires this sort of belief. In the moment, it is helpful, if harsh, to believe that they are fighting for their right to matter, to be remembered; the other side of this is oblivion. It is useful, too, to the sort of fans who are into the sort of zero-sum power LARP-ing that defines the NFL fan experience—those who most enjoy watching sports from an imaginary owner's box. "Players," they say in stern tones, "are paid to win championships."

This is bullshit, of course. Owners and teams and players want to win championships, which is a reasonable thing to want; fans want that, too. But owners pay players for their labor and those labors are in turn paid forward to us, to everyone who pays to be near the heat and thrum that these moments throw off. Players with championship rings are not the only ones capable of authoring moments that achieve the depth and heft of history, not at all. Losing does not negate the moments of struggle and grace in the pursuit. In the case of what LeBron James did in the 2015 NBA Finals, it both amplifies it and brings it rather movingly back down to earth, and closer to the rest of us.

That there was never a NBA Finals team like the one the Cavaliers were at the conclusion of the NBA Finals is a less remarkable achievement than it sounds. No other team that thin, limping, and bereft could even come close to the Finals. Two of Cleveland's best players were done for the season by the time the ball was tipped in Game 2, another's season ended in December, and the result was essentially LeBron James dragging the non-Melo members of the 2013-14 New York Knicks up a mountain. Astonishingly, the Cavaliers missed all 21 of the field goals they attempted during the few minutes that James was not on the floor.

TFW some sportswriter dude has a different, broader definition of "champion" than you do. — Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

That James managed to carry this team to victory, twice, against a historically great Warriors team is the sort of thing that will only seem more astonishing with time. That it was not always beautiful—here I think of a Warriors fan sniffing to me on Twitter about LeBron's "brand of bully-ball"—was undeniable; there is more logic than there is beauty in LeBron eroding an overmatched, backpedaling defender via one hammer-on-nail back-in after another. But this was a case of something looking like what it was, and if they were not beautiful, LeBron's exertions in the series were at least aesthetically honest. It was as relentless as it looked, and as grueling. If the thrill of watching the Warriors is the way their quicksilver passing and bulletproof confidence makes the game look easy, the exhilaration of watching LeBron in these Finals was the way he made the impossibility of his task so inescapable, unmissable, exhaustingly vivid. This was not show-offy or stagy—LeBron has always been more insistent than good at that sort of stagecraft. This was pure work, and pure enough in its form and content to feel familiar, despite LeBron's superheroic scope and scale.

In every meaningful way but one, we are not really much like LeBron James. Anyway, we don't really know what LeBron is like—there are the marketing strategies and the unguarded moments of on-court extremis, but he is impenetrable in the way that extremely public geniuses tend to be. We know him only through his work, and through the work of the (many) people whose job it is to encourage us to consume more of him. But what binds LeBron to everyone watching him was what made these Finals feel different, even as the attrition of the Cavaliers' roster made the outcome inevitable.

That binding tie was LeBron's defiance. It was a refusal to submit or relent, an insistence in the belief that even an impossible and doomed task could be dignified in the doing. It is not a thing reserved for champions. Much more than hardware or garish rings or a berth in some fussed-over pantheon, and more than anything else, this belief is the thing that defines champions. It is also something like the thing that gets the rest of us out of bed in the morning. This belief, this insistence on dignity, is inspiring for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because it is something all of us can reach.