Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States on the back of a marketing campaign emphasising the idea of “Hope” and “Change”. He was the fresh face who was not yet entrenched in the slimy ways of Washington and its pseudo-corrupt web of lobbyists and big corporate influence. He was the “Great Liberal Hope” who would break the political deadlock, rescue the broken economy, and usher in a more modern, progressive era of American history.
Obama fell short of our expectations, as we were treated to a rather discouraging stasis in US politics. For all his pre-election rhetoric on ending the influence of lobbyists, he appointed several former lobbyists to important positions in his administration. Despite the big deal made of him representing a break from the past two administrations, he appointed Larry Summers as an economic advisor. For all his tough talk on shutting down Gitmo, holding the Wall Street Banks to account, and all the other liberal reforms that were promised, what we were treated to were not Big Victories but Small Compromises. But at the same time, nothing Obama did in his four years in office can really be considered to be the equivalent of turning to the “dark side” either.
Unlike say, LeBron James.
LeBron was first presented to sports fans via the same hype machine as Obama. He was going to change the game – 6 foot 8, incredible athleticism, coupled with a truly special court vision and a precocious basketball brain to go along with his once-in-a-generation physical tools. After 6 years of anointing not-quite-good-enough swingmen as being the “Next Jordan” (T-Mac and Vince Carter immediately spring to mind), we were told that this was finally the one. The Chosen One, we called him. And then a peculiar and most exciting thing happened. Where those before him were often built up to monstrous heights, and then taken down by the same media machine when they couldn’t live up to those inflated and unfair expectations, LeBron not only lived up to those expectations but far, far exceeded them. He averaged a 20-5-5 in his rookie year – just the second player to do so besides Oscar Robertson and, yes, Michael Jordan. When people criticised his jumpshot, he came back in his second year and improved his True Shooting percentage by 6% and averaged a 27-7-7 overall.
That’s all well and good, but those were individual statistics, one could argue. “When will he lead his team to the playoffs?” we asked. In his third year the Cavs finally made the playoffs for the first time in eight years, and LeBron put up a triple double in his first ever playoff game, and averaged 31-8-6 over 13 games. In his fourth season he finally broke through and after a transcendent performance in Game 5 of the ECF against Detroit, finally led his team to the NBA finals at the tender age of 22. The next two years he improved his game even further, winning 2 MVP trophies in 2009 and 2010. Here was the rare athlete of the hype-generation who not only lived up to the hype, but went above and beyond it. We thought here that we finally found him – the “Chosen One” indeed…
It was at this point in time however when he began to falter while trying to meet our ever-higher expectations. We wanted to see the rings, you see. Kobe Bryant polished off championships number 4 and 5 in LeBron’s MVP years, and took home his first two Finals MVPs. The Kobe vs. LeBron debate raged fiercely throughout the basketball media, and the narratives and reputations began to take shape: LeBron was the guy that put up gaudy individual statistics, but Kobe has the “killer instinct” and “clutch gene.” He’s the guy you want to take the last shot for you, and he had the rings to prove it too! ESPN, in its ever present desire to drive ratings and internet traffic by appealing to the casual fan, eagerly drove this bandwagon through their media puppets – nuance (and empirical evidence) be damned.
It was against this backdrop, along with another playoff exit at the hands of the Boston Celtics’ “Big 3” that LeBron James decided he’d had enough of carrying sub-par teammates (which he rarely received much credit for, despite bearing the brunt of the media criticism alone), and that he would team up with 2 other superstars to form his own Big 3. To most NBA observers, this was the ultimate betrayal – both to his Cleveland fans, but also, to his own gifts and potential. The story was almost too easy for scribes to write. LeBron James, the “Chosen One,” the guy who would end Cleveland’s 30+ year championship drought; the guy with the talent and ability to perhaps eclipse even Jordan in the basketball pantheon, chose the cowardly way out towards NBA dominance by teaming up with his biggest rivals instead of beating them. All of this supposedly just proved that he was mentally weak and lacking in that “special something” that all the great ones were said to possess. Forget the fact that Kobe never won without Shaq (one of the 15 best players of all time), or Pau Gasol. Or that Jordan never won one without Scottie Pippen (one of the 50 greatest of all time and an All-Universe defensive player), or the fact that Bird and Magic often lead teams that boasted multiple Hall of Fame players. He had, for all intents and purposes, crossed over to the “Dark Side” and assumed the mantle of the NBA’s greatest villain.
In many ways, LeBron’s first two seasons in South Beach and Obama’s first four in Pennsylvania Ave were similar in their inability to fulfil the massive expectations placed on them. However, criticising their lack of delivery loses sight of some of the external constraints placed around them. For Obama it was the deadlock of an ideologically driven and Republican-controlled Congress who was determined not to allow Obama any kind of victory whatsoever. For LeBron it’s the fact that for the first seven years of his professional career, he was given the ball and asked to carry a team of limited basketball players, put together by inept management. Now all of a sudden, he was asked to share the ball with a likeminded superstar with much of the same skills as he had. It wasn’t that either Wade or James are selfish players – indeed they are two of the more unselfish superstars in recent memory. But there are certain habits and a certain mindset that develops from years of having to conduct your business in a certain way. It was unrealistic to expect the two to gel immediately and carry a top heavy team lacking in depth or quality role players to immediate success (although they were two wins away from doing so anyway, such was the force of their collective talent). The key difference between LeBron and Obama however, is that in the sports world, such factors are waved off as “making excuses” and everything is boiled down to the overly simplistic, results-oriented binary of winning and losing. But while such coach speak is normative in sports discourse, in academia screaming out “BUT WHERE ARE OBAMA’S RINGZ?!!” will get you laughed out of the room.
By all accounts, LeBron is a gregarious, fun loving guy who loves the game of basketball. Those who have followed his career are familiar with the joie de vivre he played the game with. In Game 6 on Thursday night, LeBron James finally shut up his critics and regained control of his career and legacy with a 45 point domination of the Boston Celtics. What distinguished this performance from his previous playoff masterpieces though, is the cold, joyless nature of his destruction. When you think about it objectively, someone who has built their life and identity around their love and joy for an activity being robbed of that happiness is a sad and tragic occurrence. But in the media-constructed sports world, everyone applauded LeBron’s demeanour, and how focused and locked-in he looked – as if someone can casually throw up the type of transcendent playoff performances LeBron has in the past by being detached and aloof. His outward appearance and demeanour satisfied the masses who read into ambiguous and subjective indicators like body language to fit their narrative.
We get that such narratives help sell papers, drive internet traffic, boost television ratings, and sell shoes and Gatorade. It appeals to the casual fan who might not have the time nor desire for a nuanced consideration of LeBron James but are instantly drawn by the easy characterisations of good vs. evil and clutch vs. unclutch. And the athletes are willing participants in this “game outside of the game” and are compensated handsomely for it. Meanwhile however, we lost sight of the tragedy that is the LeBron James story.
We, the fans and media, built him up and built up the impossible expectations that he had no way of approaching, let alone exceeding. Only after we had battered him in the court of public opinion, and ratcheted up the pressure on him to a dizzying extent, to the point where he decided that this thing he loved was to be treated strictly as a job and no longer as his passion and source of joy, were we satisfied and the burning torches lowered.
After yet another legendary performance by James on Thursday, we asked each other: “Does LeBron finally ‘get it’?”
But perhaps the more pertinent question, is: when will we?