It is Time to Let Go of the King James We Created

July 12, 2010

A couple of months ago when the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, I wrote that it was not LeBron James’ failure in the series that would define him, but rather how he would respond.

James indeed responded last Thursday night on his one-hour ESPN special, "The Decision," and what turned out to define him was . . . us.

Ever since James’ days as a high school phenom we wanted him to be the next torch bearer. We wanted the next Michael Jordan. We wanted the next Magic Johnson.

James was an Ohio native whose near supernatural athletic ability had the potential to save his dying hometown's basketball franchise. It almost sounded like something out of a fairy tale, and we wanted that happy ending. So we followed through on those wishes and created the hype that was King James.

Even before he was drafted into the NBA, James was already on the cover of sports magazines dubbing him “The Chosen One.” Even before he played in his first NBA game, Nike had signed him to a $90 million endorsement deal. And later in James’ career, even before winning his first NBA title, there were already premature talks of him contending for the mantle of greatest player of all time.

The hype was so convincing that many completely bought into it. For years, James himself bought into it as well. He tattooed “Chosen One” across his back. He referred to himself in the third person. His sense of entitlement knew no boundaries.

But despite two MVP awards and two consecutive 60-plus win seasons, somewhere along the way, James has realized that he is not The Guy. He gave hints of that during the series against the Celtics this season, especially in that infamous Game 5 meltdown. He pretty much told us last Thursday night.

To be The Guy, a player needs to have a certain mental toughness and self-belief that goes along with his physical talents.

Most of the NBA's all-time greats had it. Jordan had it. Magic had it. Larry Bird had it. Kobe Bryant has it.

Even some of the greats who never won championships had it, such as Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Patrick Ewing. Those players did not just want to win, they also wanted the challenge, the pressure, and the feeling of accomplishment in leading their team against the league's best and coming out on top. And if they failed, they would continue to come back for another chance at success.

Players like Barkley, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, and Clyde Drexler, eventually did join up with teams where they played lesser roles to pursue a championship. However, they did not do so until the end of their careers, when their bodies no longer allowed them to be The Guy for their teams.

James, on the other hand, is 25 years old and in the prime of his career. He still has the best combination of speed and power in the league. He is still dunking over anyone who dares to challenge him at the basket. He is still chasing down the highlight reel blocks. What he does not have, though, is that mental toughness and self-belief.

Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James reacts to a play against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter in Game 6 of their NBA Eastern Conference playoff basketball series in Boston, Massachusetts May 13, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

He has shown moments of it throughout his seven-year career -- the 25 straight points against the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals; the 45-point duel against Paul Pierce in Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals; the game-winning three-point shot over Hedo Turkoglu in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals -- but it is apparent James needs to make a conscious effort to bring it out. It is not wired in him like we all made it out to be.

After seven years with the Cavs, James wanted out of Cleveland. The perception is that the Cavs’ supporting cast was not good enough to help him win a championship.

The reality, however, is that he also wanted out of being The Guy. Because if it was really just about the supporting cast, he would have signed with Chicago, where he would have a solid complementary core in Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and newly-signed Carlos Boozer.

But James chose Miami, a team he will not have to lead because it already has a leader. It is also a team where he won’t have to bring his A-game every night because there are two other stars. As James himself stated, “We won’t have the pressure of scoring 30 every night or shooting a high percentage.”

Many are of the opinion that James is taking the easy way out with his decision.

Barkley, on an NBA TV Game Time interview, stated, “I think it would be a lot more significant to win a championship in Cleveland than it would be Miami.” He would later add in the same interview, “If we’re going to use [those] criteria on Kobe Bryant, we have to use it on LeBron James also.”

Barkley was reinforcing those standards by which we have come to define James throughout his career. Through marketing, hype, and the willingness to buy into it, we have created this image of a super athlete with an iron will and fierce competitiveness, who was the next great player, the next "Guy."

We want James to continue to follow that script. We want James to give us the storybook ending. The only problem is, James does not have it in him to fulfill this illusion. It is obvious now that he either never did, or has simply had it beaten out of him in Cleveland and has given it up.

The two players James is often measured against are Jordan and Bryant. For the first several years of his career, Jordan was in the same position as James. Despite freakish athletic talents, Jordan was seen as a loser for his inability to lead the Chicago Bulls past the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons. Jordan never gave into such criticisms. He believed he was The Guy and he was going to make everyone else believe that as well.

Similarly, Bryant did not get the credit he deserved in some circles because Shaquille O’Neal was the driving force behind his first three championships. Such perceived slights, whether they actually existed or not, were unacceptable to Bryant. Bryant stuck it out and played three seasons with the likes of Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, and Smush Parker in his starting lineup before finally publicly challenging Laker management to upgrade the roster.

And that’s the difference between James and those two players. Jordan and Bryant relentlessly fought for what we have given freely to James. We laid it at his feet for years and he no longer wants any part of it.

To his credit, James did give it his best shot, as he brought Cleveland out of irrelevancy and into some of its best years in franchise history.

Moreover, James is still a young man whose game and mental toughness will hopefully continue to grow with time. Perhaps in the seasons to come, the Heat eventually will transition into a team that has James as its unquestioned "Guy."

But for now, James is ultimately a player whose raw physical talents have enticed us into making him something that he is not, or perhaps ever will be.

James’ ego will not allow him to admit it, but he has made it clear that at some level he has accepted it. It is about time we do, too.

By Kien Le
Staff Reporter for

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