Fantasy, Basketball: LeBron James As Fantasy Novel Hero

LeBron James is The Dragon Reborn. Or something like the character the Dragon Reborn in... look, this is going to get very nerdy.
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On the day LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers I was thumbing through the second to last book of The Wheel of Time, a multi-volume fantasy epic that focuses on a messiah figure called the Dragon Reborn. The man that assumes that role is reluctant and, in most quarters of this fantasy land, fiercely loathed. It put me in mind of another anointed one, as well it might have.

The end result of LeBron's second decision, the one that implies that one must go back to move forward, only proves this claim out, as any Wheel of Time devotee could tell you (no spoilers). With his move back to Cleveland, LeBron has begun to chart a course of action that no longer infringes upon the holy name of Michael Jordan, to move beyond tangible and physical victories over the Greatest Of All Time.

In other words, LeBron James is the Dragon Reborn. The Dragon Reborn, as your dorkier dorks know, didn’t have to prove that he was the Dragon. He just had to do his goddamn job and save the world, and everyone kind of figured it out.

Now, as a mostly rationally thinking human, I don’t actually believe LeBron is a savior, nor that he couldn’t possibly have had certain non-altruistic reasoning behind the return to Cleveland. But in the immediate aftermath of this newest seismic shift, I willingly gave myself up to spectacle. So I’ll enjoy these fleeting moments of feeling happily surprised for once. I was willing to consider that a basketball player resembled the hero in a series of five-pound fantasy books. Giddiness takes many forms, and this is mine.

***

Long before George R.R. Martin became an unlikely household name, another heavyset fantasy wordsmith was pumping out gigantic tomes and pushing at the medium’s barriers -- chiefly with a massive page-count and not being Piers Anthony -- in a genre never given much post-Tolkien respect. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is the story of Rand al’Thor, a shepherd from the disregarded and out of the way district of the Two Rivers, (Akron, maybe?) who comes to find that he happens to be the reincarnation of the Dragon, the Light’s champion against the Dark One, resurrected in different Ages over and over again to keep the forces of the Shadow at bay.

The Wheel of Time, of course, employs that pre-Judeo-Christian notion of time, one that isn’t concerned with progress or an end exactly but instead embraces the blazing circle of endless vicious repetition, at least until the Last Battle. Here’s the relevant passage of the Karatheon Cycles prophesying the coming of LeBro… the hero mentioned above:

The Dragon shall be Reborn
And there will be the wailing and gnashing of teeth at his rebirth
In sackcloth and ashes shall he clothe the people
And he shall break the world again by his coming,
Tearing apart all ties that bind
Like the unfettered dawn he shall blind us, and burn us
Yet shall the Dragon Reborn confront the Shadow at the Last Battle,
And his blood shall give us the Light
Let tears flow, O ye people of the world
Weep for your Salvation

Accepting the premise, the similarities between the LeBron and the Dragon Reborn should fairly leap off the prophecy scroll. LeBron James arrived and the people slowly but surely started to give a shit about basketball in the post-Jordan world, which was fittingly apocalyptic, stocked with not-quites and almost-theres and was capped off by the ratings disaster that was the Pistons-Spurs Finals, or as I like to call it, the Battle of Verdun.

And yet, even from the beginning, even before the insane amounts of post-Decision backlash, LeBron’s just never been fucking good enough for a great many fans because, I don’t know, pick a reason. Despite being a phenomenal once in a lifetime player (though he had to work on the jumpshot!) on arrival, he wasn’t A Winner, because he didn’t have the requisite amount of weird constant anger, the single-minded viciousness of guys like Jordan or Kobe Bryant. The coalescing objection eventually settled on was that he just hasn’t accomplished anything, because accomplishment is measured in hardware, that is to say increasingly gaudy gold rings that denote you’ve successfully beaten an opposing team four times during the Finals.

With a Cavaliers organization that seemed to at times take him for granted and refuse to supply the necessary cavalry (old fat Shaq, the ineffable Larry Hughes, late-stage Antawn Jamison), the pressure mounted to chase legacy in earnest, to chase Michael. Options dwindled. The unthinkable became a possibility. South Beach became a place to take one’s talents. The rest you’re familiar with.

Returning now, briefly, to the prophecy. And he shall break the world again returns me to that hamfisted moment when LeBron went about tearing Cleveland’s heart right out of its chest on live TV. Miami, a town that already won a championship and contained a casual but bubbly fanbase, was the next stop in his fistfight with fate. Four Finals appearances and a pair of consecutive trophies later, James has chosen to once again go back to the team that drafted him, back to the city that loved him, back to where the narrative held him as the prodigal son that couldn’t get over the hump, not a two time NBA champion turned Judas.

In a statement that is both magnanimous and inspiring to the version of myself that so happily imbibes fantasy novels (the boy inside!) and not the one that is skeptical of daylight and sentimentality, James lays out the reasons both for leaving and for returning with admirable clarity and candor. Choose to believe the sincerity and calculation of LeBron’s words in whichever ways appeals to your soul; you might be forgiven for just seeing the handiwork of perhaps a more refined and byzantine ambition. I prefer to see neither cowardice nor benevolence, but the blunt force of necessity. It seems now, after the fact, that this is of course what had to happen.

And so LeBron’s just entering Phase 3 of his quest. The last book of the trilogy. Foes have been vanquished but there’s work yet to be done. You probably know how this goes, too.

***

Usually set in some approximation of shitty medieval times plus magic, epic fantasy heroes are typically “lowborn:” shepherds and farmers, scullions, and blacksmith apprentices, marginalized by circumstance or geography or merely kept at bay by the boot of some oppressor in his castle or manor. These heroes rise on merit, which is a notion offensive to these pseudo-but-with-magic medieval societies.

Now, this is not perfect. The NBA is a professional sports racket run by reptilian mega-capitalists that can buy anything they want. But that doesn’t have any bearing at all on those gooey but not false sentimentalities about basketball, about the power and magic of the game, the marvel of a momentum shift in some random third quarter, the heartbreak of missing free throws in enemy territory, the elation of a clean block. No amount of exploitation and plutocrat bullshit can wholly eradicate that joy. Fuck fantasy leagues, the NBA is a league of epic fantasy and LeBron is its physical embodiment.

So, the intersection between epic fantasy and the NBA is the conceit of a fellow never quite comfortable in any circumstance, moved in different stages of life to live where he might; these heroes range from dudes that swung scimitars to people who were really good at shooting three-pointers. My basketball idols put me in the mind of my epic fantasy avatars: Rand al’Thor, Garion, Pug, and dare I say it, even the world’s favorite Dark Elf, Drizzt Do’Urden. They’re heroes from nowhere, champions that put the bluebloods in their place and, more importantly, could do what we norms could never hope to, be that dunking over a seven-footer in traffic or throw fireballs.

The NBA is fantastical and unlikely. Scrawny whelp Brandon Jennings scoring fifty-five points in his sixth NBA game is just as unlikely as Rand al’Thor chanelling saidin to create a strand of balefire that rips the Forsaken from the Pattern. Every season is the Quest all over again. Chris Paul is a grumpy mage. Ray Allen is a huntsman with enchanted arrows. J.R. Smith is a thief. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph might as well be a pair of trolls guarding a bridge made of bones. The Larry O’Brien trophy is the damsel in distress, naturally, as fantasy novels and the NBA have a certain doofy reflexive male chauvinism in common.

And LeBron just reeks of epic fantasy, though he outpaces Dungeons and Dragons alignments and Forgotten Realms standards. He’s a multipurpose force not to be pigeonholed, by position or fantasy archetype; his ability to play at least four positions is a testament to this. LeBron was always a small forward in name only. He’s a wizard with a broadsword, both Caramon and Raistlin, both shrewd point guard and brawny power forward.

And, confessing perhaps too much and in danger of completely plummeting down the rabbit hole, it’s not at all difficult to note the shadow and spirit of LeBron imbued in some of these tales. In his hands a basketball can become one of the Elfstones of Shannara, an ordinary rock suddenly charmed and powerful and deadly. Those Cavaliers teams, all flotsam and jetsam and a guy named Boobie, are the Black Company: a gritty and hopeless brotherhood that stumble from one calamity to another. The Heat were a too-cute collection of charming leading men like the Gentleman Bastards, finally brought low for excessive cleverness by a nightmare matchup. All those appraisals are suitably seductive to a mind that functions as mine does, but it’s my original thought that I keep circling back to. LeBron as the Dragon Reborn.

Before James appeared, many false Dragons roamed the withered countryside vacated long ago by the arch-villain Michael Jordan. Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, and even the sociopathic paladin Kobe Bryant all took turns making a go as the next Great Hope, or in Kobe’s case, the personification and triumph of Neutral Evil.

But LeBron was different. We thought he would be one of the greats before his first NBA game, and he’s been better than that. It’s not that messiah figures are uncommon. What is uncommon about messiahs is the actual fulfillment of their prophecies. LeBron James is the Dragon Reborn in that he is the violent and chaotic fulfillment of a prophecy that portends destruction and rebirth, just as Rand al’Thor had to subjugate half a continent, kill thousands of recalcitrant motherfuckers, turn his back on friends and family, and break every precious tradition under the sky before offering himself up for the world’s salvation.

LeBron James isn’t quite going to be doing all that, but like Rand, he’s borne the brunt of the nation’s hatred and distrust because he chose a different path than Saint Michael. Being better than literally every other human on planet earth at the game of basketball just isn’t enough. Twelve years later, some among us are still finding techniques to persuade ourselves that he’s merely a really good -- athletic, but in that pejorative way -- basketball player, one that took the path of least resistance to steal his championships.

Might I suggest politely that those people get real? LeBron James, to state unequivocally for the tenth time or so, is all that we could have ever hoped for and more, and like any messiah worth his salt, there’s tremendously ingrained resistance to his arrival, the clenching of a thousand soft fists, the bi-coastal caterwauling, brigades of message board shitheads in basements and television studios alike.

And who is it that our Dragon Reborn is so tangled up with? Even Michael Jordan took his lumps, getting his ass kicked by the Bad Boys of Detroit for a few seasons; it’s by far the most interesting part of his career arc. After that his story in the league is one of conquest and triumph. His supremacy was total and complete and unassailable and nevermind that Scottie Pippen was also hanging out, Jordan was the single deciding factor. Jordan was a seriously demented winner, a scary man and a clutch motherfucker; he was also a shrewd businessman operating in a less sarcastic era. All true enough. It doesn’t mean that you or I or anyone else owe him anything but respect.

How is it that LeBron, the best player in the world and one whose likes we have quite literally never seen before, can be pushed so easily into this corner by that guy? Some of this may be us: ire mistrust, and at times irrational loathing is now the default setting in discussions of famous people. LeBron is trapped in this crushing loathe-loop: fans and pundits alike delight in his small failures, minimize his huge accomplishments, and invoke the holy name of Jordan at any and all opportunities as a curse. This ignores, for no good reason, that LeBron has already broken the fucking world.

And to reduce an enormous achievement slightly, a ring is just a ring, though my boy Smeagol might disagree; this being the aforementioned ever-repeating cycle that is professional sports, there is no single ring that counts more than another, despite the fact that Derek Fisher has like 11 of them. LeBron, being the intelligent man and keen observer of the human condition that he is, surely must now realize with absolute certainty that no amount of rings will ever push his legacy past Jordan’s. Say that he ends up tying Pope Michael Jordan with six rings, two in Miami, four in Cleveland, or elsewhere. Expect the Miami rings to be asterisked due to the existence of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and their most crass and unseemly collusion. Only the rings with Cleveland will count, and only then if there didn’t happen to be a lockout shortened season or if Paul George or Jabari Parker or whomever weren’t injured during the playoffs.

If LeBron ends up with seven round-ish pieces of metal on his fingers, well, that still won’t matter to Skip Bayless, or my co-worker Karl, or to any of the thousands of other folks who refuse to let this man’s name be uttered in the same breath as Jordan.

The bad news is that messiahs, whether they are Jesus H. Christ or Dragon H. Reborn, aren’t allowed to be heroes. Not in their own time. And they don’t bring about the new world order by being pleasant dudes that get along with people or by making chickenshit compromises that look good on paper but change absolutely nothing.

Change, on the pages of a fantasy novel and also everywhere else, comes with violence, chaos, pain, and destruction. People will fight with everything they have to keep what is precious to them. LeBron’s return to Cleveland isn’t a flip-flop, or another betrayal, or even amends for the initial bolting. It feels, in some sense, as if LeBron has re-evaluated the idea of legacy, and superheroism. Rings be damned, and to hell with the snarling specter of Michael Jordan!

So let’s let expiring contracts, trade exceptions, early termination options, draft picks, amnesty clauses, max extensions, and all the rest of that soiled basketball jargon can crawl into the pit of who-cares for a few days. LeBron isn’t going to literally give his life to save his little corner of the Midwest from economic ruin, but he’s tied that last painful loose end. Insofar as there is a right place for somebody to end up, home isn’t a horrible place to set the stage for the Last Battle, this one having nothing at all to do with failed baseball player Michael Jordan and more to do with basketball. The cycle isn’t over yet, is the point.

Top image via Frenzia.com.


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