I made another appearance on The Jabsteps podcast filling in for Salvatore Pane in episode 57:“Jabsteps Book Review with Dr. Brad Fest! Return of the King (LeBron not Tolkien).” Geoff Peck and I talk about the 2017 NBA Finals and review Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin’s book, Return of the King: LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Greatest Comeback in NBA History (New York: Grand Central, 2017).
It has happened again. Even with the World Cup Final looming (specifically), a pretty hopeless present and future (generally), and the polar vortex headed for Western Pennsylvania and points Midwest again (locally!), there is nothing like a LeBron James Decision (2.0) to stall the free agency of the entire NBA, put the Internet on hold for a week, and then make it explode when he announces that he is going to take his talents (back) to Lake Erie. I am thrilled by this news.
But honestly, I would have been thrilled by the news that I get to watch James play basketball for another year no matter where he decided to go or how he announced his decision. He could have gone to Minnesota without Kevin Love and I would have watched him. I adore watching James play basketball. He has made May and June of the past many years something to look forward to. And to be hyperbolic . . . he makes me believe in things like “genius,” “talent,” “drive,” “desire,” “ambition,” “destiny,” “hope,” “belief,” “teamwork,” “empathy,” and a host of other such abstractions (that I pretty firmly do not think “exist” in any empirical way, esp. in the wake of my graduate education in English), and throatily discuss their authenticity in a host of Pittsburgh bars near and far. He has forced me to confront an essay by David Foster Wallace that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to handle (out of tennis ignorance) and think: yes, LeBron is Federer times . . . well, I don’t know yet. And neither does LeBron nor any of us. He, quite simply, hasn’t achieved his “peak” yet. I am absolutely captivated by him and look forward to being captivated for years to come. I’m gonna watch him until he hangs up his sneakers. And I cannot wait to see what he does in Cleveland.
James has been covered by the media in such excruciating, exhausting detail—evidenced by the past two weeks—that I have gotten to the point where I believe and disbelieve everything. It’s kinda glorious. There’s no rigor required. One can just give themselves over to the oceanic swath of attention his silence generates and luxuriate in the internet’s ridiculous shit. That is, until he says something and things become concrete. And then I’m just overwhelmed with my impoverished understanding of James, a figure that goes so far beyond my own puny little engagement with him as a basketball player, a celebrity, a cultural force, and an economic entity (let alone as a human being), that I’m just left kinda blabbering, wanting to read interesting essays about him by people with more authority and insight than myself.
For the most part, I tend not to allow this kind of thing to occur in my critical life and try to educate myself in the face of such extreme ignorance and bafflement so that I can speak even about stuff (i.e., texts) that is overwhelming, but I’ve just given up. He is, in Bill Simmons’s terms (see below), a “basketball genius,” and I don’t know anything at all. I know I don’t have anything really interesting to say about him. Sometime I suspect others do. Sometimes I know others do. Sometimes others have nothing whatsoever to add. His 2010 decision didn’t change that for me. People said many things. I just felt stupid. The next four seasons I happily watched James play for Pat Reilly and Eric Spoelstra. I adored watching the Miami Heat and guiltily rooting for them. I read everything I could get my hands on for and against James. But I really just kinda cheered. I wasn’t cynical. I wasn’t critical or hateful. I just enjoyed. And the best part, I kinda know that jubilant, youthful appreciation isn’t over by any means. Shucks. I grew up in the Jordan era.
I also adored watching Michael Jordan (who didn’t!?). My childhood and many who grew up in the 1980s-1990s were overdetermined by that skinny man from North Carolina. The last week I’ve been reading Roland Lazenby’s Micahel Jordan: The Life, (2014; here’s a decent review). Jordan was the greatest to play. Everyone knows this. I don’t think there will ever be better. But I think I enjoy watching James more because I am now an adult (if not “mature”) and understand what it means to watch him far more than I ever did Jordan. (He is also totally different than Jordan in a variety of ways.) MJ seemed like a force of nature. Something that just was. He overwhelmed athletics in the 1980s-1990s. He is still overwhelming athletics. Even sports he didn’t play. He was incredible. I was young, spoiled, and took him for granted. (Of course Michael Jordan exists! How could he not!?) I am trying valiantly not to take James for granted. And I can’t. His history in the NBA the last eight or nine years precludes me from doing so. He has just been so, well, special.
When I graduated from the University of Arizona, moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school, and (finally) started watching sports again, I immediately realized that, whatever nationally televised basketball I was watching, I wanted LeBron James to be playing (or the Phoenix Suns). And so I watched the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their playoffs pre-2010, though clearly disappointing, were wildly exciting, and James turned in some transcendent basketball.
When LeBron James went to Miami in 2010 I immediately and unapologetically became a “Heat fan” (as if such a thing exists), until earlier today. Self-consciously rooting for James these past few years has made me unpopular in a variety of ways and I have clearly understood why. How could I not? When I tell people that I just can’t help but root for James while he has played brilliantly for the Heat in four straight NBA Finals, most people have looked at me with at least significant disdain in their eye, and oftentimes concern, bafflement, scorn, and, on occasions hatred, ire, and detestation. (So on a day when I got my 1337 for WordPress) I really don’t care where LeBron has ended up because I am thrilled to be able to watch him continue to play basketball. Who knows how this will make me look to various people in the future. But I think that, whatever else has happened, James moving to Cleveland has now licensed many more people to watch him with such unabashed enthusiasm and appreciation as my own for the past many years, and that needing to temper that enthusiasm through tired stances of “fandom,” “irony,” or “loyalty” will be passé. He will just kind of overcome that stuff. Watch. He will. Going back to Cleveland. It’s smart.
And so, this is the whole point. The fact that he has returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers has occasioned a not unsurprising bevy of some of the smarter and well-written (single-day!) sports Internet commentary in recent memory. Here are some journalists responding to LeBron James going to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers on 11 July 2014 that I think everyone should read:
LeBron James himself being helped with an essay by Lee Jenkins announcing that he will be returning to Cleveland in “I’m Coming Home.” This has been quoted at length all day. I won’t quote it, but it really should be read. It is media-savvy in scary ways.
If you read anything else, read Bill Simmons on James in “God Loves Cleveland.”
But also Kaspian Kang, “LeBron Goes Home.”
But yeah. I think those four things sum it up. Read ‘em. And if Decision 2.0 isn’t your cup of tea, do not fret, we’ll be back to the regularly scheduled program soon. The world continues to be awful.
 Wallace’s 2006 essay on Roger Federer revolves in a Jamesian orbit. See David Foster Wallace, “Federer as Religious Experience,” New York Times (20 August 2006), http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0