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LeBron James, Our Great American Novel

During the fourth quarter of the instant-classic Game Six of the NBA Finals last night (one of the “two or three” best games in NBA history, said Magic Johnson), I flipped over to Twitter—it’s the way we watch now—and refreshed several minutes’ worth of tweets. I then time-traveled: As I scrolled down, going from present to very recent past, LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, changed from the hero who saved his team and sent the series against the San Antonio Spurs to a Game Seven (which is what happened, in an overtime victory) to, just a few minutes before, a choke artist whose passivity and missed shots looked likely to cost the Miami Heat their second Finals in three seasons.

James had been strangely passive much of the game, and had missed most of his shots. Also, he lost his iconic headband right around the time he started playing like a man possessed, prompting, among other things, 107 parody feeds (@BronHeadBand, @lebronsheadband) and 100 times as many tweets about how that is what jump-started him (we will be talking about whether he will wear it during Game Seven for the next 36 hours, which is insane). But the Twitter discourse was most of all yet another example of our irresistible propensity to take the discrete acts in this man’s career and build them into one overarching Bildungsroman.

This is much, much more our fault than we typically prefer to blame ourselves for. For the first part of his career, LeBron James largely shut up and played. It was for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers—hometown boy made good!—but it’s not like he rigged the draft to make sure that would happen (that was obviously outgoing commissioner David Stern, duh). During his time in Cleveland, he “only” reached one Finals, but Mo Williams was his starting point guard for much of that stretch and the rest of his supporting cast was similarly un-endowed, and his coach was the thoroughly mediocre Mike Brown. In his last four seasons in Cleveland, he lost one Finals (to a much, much better Spurs team), one conference finals (to the well-coached Orlando Magic, and despite making this shot), and two conference semi-finals (to two savvy, veteran, brilliant-on-defense Boston Celtics squads). He also won two regular season MVPs. The Decision happened—okay, that we were allowed to narrativize—and now, with three seasons with the Heat, he has won another two MVPs, reached three Finals, and won one, with number two perhaps coming Thursday night.

Many of the games have been exciting, but as a career, this is actually not the stuff of high drama. Transcendent player does transcendent things, but the limits of the rest of his team in a team sport hold him back; he moves to a better team; on better team and entering his prime, he plays even better, and his team does better, if not perfectly. I just described what is, for someone of James’ talents, one of the least unlikely career trajectories ever. Yet we treat every step like a novelty. (Including me? Of course.) And no other player in the league, probably in all of sports, enjoys this indecency.

Whence our need to fold every distinct and disparate action James does into a twisting-and-turning narrative chockful of character development, subplots, and the repetition of the overcoming-his-own-psychological-limits motif? Partly it’s our having known him for so long (his first Sports Illustrated cover was when he was in high school), and his having gone straight to the NBA and not immediately enjoyed massive success—Kobe Bryant, the only other player of James’ caliber and prominence who made that leap, won three championships in his first six seasons (it helped that the best player in the league, Shaquille O’Neal, was his teammate). And surely Twitter, that machine of groupthink and validation (“everyone on here agrees/disagrees with me, so I must be right!”) doesn’t help.

There is also the underexplored problem—analogous to the quandary presented by criticism of great artists (visible recently in the reaction to Kanye West’s new album)—that James is so many levels of genius above us that we are actually incapable of validly analyzing his unprecedented game, in which the skills of a point guard like Magic Johnson are invested in the body of a power forward like Karl Malone and combined with the brain of a coach like Gregg Popovich. We are not smart enough to understand James’ game, and so instead fall back on telling each other fun little stories. The few people who are smart enough to understand James’ game also understand this. “He knows more than all of you put together,” Popovich—his opposing coach!—told the media just before the Finals began. “He understands the game. If he makes a pass and you all think he should have shot it, or he shoots it and you think he should have made a pass, your opinions mean nothing to him, as they should not mean anything to him.” Preach.

Finally, though, I wonder if our compulsion to narrativize the life and career of LeBron James mean something outside the realms of basketball and basketball culture. In a sharp essay, the writer Jason Farago (who occasionally writes for this website) recently noted that one’s twenties, seemingly so full of possibilities, lend themselves to conceits of narrativizing and self-narrativizing, and that this is both more true than ever before—“an earlier generation had to take their twenties seriously, preparing for careers or families, but since yours has no hope you might as well skateboard”—and still manifestly untrue given the external limitations of, depending on your situation, a lousy economy or a small-ball offense that runs into trouble against certain kinds of defenses.

So maybe this is why we are more obsessed with the illusory arc of James’ career than the very real arc of his jump shot. He is our society’s exemplary twentysomething, a mixture of boyish enthusiasm and receding hairline, the world seemingly at his feet, able to take his life in any direction he wants, yet still bumping up against boundaries that literally anybody would bump up against.

Fortunately, James apparently has his head in a better place. “I still made some critical plays, uh, as far as bad plays, late in the fourth, a couple of turnovers, a couple of mistakes,” he said in a post-game interview (my friend transcribed). “But I can live with those mistakes when I know I gave it my all tonight and we’ll live to see another day.” To James, basketball is evidently a job he does better than anybody else, and does better some days than other days. I suspect the rest of us will begin to have an easier time seeing that fact on or around December 30th, 2014—and not (or not only) because by then James will have won another championship or two. LeBron James may be the only twentysomething in America who can’t wait to turn 30.