It's not easy, even after all these years of doing it, to process the weird, violent miracle of LeBron James in motion. He is too big to be as light as he is and too powerful to be so graceful. We've gotten used to it, but there is still the nagging sense of the impossible in everything he does. LeBron James at Peak LeBron is real, but just can't possibly be real.
The result, the thing we watch, is something like a basketball player as created by Michael Bay, in ways good and bad. The awe, the meticulous destruction in his wake -- all that is the good stuff. But, as with Bay's thundering and dunderheaded creations, it's tough to convincingly wrap something this heavy and huge in something resembling human skin. It all looks great and way more realistic than it has any right to look, but there is something that does not and will not scan.
This is not fair to LeBron James, of course. Michael Bay's films are garishly fake, as expensive and as useless as a Ferrari with a gas tank full of uncut cocaine. LeBron James, on the other hand, is an actual human with the strange good fortune to wake up each morning in the body of the best basketball player of his generation.
James made the right move, as a human and athlete
Even if it doesn't mean the easiest path to a championship, the return of the King means a young roster has the best leader it could ever hope for.
The reality of LeBron as a human with human attributes and failings is every bit as much of a challenge for those of us watching him as the uncanniness of LeBron in motion. The players who inhabit the same universe of dominance as LeBron have, in their own ways, been stubbornly alien. Think of Michael Jordan's bilious genius or Kobe Bryant's appropriation of Jordan's greatness-as-sociopathy bit. It's not that they're inauthentic; it's that they're so authentically unlike other humans.
LeBron, much more than any of his peers in the pantheon, is not like this. He performs himself as consciously and consistently as any other public person and has been scrupulously branded and marketed, then re-branded and re-marketed. Nike, after first promoting his unselfish play and goofiness, made of him a weird quasi-religious figure -- something to be Witness-ed, as reverently as possible. LeBron unmade that -- unmade quite a lot -- with the decision to do The Decision.
The Michael Jackson-ian grandiosity and Michael Jackson-ian tone-deafness of that television moment -- the kids gathered prop-like at the feet of a multi-millionaire referring to himself in the third person -- was received as a world-historic expression of arrogance at the time. In the fullness of time, The Decision still looks ... well, pretty shitty, actually. But it looks now more like bad advice and stupendously bad execution than some unforgivable transgression.
It looks, mostly, like a young person recognizing what he wanted to do, using the leverage his greatness afforded him to do it and then being unable to articulate that in an honest or artful way. This simple exercise of personal agency -- not just pushing an economic lever in pursuit of a slightly bigger contract, but a concerted individual exertion of personal will -- left the NBA's ruling billionaires so frightened and enraged that they locked out the league in hopes of preventing such a thing from happening again.
NBA Player Movement
After four trips to the NBA Finals and two championships in Miami, that decision looks like nothing more or less than LeBron James choosing to play and win alongside some good friends. The willful insistence in some corners on not seeing it as such -- in seeing it as a cruel betrayal or forsaking of his home, or in seeing James' choice to do what he wanted to do as some unpardonable act of vanity or villainy or cowardice -- is in part just fans being fans, which is like a louder, dumber and more abstracted version of us being the doofuses we generally are. There's nothing new about that.
But the confusion that greeted the decision also reveals the fundamental category error of how we do and don't understand LeBron. The outsized outrage, which is still more or less unchanged and doing big business in some corners, reflects an inability to recognize that LeBron, with his superhero's talent, might still do things for human reasons and fuck up -- to be wrong or willful or confused -- in the ways that people tend to. There was never much to misread with Michael Jordan or with Kobe: They exist to accumulate and vanquish, to win and win and win. This is madness of a sort, although it's hard to argue with the results.
This consuming competitiveness is quite evident in LeBron, too. It would be silly and wrong to suggest that his decision to take his talents to South Beach was only about being around his friends and enjoying mild winters and a favorable tax climate. He went there to win, too.
But there was simply more there to read in that decision, something outside of the usual comic book motivations and big loud binaries that define how this sort of thing gets talked about. It was more than LeBron was capable of explaining four years ago, clearly; it looked withered and fake under the hot lights on The Decision's set.
Yet LeBron's insistence on doing things his way -- not for the usual zero-sum reasons, but because doing so was what would make him happiest -- was legible all the same and is much more so now. It's there again in LeBron's return to Cleveland. We're all free to take the sentiments and sentimentalities that he lays out in his explanation to Sports Illustrated for that return as seriously or unseriously as we wish. We can judge them as harshly as we like. Making LeBron James unreal -- a meme or an avatar or half of some worthless, unwinnable televised shouting match -- is now and has always been the easiest way of making sense of his impossible and inarguably real existence.
Still, that seems like more work than it's worth here. James is simply reiterating what he first said so artlessly back in 2010. He is doing what he wants to do, and if he's not doing it in total innocence of the familiar superstar vanities, he is mostly doing it for the same simple reasons any human does anything. There is no such thing as a superhero, although some humans are definitely better at basketball than others. LeBron James is one of those people, but what he wants is familiar: to do things his way, to chase what will make him happiest, to write his own story from beginning to end.
What else does any person want?