The NBA Finals. We are smack dab in the middle of them and LeBron James is being criticized ruthlessly. Some of it is certainly warranted, as he has underperformed against the Mavericks in these Finals, but some of this lashing out comes from an entirely different place. Expectations.
LeBron came in to the NBA in 2003 straight out of high school. He was anointed the unenviable title of “the next Jordan” before he even graduated from school. James signed a multimillion dollar shoe contract with Nike before he ever played a game in the NBA. This seems like an awful lot of pressure to put on a kid from Ohio, or a kid from anywhere for that matter. But did you see what this kid looked like in high school? Truly a man among boys.
Sometimes expectations are born from hype. Sometimes they are born from a state of awe. In Bron’s case, it was pure awe that spawned unreal expectations, hype, and pressure. The kid was a physical specimen the likes of which we have never seen. Well, at least not since the world laid eyes on Shaquille O’Neal a decade or so before. Both players were simply off the charts when people talked about potential. If you looked at Shaq or LeBron, you were sure that you were a witness. A witness to a freak of nature.
O’Neal entered the league in 1992 as the #1 overall pick, and to absolutely nobodies surprise, won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. The same award that James would win some eleven years later after being taken #1 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft. Physically, Shaq appeared to have the makings of being the best center the world had ever seen. He was 7’1″, 340lbs, and athletic to boot. In his early years, the “Diesel ” would run on fast break opportunities and jump out of the gym to block a shot or finish with a backboard shattering dunk. No player has had as many nicknames as O’Neal, but LeBron’s first might have been his curse. ”King James” was the moniker bestowed upon, and endorsed by, James. LBJ was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was still in high school. ”The Chosen One” is what the cover said, and inside he was referred to as “Heir Jordan”. Do you feel a little pressure building?
Shaquille spent his first four years in Orlando, before going to Los Angeles as a free agent. He took an undermanned Magic team to one NBA Finals. They were swept by the Houston Rockets. LeBron was a hometown hero in Cleveland for seven years. James took an equally unarmed team to a single NBA Finals. That team was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Parallel? Yes. The fact that both opponents and LeBron’s current foe, the Dallas Mavericks, all reside in Texas is just a really weird coincidence.
Both players infuriated fans of the team that drafted them, but the venom spewed at James was definitely the worst of the two. I think the reason for the passionate outcry is the same. In both cases, fans and teams are losing a once in a lifetime type of player. A player that by physical make-up, seems to be the key to unlocking the door to a dynasty. In Shaq’s case, this turned out to be true. He led the Lakers to three straight NBA Championships, then went to Miami and played a big role in winning the Heat’s first. LeBron is currently working on winning his first, which would be NBA Title number two for the Heat. O’Neal won the Finals MVP award three out the four times he won a championship. When he won with Dwyane Wade in 2006, “Flash” took home the MVP trophy. If James and the Heat win this year, it will probably be Wade who gets the nod again.
So should we feel bad for LeBron James? That’s a tough idea for many people to grasp. It’s human nature to sympathize with people who seem to be suffering, but at the same time it’s even tougher to feel bad for a multimillionaire athlete who is supremely, physically gifted. John Doe sitting on his couch is certain that if he had the physical talents of Shaq or LeBron, he would be better than they are. He wouldn’t come up short on effort, or miss free throws, or leave his hometown to join forces with his friend. Maybe Mr. Doe is right. Probably not.
Shaquille O’Neal retired during these NBA Finals. His legacy as a player was forged years ago. LeBron James is still hard at work, trying to win what he hopes will be his first of many NBA Championships. Shaq will always be regarded as the most physically gifted big man of all-time. He won multiple championships and is by most people’s account, a top five all-time center. James is probably the most physically talented player the league has ever seen. We won’t know if the story of these two “freaks” will wind up with similar plot twists and endings for about 7-10 years. Neither of them will ever be regarded as the greatest ever. So what. ESPN, SI, and just about every other sports entity has been so desperate to find and label “the next Jordan”, that they haven’t really let James become the first LeBron. Let’s quit trying to elevate this guy every time he does well, then tear him apart when his numbers appear off, even when his team wins. Mr. James, the court is yours. Enjoy.
About the Author
Written by Sean Eckhardt
Univ of Alabama alumni. Born and raised outside Chicago, IL. Currently live in Florida. Some of my favorite teams include the Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Heat, and the Florida Panthers. My interests outside of sports include music, outdoor activities, and anything with a motor(cars, bikes, boats, etc...).