LeBron James, Like Jay-Z, Is Left Fighting Ghosts

LeBron James is forced to compete not only with his contemporaries, but those who came before him in the NBA ... just as Jay-Z had to do in his rap career.

One of the NBA Finals' funnier storylines is the "rematch" between LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson. Stevenson was part of a Washington Wizards team that lost in the first round three straight times to LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers, and the two grew to dislike each other. Stevenson called LeBron "overrated" before their third playoff meeting, while LeBron replied that "responding to DeShawn would be like Jay-Z beefing with Soulja Boy."

For a player who dreamed of being a "global icon", Jay-Z, a rapper who transcends rap, was as big an inspiration as any basketball player. The two struck up a friendship after LeBron entered the NBA, with Jay even taking a few shots at Stevenson in a 2007 freestyle.

And in many ways, their careers have had a similar trajectory.

Jay emerged from the aftermath of Tupac and Biggie's deaths to become the biggest star in rap. And while he's always been careful to pay respect to the two martyred icons, he has often chafed at the shadow their legacies cast:

Build me up, break me down to build me up again /
They like "Hov we need you back so we can kill your ass again" /
Hov got flow though he's no Big or Pac, but he's close /
How am I supposed to win? They got me fighting ghosts.

In 2003, at the height of his career, he abruptly announced his retirement, releasing The Black Album and vowing to leave rap behind. A shamelessly self-aggrandizing move amidst a career full of them, the album was a petulant attempt to redefine his legacy. The street single, "What More Can I Say", summed up the album's message:

Pound for pound I'm the best to ever come around here /Excluding nobody /
Just look at what I embody /

I supposed to be number one on everyone's list /
Let's see what happens when I no longer exist.

And in one hour of prime-time television last summer, LeBron, at the height of his career, threw away his once pristine public reputation. A player with all-time great talent, he was second only to MJ on the career PER list after his first seven years in the NBA.

Yet, as his Cavalier teams consistently came up short in the playoffs, his status as an all-time great player was questioned: how great could he really be if he couldn't even win one championship?

The Lakers and Celtics had won the last three titles with rosters stocked with multiple Hall of Famers and All-Stars; only two Cavs -- Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- had ever made an All-Star team in LeBron's tenure there. Cleveland, a capped-out team without any other great young players, would probably never be able to surround LeBron with enough talent to win.

So he "took his talents to South Beach," in the process unleashing a tidal wave of public anger he clearly didn't expect.  

Fittingly enough, his first public response came in a shoe commercial. He pondered his legacy in a manner similar to Jay, feigning ignorance of his critics' motivations and wondering what more he could do: "Should I accept my role as the villain? Or maybe I should just disappear?"

The Heat, for all the melodrama that surrounded their season, finished the year with the highest point differential (+7.5) in the league. LeBron's statistics slipped, but he became a more efficient offensive player, shooting a career high 51 percent from the field.

For the first time in his career, he has a championship-level roster around him, and the results speak for themselves: the Heat are 14-5 in the playoffs, including dominating five-game series against the Bulls (+7.3) and the Celtics (+5.4). With Udonis Haslem's return in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron now has four players around him who can spread the floor and defend their position.

Playing against Derrick Rose, the current MVP, LeBron utterly dominated the action on both ends of the floor. Rose could barely get a shot off against his suffocating individual defense, while Chicago, the team with the best defensive rating in the NBA, had no answer for an offense that spread the floor around LeBron and let him do work.

For all intents and purposes, the debate about the league's best player is over. The tangibles were never in doubt -- there aren't any other 6'9, 270-pound point forwards who can score from any part of the floor and defend four positions at an elite level.

Many have contrasted Dirk Nowitzki's decision to stay in Dallas with LeBron's decision to leave Cleveland. The difference is Dirk had confidence in his front office, who had already built two completely different Conference Finals teams around him. LeBron had Mike Brown as a coach, a front office that gave Larry Hughes $70 million and an owner who would soon become the laughingstock of the NBA with a Comic Sans-fueled rant that seems sillier by the day.

In his infamous open letter after "The Decision", Dan Gilbert fumed that "[LeBron's] shocking act of disloyalty ... sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn." But from LeBron's perspective, The Decision was the culmination of lessons he had learned since he was a kid listening to Jay-Z.

The conceit of rapper/CEO is central to Jay's mythology. While Biggie had Puffy and Tupac had Suge Knight, Jay had ownership of his own career: "The CEO's mine / the marketing plan was me."

When he was first shopping his demo tape in 1995, he couldn't convince a record label to sign him. So, along with business partners Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, he founded his own label (Rocafella Records) and distributed his debut album (Reasonable Doubt) himself. And when he felt like his partners were trying to steal his spotlight, he cut ties with them: "I heard m*****f****** [Dash and Biggs] saying they made Hov / Made Hov say OK make another Hov."

Jay was part of the first generation of kids who grew up listening to rap and saw record labels systematically take advantage of their idols. His ascension to CEO represented the triumph of labor over ownership, just as the collaboration of Wade, LeBron and Bosh represented something truly groundbreaking: players taking their careers and their legacies in their own hands, players becoming their own GMs.

And just as Jay's fortune belies the stereotype of rappers unable to handle their own money, the success of Miami's All-Stars has come in direct contradiction to the negative stereotypes about modern players: they each gave up over $30 million to play together while sacrificing individual statistics for the good of the team.

But now, after Wade has dominated the oldest guard in the league while LeBron struggled in Games 3 and 4, the sharks are circling once again. As one of Bill Simmons' friends concluded: "It's over. Jordan would never do THAT."

Like Jay-Z before him, they got LeBron fighting ghosts.

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