Thursday, June 16th, 2011

LeBron James Can't Hear You

Haters, am I right? Just waiting for you to fail, pulling for it with all the sad vigor in their mean, withered selves—it's like they take all the things that are wrong with their lives and put them on you, blame you for what's wrong with them and expect you to take the punishment for them. Am I right, though? It's not a rhetorical question.

I honestly do not know if I'm right, because haters just are not a thing in my life or probably in yours, or really in the lives of anyone with a reasonable self-image. You will see a teenager on mass transit in a hater-baiting t-shirt every now and then, and hear about haters more often than that in your average mainstream hip-hop chorus. An ankle-deep wade into one of Twitter's fetid hashtag bogs will reveal plenty of hater-related complaints. But these are teenagers and Fabolous and random people inexplicably pretending to be Katt Williams on an anarchic microblogging site we're talking about. You/me/we do not have haters, as properly identified in the feverish, florid mind-veldt of Internet-age globalized teenagery. We have friends and family and co-workers and maybe Twitter followers or something, but we are good or bad, not great or evil. LeBron James, though, is bigger than that. And LeBron has haters.

In the days since the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title—or LeBron’s Heat lost it, which seems to be the preferred angle for the average sportpundit—the haters (and the cluckers and the squeakers and the trolls and so on) have been doing their thing. Which is to say that your more churlish churls have been basking in the Heat’s failure—the honeybaked numskull who occupies the governor’s office in Ohio passed a resolution honoring the Mavs as “honorary Ohioans,” for instance. And then there are the Dr. Drew types, paid and unpaid, in print and in any bar with more than one television on the walls, who have weighed the facts and pronounced, with a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sternness, that it is time for James to grow-the-eff-up, get humble and become more like… Well, here is where it gets complicated, because telling LeBron James who or what to be is a category error. In a certain basic access-to-the-Internet sense, anyone at all can do it. But in a more uncertain, less-basic sense, though, missives to and missiles at LeBron James are bound to fall short of their target.

Of course, of course, the impulse to slag James has an easy appeal. The Decision was The Decision, the Preseason Championship Parade Celebration was the Preseason Championship Parade Celebration, and so on. And there was the way that James and Dwyane Wade mean girls-ed it up during the Finals—I do not want to talk about The Coughing Thing, in which the two seemed to mock Dirk Nowitzki for being sick in a game in which he lit the Heat up, but I'm talking here about The Coughing Thing—and then attempted to boomerang the coughing-thing backlash with some chuckleheaded 13-year-old-ian tricknology. It's one thing to play the heel, of course, and James and Wade clearly made the decision to do just that. But this is just all very boring at this point, isn't it? All this scolding and parsed narcissism and meta-analysis and questions of whether James does or doesn't deserve all the criticism and attention and so on? Do you find any of that interesting? Or, more to the point: when was the last time you found any of that interesting?

It's not just the repetition of all this that led to the collapse of the Heat Discourse Economy, although that didn't and doesn't help. And while the brinksmanship in rhetorical biliousness among your more avid Bron-centric schadenfreude-humpers is certainly wearying and dumb, that's not totally it, either. Fundamentally, as SB Nation's Andy Hutchins writes and as every NBA fan sort of knows, spittling something to the effect that LeBron James is a virtual monster or an egomaniac or immature or weak (or, if you’re into that sort of thing, a cocksucker) comes off as empty or glib or as an un-fun funhouse refraction of the author's own issues simply because no one actually knows LeBron James well enough to assess him. And this is true because James is swaddled in branding and buried in semiotic freight and visible only through the most heavily Vaselined of celebrity filters, yes. But it's truer because people as great at things as LeBron James is at basketball tend, at some level, towards the fundamentally unknowable and un-human.

Nothing we know about Michael Jordan, for instance, suggests that there's a must-know soul being rattling around in the body of the greatest basketball player ever. This doesn't mean we shouldn't treasure his virtuosity, but to project virtue onto him as anything but an embodiment of immense personal drive and competitiveness—which really only seems like a virtue when it doesn't manifest as shit-talking Bryon Freaking Russell in your Hall of Fame induction speech—is pretty clearly a stretch. And anyway, the fact that Jordan played pathological, merciless basketball doesn’t make him a uniquely defective human—it's not unique because Larry Bird did it and Kobe Bryant does it, to take two examples, and it's defective only insofar as his curdled narcissism would probably make him a pretty unpleasant guy to have beers with. It certainly did not hurt him in the business of winning, which seems clearly to be the most important thing in his life.

And if having beers with you is not now and never really was something Jordan wanted to do, either, it was also never really his beat. Jordan, like James, only really sounded interested when talking about himself and how we perceived him. There's something weirdly, disconcertingly believable about the tense revulsion of Jordan's interactions with other people in those squirmy-stiff, weirdly Hitler-stache'd Hanes commercial appearances of his. Jordan existed for Jordan, and that existence has had moments in which it was truly a thing to behold.

And Jordan is who LeBron James is talking about being when he expresses his wish to be “a global icon,” because Jordan is for the time being and possibly forever, basketball's ur-figure of implacable individual brilliance and will. If you are a certain type of basketball-watcher, you admire that particular flavor of brilliance most. If you're not, you pick something else—the improvisatory geometries of Chris Paul or Steve Nash, Dirk’s inwardness or Kevin Durant’s flat affect humility thing or Stephen Jackson's weepy mania, if you're feeling contrarian—and go with that.

But if you are LeBron James (and good fucking luck getting your head around this particular thought exercise) the breadth of your talent makes the choice for you. You don't have to get "Chosen 1" tattooed on your back, necessarily, but you also don't really need the tattoo. However many championships he wins or doesn't win, James has a talent that elevates him to an un-human place, and which certainly marks him indelibly as chosen for something. Goof on him for the 24/7 sunglasses and world-historic self-regard and for generally displaying all the discernment, modesty and perspective of a very tall, very yoked Kanye West. I do it myself and it's fun enough, but it misses the bigger point about LeBron's personality, which is that he does not really have a knowable personality. He is big enough to have haters, to call home the air-conditioned isolation in which our culture's utmost and most outsized celebrities are preserved. James has achieved that global icon status, lack of championships notwithstanding, and what he faces now, with all these human-propelled projectiles pinging off of his colossal shins, is a big part of what global icon-hood currently is.

If it's hard to imagine wanting that… well, that's fine, I'd argue. Being good, in a fundamental kindness-dispensing sense, strikes me as what people are for. Being great is a different thing, and the gnarled Jordan and snarling Kobe and the rest of their win-addicted cohort are unappetizing, ice-cold proof of what virtuosity crowds out of a person. Leave the fame issues aside, and it's clear that getting to superhuman invulnerability means trading out or denying or otherwise lacking the sort of human vulnerability and self-awareness that makes likable people likable. LeBron isn't invulnerable yet; he surely cries Kanye-esque gallon-sized tears when he contemplates the terrible things that have befallen him. But if he hasn't behaved like a good human being, I'd argue that betrayal is maybe not the emotion to feel. It's understandable in a hundred different ways, but the thing we have apparently not yet understood about LeBron is that humanity is not what's for sale, here. Think of him, instead, as one of those vast, soaring Richard Serra metal sculptures, a closed oval monument that you're free to circle all day, if you'd like. It’s lovely—or at least daunting, at least monumental from every angle—but you'll not find a point of entry anywhere in that beautiful perimeter.

(Of course, you can enter some of Serra's sculptures and even wander around in them. But the walls are high and rusty and the passages are very narrow and strangely angled. I, at least, have found that I get queasy in there.)

David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can't Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!

13 Comments / Post A Comment

Bittersweet (#765)

Excellent piece. But I'm going to play devil's advocate and assert that if LeBron really wants that Jordan-esque, unknowable persona that comes from being freaking great at something, he's got to be Jordan-level great at it. Otherwise he's as hollow as one of those Serra sculptures.

David Roth (#4,429)

@Bittersweet I agree to a certain extent. I try to define greatness in a way that's more about how much joy/beauty/whatever gets brought to the competing than it is about wins and rings and whatever, so all this YOU'LL NEVER BE MJ shit on that front bums me out. But as jaw-dropping as James can be — and he's just different than Jordan, aesthetically, and in many ways actually more stunning, I think — he isn't as great yet. I'm inclined to think that James running around in AAU ball and then being The Man from day one in the NBA probably didn't help him as much as Jordan's playing for Dean Smith for a few years did. But there could be other explanations, up to and including James being a knucklehead or a bad dude or whatever else he has been called — I just know that, whatever holds him back or drives him forward, I can't relate to it.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@David Roth This is really not that complicated. LeBron scored 8 POINTS in a game in latest Finals. 8 POINTS! He is simply not in Jordan/ Kobe territory. End of discussion. LeBron is a great player and has an incredible future, but he just does not have the heart or the consistency of the best. I wish him no ill will, just a better agent who can craft his public persona in a more appealing light.

jarrodp (#14,042)

thanks for sharing the post with us

zoom (#10,138)

If beaing great at things is carte blanche for being a tremendous asshole, I'm the Michael Jordan of frittata.

saythatscool (#101)

This is really good.

I have nothing else to say.

toonz (#10,533)

@saythatscool seconded.

sigerson (#179)

ANOTHER Richard Serra reference? Geez, try to be original for once!

Tray Tray@twitter (#12,577)

No, I don't agree with this. Because to me, LeBron is still very human. To be sure, he's great. But not so great, or not the sort of great, that makes a player an inscrutable icon and/or human version of a Serra sculpture. Shaq was just as great a player, for example, but utterly human, because the greatness had nothing to do with his being this alien, steely-eyed inhuman entity; it all had to do with his being very quick and very big and very athletic for someone who was that big. It's like the difference between a completely down-to-earth supermodel, or even a prosaically bitchy supermodel, and Greta Garbo. The one is beautiful because of purely physical attributes, the other's beautiful because of the sort of mysterious person she was. And it's the same with Shaq and LeBron; they're great players merely because of certain physical qualities that don't really go any deeper than that and pervade their personalities. Shaq was a goofball who was at times passive-aggressive, LeBron's kind of a dull, quiet, sometimes affable, sometimes annoying, sometimes arrogant, often uncertain, person. He's like all sorts of people we all know. But athletes like Kobe, Jordan, Barry Bonds, Ted Williams really are inscrutable and inhuman, because they got great precisely by being inhuman.

thusgone (#9,466)

Perfect. "schadenfreude-humpers" is gem worthy of HST himself.

Skookum (#13,990)

This is a brilliant piece! – the writer clearly knows his subject but is also well aware of what is unknowable about his subject – Big agreement here that Lebron is unknowable – loved the mean girls line about lebron & wade – dead-on -the two of them could not have thought of doing anything more off-putting – their explanation; that they were giving the media something to blow out of proportion was particularly Palinesque and even more off-putting – I was stunned that Van Gundy uttered the truth that they would not likely have mocked Kobe or Pierce – unusual truth from the booth – I do however think that there are a few aspects of Lebron's sports personna that are clear -I think it is safe to assume that Lebron thinks that winning a title will make a man – and that maybe the very thing that is hindering him – it's a major miscalculation – I think Kobe and Michael enjoyed the journey and that's why both of them got to their destination so often – Lebron may be thje Eddie Murray of Hoops – to repeat – a most impressive article – thanks!

sweetlinda (#14,094)

Lebron is one of the best :)

Say what you want about Lebron, but Richard Serra shows up in the fourth quarter.

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