Superman never seems to get his just due in the comic book universe. Take a survey of fans and many will submit to you Batman — an “ordinary” man with extraordinary wealth and training — or other more down-to-earth characters as their favorite superhero. Unlike Peter Parker, whose spider-centric powers were the result of a science exhibit accident, Superman was ahead of the game from the start. He was born into supernatural being, which has resulted in the otherworldly being from Krypton falling victim to the sliding scale. Sound familiar?
With apologies to Dwight Howard — who stole the nickname from Shaq anyway — LeBron James is the NBA’s Superman. Emerging from the shores of Lake Erie, James was garnering Sports Illustrated cover stories when he was barely old enough to legally drive a car, let alone take on the NBA’s best and brightest. He was anointed the NBA’s guiding light before he ever played a minute of pro basketball. With a combination of physical gifts and a hoops instinct that far outstripped his peers, James was “The Chosen One.”
On the eve of James’ professional debut in 2003, SI’s Jack McCallum penned a story that’s haunting in retrospect. The burden Lebron was about to carry, given the gifts bestowed on him by brands and companies eager to clasp on to his ascendent cape of superstardom, was unheard of at the time:
NBA officials will tell you that we’ve seen this before, a phenom receiving big bucks, arriving amid much fanfare. But they’re kidding themselves and they know it. No one has gotten this much this soon, no one has ever entered any league under so much scrutiny. The three-year, $10.8 million rookie contract he’s getting from the Cavaliers is Monopoly money to James, who has endorsement deals worth more than $100 million. “I’ve been around the game for 40 years,” says Cavs coach Paul Silas, “and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s scary.”
With those gifts came a certain entitlement from basketball fans, as if anything short of perfection would be a letdown. James was a little entitled himself, to be fair. “The Decision” and the Heat Welcome Party look ridiculous then and now. Perhaps turning Sports Illustrated‘s infamous headline as a tattoo wasn’t the pinnacle of humility, either.
But who could expect a sensible response after being told the world was yours at such a young age? Most 18 year olds struggle to handle the responsibility that comes with going to school and living on their own simultaneously. Try being the future of a multi-billion dollar industry while you’re still navigating the ropes of adulthood.
To boot, James is battling the ghost of Michael Jordan, who has become a symbol of impossible flawlessness that no man could live up to. Not even, as it turns out, Jordan himself:
The difference is that James has failed in a media cycle that never ends, never allowed a moment of respite from his past misgivings.