Sitting on the baseline in Trenton, N.J., back in 2003, I became certain LeBron James was going to be special, and it wasn’t just the 52 points he scored that night. It was the way he carried himself, the poise that belied the fact that he was a high school senior in an NBA All-Star’s body.
Nine years later, watching the clock wind down on LeBron’s first championship was surreal. As the greatest athlete I’d ever seen live, I’d long believed he’d win a championship at some point. He was too good not to. But I couldn’t imagine it would end up the way it did, not with a gleeful public coronation but with begrudging acceptance of his brilliance.
The expectations we all had for him were simultaneously legitimate and unreasonable. LeBron’s skills were exactly what we thought they would be, his ceiling and learning curve off the charts. As he willed a good but not great Cavs team to the NBA Finals ahead of schedule in his fourth season, you absolutely couldn’t miss a minute because he might just do something you’d never seen before.
But to put the hopes and dreams of not just an entire city but an entire post-Jordan sports landscape on his shoulders, could anyone in his position have handled that and come out unscathed? It was especially more daunting as the information age exploded, the Internet begat Facebook begat Twitter, and LeBron’s every move was noticed and scrutinized.
This isn’t to say all of this was against LeBron’s will; he has, after all, a “Chosen 1″ tattoo across his back. His first Nike poster had him sitting on a throne with lions at his feet. His first sneaker ad â€“ filmed before he’d even played an NBA game â€“ showed the entire world stopping to watch him, a la MJ’s frozen moment. LeBron loves basketball; he dreamed of greatness and expected nothing less.
However, he couldn’t have possibly understood just how heavy the head that wears the crown. After years of carrying with dignity the burden of expectations, self-created and otherwise, Atlas shrugged in the form of his dreadful performance in his final playoff series with the Cavs. Looking back, it was no surprise he left behind the pressure of a fan base that lived and died with his every move, in favor of one that might show up during the second quarter of a game if there’s nothing better to do.
It was hard to watch LeBron these past two seasons â€“ not his game, mind you, which was for the most part magnificent as always. But to see the constant stream of enmity force him to be so defensive, vindictive and utterly joyless, it just seemed counterintuitive.
The Decision was pretty lousy â€“ even LeBron would come to admit that â€“ but everyone primarily hated him for having the audacity to have done what he wanted rather than what we desired him to do. LeBron, of course, reflexively hated everyone in return. A part of me wanted to enjoy what I perceived to be antihero status, but I never quite had the heart for it. I couldn’t believe this was how it was supposed to go. But it didn’t mean he still couldn’t get to where he needed to be.