On the John
The Rise and Plateau of LeBron James
Originally completed May 15, 2011
When the final buzzer sounded on Thursday night’s Bulls-Hawks game, my excitement for Bulls-Heat overwhelmed me. We were at Rokwelz Bar in Orland Park waiting for G to perform, and Ricky and I were seated at the bar drinking Budweiser and Blue Russians and discussing every angle of these 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. Already the commentators were remarking on the difference between the Bulls’ post-series celebration and that of Miami’s one night earlier; while the Bulls high-fived and slapped backs and strode confidently toward the locker room with their 20 point victory in hand, the Heat’s advancement to the conference finals provoked a veritable hug-n-tears fest, LeBron and Wade and Bosh and Juwan Howard holding each other and shaking and soaking in the home crowd’s love.
True, the circumstances of their respective victories differed greatly. The Bulls had throttled Atlanta on the road to capture the series, while Miami needed a 16-0 run in the final 4:15 to erase a six-point Boston lead, a feat they accomplished in front of their home fans, whose own rabid enthusiasm fed their excitement as each bucket dropped and each minute elapsed.
And yet the consensus among pundits and fans was one of disdain for the Miami celebration. “These guys are the Big Three,” the doubters seemed to say. “They are The Decision and The Announcement Celebration and are led by the game’s most talented player. And this is how they celebrate a second round victory? They look like amateurs!”
A night later, when Rose and Booz and the Bench Mob Bulls walked off the floor like old pros, the story was set: America’s Team vs. American Truth, one group humble, self-assured, talented, the other cocky, rowdy, and artificially blessed.
What Derrick Rose has done in five seasons of basketball is nothing short of amazing, topped only by Magic Johnson’s magical start. The Hall of Fame Lakers point guard is famous for his preps-to-pros run: a high school championship in 1977, a collegiate championship in 1979, and an NBA title as a rookie in 1980. Rose closed his high school career with back-to-back city championships, took Memphis to the brink of a national title as a freshman, dragged sub-par Bulls teams to the playoffs in 2009 and 2010 before exploding this season and grabbing nearly all of the honors and achievements a player can grab.
The list of NBA players who have led their team to a championship within their first three professional seasons is as short as it is impressive. Starting with the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, we have Bill Walton in ’77, Magic in 1980, Bird in ’81, Duncan in ’99, and Wade in 2006. Five guys, five Hall of Famers. Rose this year would make it six.
Like Walton, Magic, and Duncan, Rose was drafted first overall. Wade was picked fifth in 2003, Bird sixth in 1978. Yet there are plenty of top six picks who took six, seven, eight years before their first championship, and plenty more whose names were forgotten as soon as the commissioner read them aloud. Any player selected in the first round of the NBA draft is a great talent. Most were lauded in their grade school days. But natural talent, amateur achievements, and draft placement are not analogous to professional glory. Even first picks (Oden, Kwame, Kandi, et. al.) get the blues.
Which brings us to LeBron.
No team sport athlete in my lifetime has been as celebrated and exalted as The King from Akron. Sports Illustrated dubbed him “The Chosen One” at 17. Fans were calling him “the next MJ,” but when I first heard of him back in 2001, nbadraft.net was comparing him to Magic Johnson. He was Magic alright, if Magic could dunk like Michael and was built like Karl Malone. The sheer combination of size, skills, swagger, hype, and accolades meant he could exceed all expectations without trying — unless he was an absolute fall-on-his-face failure, he would be celebrated as the embodiment of Greatness simply because no one knew what could realistically be expected of this 17-year-old hoops manchild.
He was Ohio’s Mr. Basketball as a sophomore, Gatorade’s Player of the Year as a junior. He was drafted first overall by his hometown Cavs, and, at 18-years-old, scored 25 points in his first pro game. He won the All-Star MVP at 21, dragged Cleveland to the Finals at 22, won a scoring title at 23, and was the game’s greatest talent with no peers at 24. The fact that he was ringless did not harm his reputation or burgeoning legacy because, well, “He’s got plenty of time.” No one knew what to expect, so no one griped when his seasons ended without a trophy.
In fact, James’s trip to the 2007 Finals in his second postseason exceeded expectations. “Already??” we said. “He’ll be back,” we said. When LeBron carried his overmatched Cavs to a five-point, Game 7 loss in Boston the following year, we shrugged and smiled and chalked it up to the Celtics role as an unmovable Team of Destiny.
Then came the 2009 upset to Orlando, with Bron now League MVP, and that felt strange. Still, he’s 24, we explained. Plenty of time.
Then came last season’s meltdown in Boston, where the heavily favored Cavs floundered in the second round to the aging, should-be-dead-already Celtics, and now something was really wrong with this story, and then James left Cleveland and became a villain and the Heat were good but not ’96 Bulls-good, and all of a sudden half the man’s career was gone and here he was: brilliant, dominant, ringless, and already chased by the League’s new MVP, a man younger, faster, just as dominant, more beloved, and heading for a title in year number three.
When you think about things from those eyes, it’s no wonder James was at the center of Miami’s post-series emotional melee. Potential and accolades don’t equal achievements and glory. Sooner or later, you are what you are.
Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music, sports, and community in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” is available at Amazon.com. Say hey at twitter/readjack and catch him on ChicagoNow.
More stories on LeBron James from Jack M Silverstein
9 JUL 2010 — Burn on, big river, burn on (LeBron leaves Cleveland)
8 JUL 2010 — Keeping it all in house (LeBron free agent speculation)
14 MAY 2010 — The Waste Land (Celtics eliminate Cavs)
26 APR 2010 — Shot through the heart (LeBron’s half court shot vs. Bulls)
18 APR 2010 — King Crane Fly James battles the Bulls (LeBron vs. Bulls)
13 APR 2010 — Let them eat Cubs (Bulls trying to make playoffs)
1 JUN 2009 — More than just a puppet (LeBron vs. Kobe vs. MJ)
19 APR 2009 — Breaking through a wall of fools (Young Bulls compared to Young Cavs)