We Are All Witnesses. We all know the slogan. We all know where we’ve seen it. We all know who it refers to. Do we know what it means?
Think about that slogan/saying/motto/mantra/whatever for a little bit. Think about what it makes the “we” in question, and think about what it does not make us. We are not LeBron James’ family. We are not LeBron James’ friends. We are not part-owners of LeBron James, nor do we hold shares of him. We are not LeBron James’ bosses or employees. We are not his defenders or his prosecutors. We are not his judge or jury. We Are All Witnesses. We have all watched.
Cleveland owned the Browns long before Art Modell bought them, took them, and moved them. Likewise, Cleveland owned the Cavaliers long before LeBron James joined the team. Cleveland will own the Cavaliers long after LeBron James leaves.
Cleveland does not own LeBron James. LeBron James was born in Akron. He was drafted by his hometown Cavaliers, who signed him to a contract. He played at a high enough level to make his contract a relative bargain. He then signed an extension with the Cavaliers. Again, he played at a high enough level to more than justify the money he was given by the Cavaliers.
LeBron does not owe the Cavaliers any more than he has given them. LeBron has never needed to pay off some cosmic debt to Cleveland. He’s done all he can to bring a title to the city, but it was never about anybody forcing LeBron to win a title for the Cavaliers. He tried to win Cleveland a title because he wanted to. Cavs fans just got to watch.
We are not LeBron James, and LeBron James is not us. On the court and off of it, LeBron has only allowed himself to appear tangentially human. On the floor, LeBron is the most blessed player the game has ever seen. Nobody has ever had his combination of size, speed, and explosiveness. He can see plays in a split second that most people couldn’t dream up given all the time in the world. He’s more skilled with his off hand than most forwards are with their dominant one. He can hit insane shots from anywhere on the court, and often makes them simply to prove he can.
He also refuses to make the concessions to fundamental basketball that so many people have demanded him to make. His shot selection is often baffling. He refuses to put himself in the post and use his combination of size and strength to dominate with a minimum of effort. He’s never developed a solid mid-range game, and he’s not even a lights-out free throw shooter. Sometimes, it’s like being the best isn’t good enough for LeBron; he needs to be the best while proving that his own way of doing things works better than all the ones that existed before it.
Off the court, LeBron is even less accessible than he is on it. He wants to be the richest athlete of all time, yet he surrounds himself with his high school buddies. He’s constantly cracking jokes and playing the buddy-buddy role with his teammates, but he keeps the general populace at arm’s length with a bizarre gumbo of warmed-over team-first mantras and a healthy dose of self aggrandizing-behavior. He wants to be Warren Buffet, but he wants to be a big kid as well. He wants to be One of The Guys, but he wants to hand-pick who gets to be One of The Guys.
He has refused all archetypes. He is not the intense workaholic whose desire to win dominates all other aspects of his personality. He is not the happy-go-lucky kid who just wants to play the game and have fun. He is not the suave businessman who controls everything in front of him. In trying to be all of those things, he has become none of them. He has become larger than life, but not in the way he wants to be. He is Alice after eating the cake, too big to fit through the door to the garden and too far down the rabbit hole to come back. And he might not even care.
Tonight, the eve of what was supposed to become LeBron’s big day, is instead the nadir of his career. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and all the hype and adoration that LeBron James inspired has come crashing down upon his ringless self. He is a King without a crown, and now he is being criticized for daring to take the throne. All LeBron did was play basketball very well and lap up every bit of praise lavished upon him for doing so. Whatever LeBron is other than a basketball player, we made him into. Now we have taken it upon us to punish LeBron for his hubris, and ourselves for trusting it. What the gods wish to destroy, they must first label as promising.
Tonight, LeBron is a man without a country. He hasn’t won the championship that would endear him to the fans who want a winner, and he hasn’t stayed humble or loyal enough to the fans who want their superstars to be paradigms of truth, justice, and the American way. He never brought his hometown team to the promised land, and he’ll never be truly worshiped there unless he does. If he leaves, he will go to a new team, a better team, in a bigger city. There, he will never be fully embraced, because he needed to take a shortcut to greatness. If he stays and does not win a championship, he will forever be seen as a player too weak-willed and weak-skilled to have ever truly been great. Even if he stays and does take the Cavs to a championship, he’s gone too far down the aforementioned rabbit hole to ever be the humble, team-first, hometown hero he wants Cleveland to see him as.
On Thursday, LeBron will have a new contract, and may someday get a championship ring. What he will never be is what he was once supposed to be; a player so great that he would unite all basketball fans under his banner, and achieve the kind of consensus greatness that Jordan once did.
He may unite great players under his banner, he may unite the mainstream media and his team’s fanbase under his banner, and he may unite the stat geeks under his banner, but he will never have the mob appeal to match his snob appeal. That ship has sailed, regardless of whether or not he stays in Cleveland.
This was supposed to be LeBron’s year. It was the seventh year of his career; Jordan won his first championship in his seventh year. It was his best individual season ever, both on the stat sheet and in terms of his evolving skills. He had more quality veteran players around him than he ever had before. His team was built to win a championship, not just impress in the regular season. With his contract coming up and a veteran team around him, it was do-or-die time, the time when the great ones are supposed to reveal what it is that makes them great.
If LeBron’s career was scripted, this would have been the year he finally won a championship. The Celtics’ defense didn’t care about any of that, and now the LeBron honeymoon is over. The first act of LeBron James’ career is over, and it ultimately turned out to be a tragic one. From a narrative standpoint, LeBron has tasted true, inexcusable, and lasting failure.
“A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It’s what happens while you wait for moments that will never come.”
-Lester Freamon, The Wire
We are not LeBron. LeBron is not us. LeBron does not owe us anything. We do not own LeBron. What we do own is the moments that LeBron gave us over the last seven-plus years.
The moment that you turned on ESPN2, saw St. Vincent/St. Mary’s beat Oak Hill, saw LeBron find Romeo Travis with a behind-the-back feed, told any other 8th grader who would listen that this kid was for real, and thought maybe the Cavs might get this kid in the draft? You own that moment.
When the ping-pong balls went Cleveland’s way? We own that moment. When LeBron showed up in that white suit and there was suddenly hope in Cleveland? We own that moment. When LeBron started owning summer league and then got a near triple-double against the Kings in his NBA debut? That moment is ours as well.
How about when LeBron became a legit MVP candidate at 21 years old, then tiptoed the baseline to beat the Wizards in his first-ever playoff series? Yep, that moment is ours. 25 straight points to beat the Pistons in double overtime and take a rag-tag team to the finals? Nobody can take that away. Then there was LeBron in the 2008 playoffs, fighting to the bitter end in a seven-game series against the eventual champs.
Then there was the 2008-09 season, when LeBron somehow took his game to another level and emerged as a dominant force en route to his first MVP award. Even against the Magic, LeBron managed to keep Cleveland’s hopes alive by draining an off-balance, buzzer-beating three in game two. This season, LeBron raised his game and led the Cavs to a 61-game season despite some new acquisitions and a slew of injuries, and nearly every one of those games was a small masterpiece in its own right.
There were the bad moments as well. When the Cavs collapsed down the stretch in 04-05 and missed the playoffs. When the Cavs couldn’t quite finish off the Pistons in game six of the 2006 playoffs. When LeBron took a good portion of the 06-07 season wandering around the perimeter and only trying to take over the game when he felt like it. When LeBron looked like a completely over-matched 21-year old against the Spurs that same year. When LeBron came up just short in his duel with Paul Pierce in 2008. When LeBron couldn’t quite finish off his masterful game one performance against the Magic in 2009, and had that sloppy fourth quarter and overtime in game four of the same series. Then, of course, there was LeBron getting completely demoralized and overpowered by the Celtics’ defense this season, backing down from the challenge he was supposed to embrace.
Off the court, there were the times LeBron had one eye on the bright lights New York or New Jersey/Brooklyn. When it seemed like he wanted to be a global icon more than he wanted to be the best player ever. When he may have told Nike to destroy tapes of a college kid dunking on him. When he was out pimping some self-serving biography. When he acted like he was the one with the right to take Jordan’s number and wear Bill Russell’s. We own all of those moments the same way we own the good ones.
All of those are just the big moments. There was also the night-in, night-out pleasure (and pain) of watching LeBron play. Every time he would lull his defender to sleep with a slight hesitation dribble and explode to the basket. Every time he would shrug off a big man and convert an impossible and-1. Every time he made a jumper few other players would be able to get all the way to the rim. Every time he got the ball in the open court and you told your friends to shut up and watch what was about to happen. Every time he threaded the ball through a hole nobody but his teammate knew was there. Every time he snuck up behind an unsuspecting opponent who thought he had an easy transition layup. Every time the game was close in the last five minutes and you knew LeBron had it under control. There were thousands of those moments, and LeBron gave us every one of them.
(The bad little moments; every time LeBron got in in the post and hesitated to go at his defender, every heat-check, every missed free throw, every stutter-step 20-footer with time on the clock, every off-balance mid-range shot, every time he would dance 30 feet from the basket instead of running the offense.)
Last Saturday, me and a few friends of mine went on a hike. We were led to believe it would be a three-hour day hike, but we ended spending nearly all day climbing up a freaking mountain. It was miserable. At some point during the hike/climb, I realized that a goal-oriented view of hiking makes very little sense. Was the moment I was working for the moment I got to the top of the mountain, only to realize I was now going to have to scramble down this freaking thing? Was it the moment we got to the car, too exhausted to do anything but drive to the nearest gas station, buy a bunch of Gatorade, and drink it in silence? Was it when we got home and finally got to shower? Which one of those moments was supposed to make the whole miserable experience worthwhile? Was it when we could tell very unimpressed people that we climbed a relatively small peak?
The answer, of course, is none of them. If you don’t enjoy the process of hiking/climbing mountains, there is no way to justify the activity. Professional cyclists often talk about how the love of suffering itself is something all good cyclists must have on one level or another. More and more, I feel the same way about being a sports fan. If you’re waiting for that one game, one moment, one play, one championship, three championships, that will make all that suffering go away and let you feel nothing but warm inside when you think about your favorite players and teams, I suggest taking up quilting. To be a die-hard fan is to suffer. You just have to enjoy the little victories that you find while you’re suffering.
Maybe you believe that all the great things LeBron James did in the last seven years were just a dress rehearsal for the moments when he ultimately failed to deliver. Maybe you believe that all the good things you thought about LeBron over the years were revealed to be the products of deceit when LeBron started acting like a jackass who believed himself to be bigger than the game this summer. I suppose those are valid viewpoints. They do not happen to be my own.
For the first two years of his career, LeBron James was perhaps the most exciting prospect the game has ever known. For the next three years of his career, LeBron was an underaged MVP candidate who gave the Cavs a fighting chance at a championship. For the last two years, LeBron has been a dominant individual force who turned the Cavs into true championship contenders. For the last seven years, Cleveland basketball has been something to feel good about. When you think about it, that’s something.
If LeBron does decide to stay tomorrow, it will still never be the same as it was before; LeBron is no longer the golden child, and the Cavs won’t have the buzz around them that they once did. If he does leave, it will be one of the lowest moments in the history of one of the most tormented American sports cities. Either way, an era will officially end tomorrow.
The seven seasons that made up the (1st act of?) the LeBron Era in Cleveland ultimately ended in disappointment, failure, heartbreak, misery, doubt, bitterness, and plenty of suffering for everyone who lived and died with LeBron and the team he led. Personally, I wouldn’t trade those seven years of watching LeBron play for anything in the world.