When LeBron came into the league, I wanted to watch him chase greatness. Really, I did.
I’d be dishonest if I said that I actively rooted for him to surpass Magic, Michael, and Larry, but I certainly wanted to watch him try. Watching historic greatness is one of the most fun things for a basketball fan to do. Fans of different generations have the guys whom they defend in arguments about who was the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, for those who aren’t familiar with the acronym). I already got to watch Michael, and I was interested to see what the Next Big Thing did.
I wasn’t sure I liked him – his “Chosen 1” tattoo is kind of obnoxious, as far as I’m concerned – but I was willing to reserve judgment until I saw how he handled the difficult moments. To me, that’s the true test of greatness – how one handles the difficult moments.
After watching his career in Cleveland, I felt like he was a disappointment. It’s not that he did anything wrong, in fact, he was phenomenal. It’s just that he didn’t live up to the hype. (To be fair, I don’t know that anyone could have.) True greatness, the type that puts someone among the top-10 players ever, manifests itself consistently, with hardly any deviation. It does not manifest itself in magnificent bursts, followed by disappointing disappearances. That’s why LeBron’s career in Cleveland – capped by his incomprehensible performance last year in Boston during the playoffs – left me feeling like he failed to live up to the hype.
In any event, by the time the off-season rolled around, that was water under the bridge, and the questions shifted from LeBron’s past to his future. He stood at a fork in the road, with a decision to make. (You might have heard about it. It had its own TV show, called The Decision.) One path was The Easy Way Out, and the other was The Path To Greatness. He was perfectly within his rights to choose either one, so all of the LeBron defenders who tell me that it’s a free country, and we all get to choose where we want to work, can spare me. I’m not saying he didn’t have the right to make The Decision he made. I’m saying that his Decision, like all decisions, has consequences. And the consequence should be that he took himself out of the debate about who’s the G.O.A.T. He might win a championship, but he’s out of the running for The Crown, The Heavyweight Championship, The Top Spot On The Totem Pole.
Rather than try to elaborate with my own words, I resort, as I often do when explaining something important, to the wisdom of Yoda. (Admittedly, I’m too angry right now to claim to be following all of Yoda’s words. But whatever. LeBron’s the one who tattooed “Chosen 1” on his body. I’m just a fat guy sitting at a keyboard. Nobody is mistaking me for a Jedi Knight, or for one of the greatest basketball players of all time.)
Yoda knew that The Easy Way Out is not The Path To Greatness. He explained it to Luke in the following dialogue:
Yoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda : No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Quoting Yoda is appropriate, because, watching the Heat march through the playoffs this year, I think often of the scene in Star Wars when Obi-Wan and Anakin battle. Anakin embodies LeBron; the talented young Chosen One, who does not want to pay his dues to earn the glory he thinks he deserves. Obi-Wan embodies the great players who came before LeBron. Each of them resisted the path that tempted LeBron (Ewing never ran to Utah to play with Stockton and Malone, Barkley never ran to Detroit to play with Isiah and Dumars, etc., etc., etc.)
Here’s a link to a video of the battle. (If you’re not interested in lightsaber fights, you should skip to 5:30, when the important dialogue begins, or, if you’re really antsy, to about 6:50, which is right before Obi-Wan cries out “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!!!!!)
Is comparing him to Darth Vader too harsh? Maybe. But he’s the one who got a tattoo that says “Chosen 1,” and then took The Easy Way Out, so he essentially invited a comparison to Anakin Skywalker. Don’t blame me.
Whether it’s too harsh or not, the bottom line is that LeBron’s Decision (you know, the one that had its own tv show) can destroy the game. Now that a precedent has been set that joining up with a team that’s already set to contend for a title can be a legitimate way for a potential G.O.A.T. to boost his legacy, the future of the game has been put at risk. Competition is the very essence of the game we love, and if it becomes possible to achieve the perception of greatness while ducking competition, well… then we gots problems.
To illustrate, ask yourself: what should Chris Paul do when he becomes a free agent? What should Dwight Howard do? What if they don’t want to take the Easy Way Out, but they also don’t want to be martyrs, who, just for the sake of courage, spend their careers without a legitimate chance to win a title? Because of The Decision (I don’t know whether you heard about it – it had its own tv show), they have little choice. Even superstars who want to take the Path To Greatness see that the obstacles on that road are now more daunting than they used to be. Cowardice now seems like the only way for a superstar to wind up on a contender.
The game is now heading for a future where 3 or 4 teams have clusters of stars, and the rest of the teams in the NBA have no shot at competing. In other words, the game is serious trouble. All because The Chosen One selfishly made a Decision to take The Easy Way Out.
Thankfully, all is not lost. LeBron has chosen the Dark Side, and his march to a championship continues, but there are still two ways for the game we love to be saved. The first way involves we fans saving it from the selfish Chosen One. We fans are the ones who control the legacies of the people who play the game, which means that we have control to ensure that cowardice is not rewarded. To do so, we must pay close attention, because it is sometimes hard to perceive the difference between The Easy Way Out and the Path To Greatness. On both roads, one needs help from teammates to reach the end. On both roads, one can accomplish extraordinary things. The difference is that, on The Easy Way Out, there are places to rest, and have your teammates carry you closer to the finish line. On The Path To Greatness, there is no rest.
Having chosen The Easy Way Out, LeBron now gets to rest. He now winds up in the NBA Finals after having two playoff games of 15 points, and one of 16 points. These are the types of things that happen while traveling The Easy Way Out, but not The Path To Greatness. We fans must keep this in mind, and not treat him as one of the top-10 players ever. Then, hopefully, the other superstars who will one day stand at a fork in the road will have the courage to avoid the path that the Chosen One selected.
The second way to save the game we love is for the Chosen One to lose. As Yoda said: “”Stopped they must be; on this all depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader. I know it is a challenge, young Jedi, for Vader is very powerful, and he has surrounded himself with a roster of teammates who were capable of competing for a championship without him. If you end your training now, young Jedi – if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did – you will become an agent of evil. Because, unlike Vader, young Jedi, you do not have teammates who can carry you when you are weary. If you rest for even a moment, young Jedi, you will allow Vader to win. So, listen to me, Dirk, and continue to train. Then go drop 50 on his cowardly butt, and you can save your game from destruction.”