Silence all the noise and all the chatter. At the end of the day, it’s about a group of people and a round, bouncy ball. It’s about the art of doing things with that round bouncy ball, with the ultimate goal of putting it through a round rim at a height.
There are hundreds of millions of players around the world that play this game, from the USA to China to India to Spain to Japan to Congo to Australia. These are people – many like you and I – who play the game at various levels amongst varying talent.
There are only tens of thousands, perhaps, who are at the professional level, men or women who could earn their living playing the game.
There is even a much smaller number, somewhere close to 500 men, who fulfil their dream of playing in the highest level of this game, the NBA. These are the most talented basketball players in the world. Out of these 500 men, perhaps only half get an opportunity to enjoy an elongated career in the league, and a measly 24 are picked to be the best of the best, every year for the NBA’s All-Star Game. The brightest shining stars of all the hundreds of millions of stars in the basketball sky.
But an even smaller handful of these 24 take the jump up from goodness to greatness. The select few who become franchise players and the handful of three or four that can claim to be the finest in the planet at doing things with that bouncy round ball.
For the past half a dozen years, one name has consistently dominated the top of the totem pole. Even at the highest level of basketball, talent isn’t static. It changes, it shifts. It oscillates up and down from day to day. It depends on internal circumstances like health, form, and motivation, and external circumstances like location or opponent. And yet, despite the rollercoaster ride that has accompanied him throughout, LeBron James has more or less remained at or near the top of the pole. No matter what else changes, he has consistently challenged or held on to the title of the best basketball player on the planet in this period.
No player since Michael Jordan has had a longer and more effective stint at the top of the basketball world than LeBron, a stretch since 2008 that brought him four MVP awards, four visits to the NBA Finals, two championships, and two Finals MVP trophies. Yet, this isn’t really the greatest thing about him.
The greatest thing about LeBron James in my opinion isn’t that he’s the complete balance of Michael and Magic, it isn’t that that he can play and defend almost any position, it isn’t that he's fast as a guard and strong as a power forward, and it isn’t all the stats and accolades that his skills have brought him.
Nope. The greatest thing about him is the fact that he has learned how to blank out all the noise and the chatter and find peace, peace between himself and that round bouncy ball, and play at a level where very few can match or better him.
Whether it has been self-afflicted or external, there is no NBA player in the game’s history that has been scrutinized as closely as LeBron James in the past decade. He entered the league as one of the greatest High School players of All Time, but also tattooed the words ‘Chosen One’ on his back to invite the expectations. He wore Michael Jordan’s Number 23 and became the number one pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. He was the rookie of the year and a superstar from a young age, and very early on, began to gain both admirers and haters.
His much-maligned ‘Decision’ to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010 brought him more flak and made him one of the most hated personalities in sports. The hate grew with his 2011 Finals loss, but so did the love in the consecutive years which brought him his first two titles.
And despite all that, his play on the court rarely took a dip. Even his biggest haters couldn’t find too many players who were genuinely better at basketball than him.
Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals was a disaster for LeBron. The heat caused him cramps, which in turn took him out of action and his Miami Heat squad crumbled in the fourth quarter without him. As expected, the vultures began circling, and everything about LeBron and his toughness in the big moment was questioned.
"I know that I'm the easiest target that we have in sports,” LeBron said after Game 1. And despite being that target, he bounced back, like he almost always does, a game later. Game 2 was a signature LeBron moment, as he scored 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to help his team even the series. The noise had been silenced, and the easiest target had become hard to hit again.
Of course, we all know how that story ended. The Spurs came back to humiliate LeBron and his Heat in the next three games, winning the series 4-1 and reducing LeBron to a 2-3 record in his five overall trips to the NBA Finals. With his future with the Heat coming into question, LeBron decided to opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Once again – whether it was self-inflicted or external – the villain grew into his role.
LeBron remains the most scrutinized man in the league, with his every move off and on the court praised or criticized with ultimate extremes. The age of social media and the power of instantly broadcasted opinions to more fans than ever brings the microscope closer and closer to LeBron every year. The life of being the easiest target in sports doesn’t get any easier.
But once more, he will be capable of silencing all the noise and all the chatter. Despite what happened in the Finals this month and what his decision will be in the future, one thing is for certain: LeBron James will still be better than hundreds of millions of basketball players in the world, and will remain as a contender for the absolute best at dominating the game with that bouncy round ball.
And that focus, that ability to rise up despite all the hate threatening to bring him down, is truly his greatest skill.