El Chupacabra: Reflecting on LeBron James as a Vampire
Shortly after winning his first NBA title, LeBron James donned a vampire t-shirt, only the vampire on his shirt was neither Edward nor a character from True Blood–it was his own face. LeBron James was wearing a t-shirt of himself as a vampire, rapping, and that means something because, after all, there really are only two reactions a rational person can have to what a vampire is and does.
In the first camp, which up until LeBron’s defeat of the Oklahoma City Thunder had held the upper hand in the dispute over his goodness and right to live, are the Skip Baylesses of the world. They come with their garlic nicknames, crucifixes, and stakes, searching for where LeBron sleeps and what exactly it is that makes him tic, and they look and sound utterly ridiculous for two reasons. One, given LeBron’s age and talent, his winning a title was as much a matter of probability as a game of Russian Roulette–pull the trigger enough times and eventually the bullet will fire–and secondly, these critics of LeBron’s look ridiculous because LeBron James, while often immature and ignorantly naive, is indeed not a vampire.
LeBron’s worst crimes are employing his friends as media consultants as if he were the star of HBO’s Entourage, hiring other people to cut his steak and even his spaghetti, getting dunked on by a high schooler and afterwards confiscating the video evidence, and having a mother who may or may not be out of control. Oh, yes, and not having a constant father figure, paternal or embodied by a college coach. And with each revelation of LeBron’s Transylvanian background his critics have pieced together a logical case for why his greatness is as unnatural and oxymoronic as the dead living, as if all other NBA champions were somehow more human and therefore more wholesome, and in a world of Penn State coverups, LeBron James’ lack of a post game was treated as the most fraudulent of behaviors. ESPN’s SportCenter even went so far as to run a Finals promotion that featured Rick Reilly belting out some pretentious spoken word piece where he compared LeBron James’ crimes against Cleveland with the crimes Tiger Woods committed against his wife, children, and the sanctity of marriage, because anyone who has ever held a job swore to never leave it for another destination before man and God. LeBron may be vain–and even a poor tipper when it comes to thanking the waiters who cut his meat–but to hunt after him every weekday morning on talk radio and First Take is the equivalent of finding Dracula’s coffin, opening it up, finding a soft, white bunny, and driving a stake through said bunny’s heart. LeBron may have been an impostor of sorts, but he only faked being an actual villain, rather than a child prodigy whose unholy claim to eternal life was never growing up on time.
The hate for LeBron James has always existed in a hyperbolic chamber. (Yes, that sentence is intended to read hyperbolic, not hypberbaric, which would seemingly only feed the LeBron as Dracula narrative.) The constant screaming that he lacks a “clutch gene” stems from two Playoff series: the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks and the 2010 Playoff meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. But such claims ignore LeBron’s entire body of work: his Houdini-like miracles against the Pistons, his John Henry efforts against the Celtics, and his role as Galactus against a black and silver Fantastic Four in the 2007 NBA Finals. All of those things happened–you can find them underneath the desert sands of YouTube! if you look hard enough. The fact that LeBron James forced Cleveland to tear down a skyscraper-sized banner of himself, burn his jerseys, and denounce his name only makes those past efforts more legendary and more ethereal. Viewed through the eyes of his harshest critics, LeBron James begins to embody every fictional hero and villain who, despite his or her might, is ultimately defeated, and in Cleveland, LeBron James was ultimately defeated, by better teams and by his twenty-first century sense of loyalty and escapism.
But, by making his defeats into anecdotes denoting survival of the fittest and good’s ultimate triumph over evil, LeBron’s critics only succeeded in making his fans romanticize him more than he deserves at the midway point of his career.
In the second camp of vampire relations are those who pull back their bed sheets, bare their porcelain necks to the night air, and allow Dracula to feast on their virginity. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in the nineteenth century, he never meant for British school marms and housewives to idolize his mysterious Transylvanian predator, but they did. Rather than heed Stoker’s implicit warnings about keeping their Anglican bloodlines pure, women fantasized about the raw passion and forbidden temptations that a pale man in a black cape could embody. If you are a young basketball fan, then a prodigious talent from Akron, Ohio possibly came to embody that same subversiveness for much of the last decade.
First, take into account LeBron’s high school career. He did not need college. ESPN began televising his prep school games without the context of March Madness, historic conferences, and traditional rivalries. LeBron James was not born of a legendary fieldhouse or coach. He was not begotten. He pro-created as if he were James Fuckin’ Gatsby. Michael Jordan had North Carolina, Dean Smith, and a beloved father. Kobe Bryant was washed ashore by a father’s NBA career and was nurtured by Jerry West. LeBron James had a mother of ill repute, some high school buddies, and himself, and much of the story was known by the time he made it to the NBA, unfolding in real time, unpolished and unrehearsed, which is why when LeBron does come off as rehearsed it feels so unnatural and uncomfortable, because such behavior does not gel with the times in which we live. In a twenty-first century of broken marriages and teenage Twitter feeds, is it any wonder that the boy basketball prodigy was taken as a King by a generation that was raised by parents who treat Tupac and Biggie’s discologies as lullabies and Mother Goose rhymes; looks to Drake, Kanye, and Lil’ Wayne for motivation; and has embraced Facebook as part of the universe since late elementary school?
For young fans, the criticism LeBron James underwent, and still undergoes, for having not defeated the elderly Boston Celtics on his own must feel awfully personal for an age group that has seemingly failed to solve Global Warming or world hunger by way of a science fair project. In the lusting over LeBron James his fans have found the perfect projection for their self-idolization of youth and beauty; a teenage coping mechanism that screams the present matters as much as the past and that the opinions of teenagers matter more than those of their parents’.
Of course, not all of LeBron’s horde is young. Chris Broussard and Stephen A. Smith are believers too, and countless blog articles have been written in his defense. John Hollinger has argued stat after stat that the Chosen One is indeed clutch. And in all those arguments, too, is the mature adult’s wraith-like battle against the rising sun. The combination of LeBron James’ physical build and his talent made it easy to predict his greatness, but when he did fail, or was slow to succeed, not only was his greatness called into question but the expertise of those who predicted such greatness; and in their defense of LeBron James’ undying potential, they were also defending their own abilities to testify on who either is or is not a great basketball player. The problem with defending LeBron James against all his faults (and not all who defended him are guilty of this), however, is that often such defenses deny his defeats entirely, just as those who attack him consistently deny his victories. Those who sing LeBron’s praises should heed the same warning as his critics: the man is not Dracula, so shut your bedroom window–he’s not coming in.
What’s at stake (sorry for that one) in the debate over LeBron James is where he ranks among the all-time greats. With three MVPs and a ring now, the discussion has inevitably begun, but with his promotion, it would seem that other players must be demoted, which is why the elder fans of the game feel as though they must treat a specimen such as LeBron with an eye so speculative that it will most always, in the eyes of his followers, come off as unjustly overbearing. Still, just as LeBron’s past actions matter in explaining who he is as a player, the past actions of the NBA matter in compiling all of these historic scrolls and stone tablets that turn every single one of us into a keeper of the faith. He may have a ring now, but he is still 1-2 in Finals appearances. Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan are both undefeated. Magic Johnson has five rings. Larry Bird may still be the best small forward of all-time. Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double for a year. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Hakeem, and Shaq were all bigger and mightier. And Kobe Bryant, well, Kobe Bryant has a 5-2 record in the Finals and may actually be a vampire. LeBron is now undeniably an integral part of the NBA’s championship tapestry, but his depiction of himself as a vampire is inaccurate–too much of his career is still unwritten–and shows that even he cannot free himself from the extremes that define him.
That being said, with just one championship in hand, a picture of himself as el chupacabra would appear to have been the more appropriate championship attire, considering the fact that depending on whom you ask he can be described as anything from a rabid bat to a degenerate coyote, or even a wild bear, wandering from town to town, both hungry and afraid, desperate to survive, sucking the blood out of all the country’s G.O.A.T.’s. Hell, you may even find him floating in a pool as the neighbor’s dog in a Workaholics episode.
To see him as anything else is, well, ludicrous, unless it appears on tumblr or instagram.
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