An Unlikely Underdog

LeBron wants to win our love, but is that a losing game?
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LeBron Welles

Original artwork by Matt Moroz. [Full size]

Over the last eighteen or so months, I have been as firmly entrenched in the anti-LeBron camp as anyone, outside of some of the scary dudes burning their #23 jerseys the night of “The Decision.” I got more than my fill of LeBrondenfreude throughout the 2009-10 season, culminating in a Finals meltdown more skin-crawling than the most cringe-based moments in comedy history. Put LeBron’s lonely walk back to the locker room after Game 6 up against a neck-braced Alan Partridge calling the hotel front desk to request that the pornography be reinstated on his TV? James is finally a champion.

But even my righteous wrath has its limits. I wanted to like the guy again because there’s something inherently appealing about him. And he wanted me to like him back! James has been in image rehab mode of late, telling USA Today that “there’s no villain bone in my body” in an apparent tribute to Yogi Berra (or perhaps Norm Crosby). I put away the long knives and started watching the Heat without prejudice, and within a couple games it was straight up fun watching LBJ do what he does. LeBron at his best is unlike like anyone else at their best. Like Shoals said in his piece last week—and there is no end to how much The Riddle of LeBron can be dissected—James the player can be bigger than the game itself.

The problems start when it’s clear that LeBron still hasn’t managed to shake the baggage that has shadowed him ever since last year’s flameout. Just check his body language—when things are going well he’s the perfect mix of grace and aggression, knowing when to press and when to let the game flow to him. It’s a different story during the tough times. It’s more than frustration. James actually looks helpless, like he’s on the receiving end of some inevitable cosmic injustice he’s all too aware of. Contrast this with Jordan’s cocky pre-determinism or Kobe’s ticked off imperiousness. When a call went against them you got some version of, “Don’t you know who I am?” Whistle LeBron and you get something more like, “Uh, you guys know who I am, right?” And this is the best player in the league!

Think back to that ridiculous pep rally from last summer—underneath the Leno-esque low-fives and the huge, overarching wrongness of the event, it’s easy to lose sight of how visibly uncomfortable LeBron seemed to be. Bosh is in full Arthur Janov mode and Wade seems to be proud that he made the free agents come to him, but James seems weirdly detached throughout much of the celebrating, like he knows this isn’t why he went through all the hassle of leaving Cleveland behind. And even though his play has been mostly stellar since that debacle, it feels like he’s always one bad stretch away from turning back into that bundle of insecurity.

James might be the first superstar who half expects us to consider him an underdog on some level—which is an insane conceit, but is it surprising? LeBron’s game is built on the ability to do literally every aspect of the game really well, but is he the best at any one thing? Not by a long shot. Durant is a better shooter, Melo is a better scorer, Griffin is (probably) a better in-game dunker, Kidd is a better passer. James couldn’t ever become the best at any one thing. In his defense, when you can do it all, shouldn’t you actually try to do it all?

It’s hard to imagine an infinite amount of skill as a handicap to winning, but the concept of LeBron as dominant underdog tracks better if you think of him as the Orson Welles of basketball. Welles was also ultimately too talented for his own good, reinventing movies with Citizen Kane but just as quickly bailing on The Magnificent Ambersons editing because some other flight of fancy knocked him off target. Ambersons paid the price—no matter what anybody tells you it’s nowhere near as good as Kane, no way!—and that was just the start; the dead ends and detours and missteps piled up throughout Welles’s life and we’re left with a body of work comprised of too-short bursts of perfection neighbored by longer stretches of disappointment. Yet is there a bigger martyr in the history of movies than Orson Welles? Yes, he created the chaos far too often and knocked himself off course more than anybody else. But did it because he simply couldn’t help it—like James, Welles did it all for no other reason than because he could.

James made it clear as this season began that he hoped to get back to having fun with basketball again, like when he was a kid. That makes sense and it’s refreshing to hear on-court LeBron do some talking for once. But the problems arise with LeBron when he’s not playing basketball, or even when the ball goes dead. That’s when the real world inevitably creeps back in and things like "The Decision" and talk of winning eight championships enter the picture. Off-court LeBron makes the mess and on-court LeBron pays the price. James is stuck on an endless media crawl trying to convince the world that he’s not a bad guy. And is he wrong? His biggest crime wasn’t drowning a dog or beating the shit out of someone—it was being bad at working the media. Yeah, he was bad at it. Really really REALLY bad. Maybe the worst! But that’s all he did wrong, and if I—the Bill Russell of holding grudges!—can let LeBron back in, you can too.

I’m even fine with the notion of the loudmouth who jumped ship winning a championship or two, because if LeBron can win it all it’s because of his talent, not his competitive spirit or his extra gear or whatever you want to call it. The guy is never going to possess whatever it is that Jordan has—fire? Mental illness?—so if the stars align and he wins it all, it will happen because he was the best player on the court.

Hopefully on-court LeBron keeps doing the talking because that’s the only LeBron that matters. I keep coming back to the notion of liking LeBron. But what is really likeable about him? He’s ultimately a pastiche of what every successful athlete needs to be to maximize their value in the marketplace, and you’d have to be thick as a brick to not see that stuff from a mile away. The main thing I like about him—maybe the only thing I like about him—is his game. That’s the only LeBron I will continue to pay attention to and the only one I will continue to believe in.

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