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LeBron James — 'Up, Up And Away'

LeBron James could win his second NBA title tonight, but his cartoonish abilities are constantly overshadowed by a certain retired Chicago Bull.
Lynne Sladky
LeBron James could win his second NBA title tonight, but his cartoonish abilities are constantly overshadowed by a certain retired Chicago Bull.

LeBron James is Superman to Michael Jordan's Lex Luthor.

That's going to sound blasphemous, but more than the San Antonio Spurs, whom he faces for all of the marbles in tonight's NBA finals, or any other team he might face in the future, James' biggest foil is actually Michael Jordan, The Greatest Basketball Player Ever.™

Michael Jordan's career, which hindsight and mythologizing has flattened into a parade of triumphs, is a big problem for LeBron, currently the best basketball player in the world by almost any metric. That the Heat managed to survive for tonight's very last finals game after Tuesday night's barnburner was due largely to James' late-game heroics. But as amazing as his performance was, the joy of watching him play has been blunted by the superhuman demands and expectations placed upon him. A triple-double to keep his team from losing the series and the highest-scoring average in potential elimination games in NBA history? Good job, homie. But you're supposed to do that.

We know the beats for the Superman story: Kal-El is rocketed from a galaxy far away and into a farm in the American heartland where he's raised as just a regular kid ( because who knew there were white people all across the universe); slowly he learns how to lift cars and shoot microwave beams from his eyes. We laugh at Clark Kent's awkward first flights, the initial crash landings and put it all together, because we know what the endgame is supposed to look like for him: saving the day, every day, with the big S on the chest and the red cape flapping in the wind. The actualized superhero.

It's a trajectory that works pretty well for sports heroes and basketball's demigods in particular: A talented kid gets drafted by some terrible, forgettable team, and that ball club's fortunes change as the young star flirts with the ceiling of his potential. The phenom becomes a star with an ever-expanding tool kit — a deadlier jumpshot, a more nimble, craftier postgame — and then becomes a legend with a bunch of championship runs. He learns to bend games and maybe entire seasons, if not the league itself, to his will. The franchise is suddenly on national TV again. Kids pretend they're him when they're on their own courts, copying his signature moves and copping his signature shoes. Again, the actualized superstar.

In basketball, the actualized superstar looks a whole lot like that bald, tongue-flapping virtuoso who plied his trade in Chicago. Like Luthor, everyone pretended that Jordan wasn't secretly a ruthless monomaniac. Jordan has settled uncomfortably into middle age, running a floundering NBA franchise and taking sideways shots at LeBron James' career. Recently, he said that he would pick Kobe Bryant over LeBron James. Bryant, the Lakers star, seemed to conspicuously pattern his game and mannerisms after Jordan. And of course Jordan would, as the only metric that favors Bryant as a player — championship rings — is the metric that most aggrandizes Jordan's legacy. But LeBron does everything Kobe does, only much more efficiently. To Luth ... er, Jordan, the youngster with the otherworldly abilities is an existential threat.

James never had Jordan's early-career anonymity, and so he never had the benefit of the organic-seeming origin story. James seemed to burst fully formed into the national basketball consciousness, a scrutinized superstar before he'd even played a minute of pro ball. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, and the next year, his high school's games were broadcast on national TV. He signed a $100 million sneaker deal at 18 — for the shoe company Jordan made a global powerhouse, natch — just weeks before he became the first pick in the NBA draft.

Good for LeBron. But it set the standards impossibly high, and it's taken away much of the fun and surprise of watching him steadily put all his tools together and tick off the career achievements. He entered the league with a prototypical NBA build; he's somehow grown even taller and more muscular without losing his freakish quickness or coordination. His wizardry as a teenage passer drew comparisons to Magic Johnson; he's since become the best cross-court passer the league has ever seen. He's the game's most versatile and effective defender; he can neutralize burly power forwards and shut down speedy point guards. He's slowly morphed from the guy who made the conventionally "correct" basketball play — the dish to the open man, let's say — to the guy who realized that his talents meant that the rules were different for him, and people would hold it against him if he didn't instead opt for the incredible. For reasons that are both his and the sports media's fault — and yes, this is my obligatory reference to The Decision — his basketball achievements and abilities are never appreciated for the cartoonish implausibilities that they actually represent.

And largely because of the interminable Jordan comparisons — which a narcissist like Jordan almost certainly craves — James' record-smashing career often has the feel of a tennis player scrambling just to get back to deuce.

No matter who wins tonight, LeBron may have already surpassed Jordan as the game's most complete, capable talent, even as he might still be destined for a lesser career, a less overstuffed trophy case. But it would be a shame if fans didn't take a second to fully appreciate LeBron right now, to believe the man can fly.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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