Revisiting the LeBron James Decision and Jesse Jackson’s Comments
I already unloaded my thoughts the night it happened, and I still have yet to hear anyone defend The Decision; but opinions do vary heavily on what LeBron James did. I even got into an argument with a woman yesterday about it and she left the room crying when I said loyalty went out the window the moment Dan Gilbert fired his GM and coach who had won 120 plus games the last two years, which, in my mind, opens up all sorts of floodgates. She was neither from Cleveland, nor was she a basketball fan, and in her frustration, she said to hell with pro sports and that all their greed and disloyalty is why she watches only college sports, to which I responded “Lane Kiffin.”
But the point I think that both she and I and everyone everyone else is missing and is afraid to discuss is that this decision by James is much more complicated than a matter of loyalty. In fact, what it has to say about loyalty may be a marginal matter in terms of this decision’s importance.
The actions of the past half week have put into motion a course of events that will demonstrate not only how history is written but also that everything that came before in the NBA is indeed just that–history. LeBron may think about his legacy a whole lot less than we do, or he may think about it a great deal; but it’s pretty much become clear that twelve years since Michael Jordan last one a title no one player will ever replace him on top of the game’s pedestal, that even if a player matches, or even surpasses his accomplishments, then our own unwillingness to let go of what our eyes have seen will cause us to view Michael and that other player, whoever it is, like some Gordian knot that can not be untied. The Jordan legacy is a heavy load for any player to carry. It’s also a load that NBA fans have decided can only go to a player who scores at the end of games, making it so that a big man can not carry this load, that a point guard like Steve Nash or Jason Kidd can not carry this load, that perhaps even a 6’8,” 280 pound point forward can not carry this load. Jordan did not do it intentionally, but he left us with a very narrow definition of a dominant basketball player, or maybe even dominance period.
In my initial reaction to LeBron’s signing I wrote that despite all the immediate dismissals of LeBron’s legacy due to his signing “this decision still boils down to an old fashioned face off between Jordan’s killer instinct and LeBron’s ability to facilitate.” Let me explain that. By Jordan’s “killer instinct” what I mean is his ability to score and win no matter what and his ability to convince us that he won entirely by himself, despite the fact he played with another top fifty player, perhaps the best rebounder and defender of his era, a laundry list of clutch shooters, one of the best sixth men ever, and for the best coach of all-time. Jordan was good. Jordan was great. But Jordan was not alone. Yet the paradigm that was born out of his greatness is one that erodes the accomplishments and dismisses the talents of players like Scottie Pippen, Kareem, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Oscar Robertson, Kobe, Shaq and the list goes on. Every player who’s led a team to a championship had a sidekick (some had multiple sidekicks), and some players have been the alpha dog as well as a member of the pack; but Jordan made us define greatness as if it was a boxing match, a marathon, or a game of solitaire. Pardon my language, but this paradigm is bullshit, and it’s not just the “you have to go it alone crap” that makes it so.
Basketball games are not just won with scoring and they definitely are not won with just last second shots. A big part of this “LeBron’s legacy is going to take a hit” comes from people pointing to the fact that Wade will probably lead the team in scoring, because he led the Olympic team in scoring, and that Wade might be the more clutch player. Okay, whatever. If scoring is the only thing that matters, then let’s just stop tracking rebounds, assists, turnovers, blocks, steals, all of it. Let’s just keep score, and while we’re at it, let’s also not even keep track of field goal percentages. Wade probably will lead the Heat in scoring, but LeBron will probably lead the team in every other statistical category except for steals and rebounds. I think we’re forgetting just all that LeBron can do on the court when we say that playing with Wade will decrease his legacy, when in reality, now that he doesn’t have to score so much, we may see a better all-around LeBron.
And to the point of clutch shooting, why do we remember Steve Kerr, Jon Paxson, or Robert Horry? Is it because they made a few big shots or because great players passed them the ball? There will be plenty of moments for both Wade and LeBron to appear clutch and take over games scoring wise and as playmakers, just how growing up my sister and I alternated days setting the table and days washing the dishes; and I guarantee that how much our parents loved us did not fluctuate between which of us completed which chore, that would be ridiculous.
The open shot needs the pass, and the pass needs the open shot. The silverware can not be cleaned if they were not first placed on the table to become dirty, and the silverware can not be placed on the table unless it has been cleaned. One of the go to arguments for all Jordan fans is to point out the times he did not take the game winning shot but passed the ball; it makes him appear gracious, so how can not always taking the game winning shot diminish the authority of other players, especially if they were the one to create the opportunity for the open shot? Legacies are not made on clutch shooting alone–nicknames are, but even the nicknames given for clutch shooting do little to boost a player’s legacy. Chauncey Billups never appears on an all-time list, and Jerry West, Mr. Clutch and the Logo himself, rarely appears on anyone’s all-time, top ten list. And neither does Reggie Miller, despite what he did in the garden. This idea that legacies are built solely on clutch shooting holds little to no water. It’s like walking through the desert with a forked stick, not being able to see from the sand in one’s eyes, and stumbling upon a well, which pretty much sums up what being clutch often is–a matter of placement and timing and luck, just ask Ron Artest’s psychiatrist.
The last trait that defines dominance in the Jordan paradigm is the ring count, which would place Bill Russell as the greatest-all time and lowers Michael into a tie with Kareem, that is if Kareem’s rings still count because he played with Magic Johnson and James Worthy. The ring qualifier also boosts Tim Duncan ahead of Larry Bird, but prevents Duncan from being as good as George Mikan. Ben Wallace is his generation’s Wilt Chamberlain, and Glenn Robinson is better than Jason Kidd and Grant Hill could ever dream of being, but he’s only just as good as Julius Erving. In other words, we’ve got to stop carrying out these guidelines for greatness to their extremes. They don’t hold up. They never will.
The LeBron decision, if it is to be celebrated, should be celebrated because it flew in the face of all these rules without merit. He chose to play with other great players because unlike Magic and Larry he wasn’t drafted to teams that were already loaded, and while Jordan got in with Chicago on the ground floor, it wasn’t too many floors up before Scottie Pippen waltzed in through the elevator doors. If Luke Jackson, Ejike Ugboaja, Daniel Gibson, Shannon Brown, J.J. Hickson, or Danny Green had been top fifty talent, then South Beach might not even register on LeBron’s radar, unfortunately for Cleveland only three of those guys are still in a Cleveland uniform, one has yet to play in the NBA, and the remaining two are journeymen.
Now, in that previous article, I labelled LeBron’s role as that of facilitator. What makes LeBron a truly exceptional player is his ability to pass and handle the ball with the size that he has; it allows him, when surrounded by players who can shoot, to take over games without even scoring. Not just anyone can do that but the fact that it relies on other players doing something somehow makes it weak in our eyes, but there are still those that hope that the sight of a man LeBron’s size conducting an orchestra will make the pass appear as deadly as the shot. He many not even be aware of it, but LeBron’s move to Miami is a chance for what we perceive dominant play as to reverse a revolution that started the moment Dr. J took off from the foul line and begot Air Jordan. This is a chance for all the other facets of this beautiful game outside of scoring to step back into the light.
But the main reason that LeBron’s role in this epic quest of climbing atop the NBA’s pedestal and wrestling with Jordan’s legacy as if it were God is that this decision swung the balance of power almost entirely into the hands of the players, and no one knows what that means. Big threes have been seen before. This decade has seen two great ones. The Spurs’ big three of Manu, Tony, and Timmy was built entirely through the draft, from the ground up, organically. The Celtics’ big three of Pierce, Allen, and KG came by way of trade. Weren’t we inching towards the day when the pendulum swung the other way and the players decided how to align their own constellations? Are we in an age where super continents, like Pangaea, are formed on the whims of uneducated (and dare we say it) black men? Is that why this is so scary? Because LeBron James did not make the move Michael would have made, we now see that he’s something Michael never was and that’s entirely, and utterly–free. Because everyone is right, Michael would not have gone to Miami, but isn’t part of that because Gatorade and Nike would not have let him? I mean, aren’t all those people criticizing LeBron doing so because they now think he’s less cool, less marketable off the court?
LeBron may not have made this decision knowing all its repercussions. He may even have been cocky enough to think that all of America would line up and greet him, like a President of old, as he passed through the country whistle stop to whistle stop, by train, but so what if he stumbled into the New World like Columbus, America still got discovered. And that’s the thing, if Miami wins–if ships return to Florida–, then LeBron and his brethren will earn themselves a holiday because for the victors write the pens of history, and if they lose, well, then LeBron is Nat Turner or John Brown, as seen from a southern perspective, and he will not have facilitated anything other than bloodshed. Regardless of how history comes to view this, we are on the brink of something; after all, Jesse Jackson only rambles when there’s something at stake and it’s almost always how we perceive our reality.
Ladies and gentlemen, LeBron, Wade, and Bosh just pulled off the NBA equivalent of splitting the atom, ushering in an age where widespread devastation and sudden victory appear to be one and the same.
This post originally appeared at The Lawn Chair Boys on July 12, 2010.
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