LeBron And The Monomyth
In recent Return of the King news, LeBron James announced his intentions to adorn himself with No. 23 in his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the myth that this decision will hurt sales (as if his double-zero Cleveland t-shirts didn’t sell out in seconds) remains fresh, I’m a little troubled by a different flaw in another myth.
Literature of heroes tends to follow the monomyth, meaning that when a story is distilled to its root ingredients, we see an eerily similar path each hero takes to achieve his or her goal. In a literature refresher disguised as sports news and speculation, let’s look at Lebron James’s career path:
To start our tale, a young and crownless LeBron toils away in the normality that is dragging a hulking carcass1 of painfully undermatched teams to 50+ win seasons (and a greatly overlooked Finals appearance2). For most of us, this would be a great success, but for LeBron, this was ordinary life tinged with failure.
II. Refusal of the Call
In the 2006 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, LeBron and Co. took on the top-seeded Detroit Pistons, before succumbing to the disease of Sucking at Basketball in seven games. To really hammer home how improbable even getting that far was, let’s just remember that Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s production was floating around 11, six and one, and he was the Cav’s second best player.
(Sidenote: Honest to God, I was overcome with sadness and pity for LeBron while writing that; I mean, I just had a very physical, very negative reaction to those words, a feeling combining a shuddering sense of despair with a deep wave of compassion. Don’t even look at the Cav’s third, fourth, and fifth best options3 for your own sake.)
If we’re being honest, this should have been the moment James jumped the sinking ship. Had we, as a culture of sports fans, not been entrenched in our mindset that great players must shoulder the burden of crappy teams to earn championships4 and instead thought it reasonable for an athlete to survey his options and to find a place with the people and culture that were best suited to put him in a position to succeed (you know, like what we expect ourselves to get), he just might have. But fans and the talking heads implicitly yelled, “Jordan dealt with it! Deal with it!” So LeBron stayed, even though the team he played against was so recognizably the epitome of what he needed: a great team constructed to complement each others' strengths and mask shortcomings so well that they were able to overcome the lack of a true superstar to win a championship as a cohesive unit.
LeBron at some level must have known that he deserved a similar situation (and one which should have been much easier to build because even then his overwhelming physical and mental advantages were already a historical anomaly comparable only to the upper echelon). He was already a great team player, but he just needed an actual team with less Donyell Marshalls and the like.
That year instead of fleeing Cleveland like Goodyear, LeBron signed a three-year extension with a player option for the fourth.
III. Supernatural Aid
While his freakish athleticism and mind would normally count for supernatural aid, I’m going with something more unsubstantiated and salacious involving the mix of teammates and family members5. Whatever the aid was, after an odd playoff collapse against Boston in 2010, Lebron found (or lost) whatever was tethering him to Cleveland.
IV. Crossing the Threshold
Watch if you enjoy torture. Man, as much as I respect the guy, this was just a really bad decision. Everyone knew as soon as he let those famous words slip that this was a PR disaster. I watched it over and over just to see if at some point during the whole shabang LeBron realized it.
ALSO SEE: An Open Letter To LeBron James
V. Road of Trials
Thus began the first NBA season of my modern NBA, the one in which off-season transactions matter as much, if not more, than the playoffs with the added benefit that the NBA is treated like a premier sport once again.
From the “Not One” pep rally on, the Heat were under the microscope. And while they hardly failed5, every stumble was a sign of failure and every molehill was a mountain to traverse. Succumbing to the pressures of a savant savior turned super-villain, LeBron lost himself, started wearing fangs and tried to live up to his unfair reputation. There was very real and very palpable vitriol surrounding LeBron. Jerseys were burned, boos were everywhere, he was seen as a man ambling leisurely to a championship and fans everywhere actually hated him for it. I never really understood, because even then he was clearly head-and-shoulders smarter than everyone on the court and physically freakier than everyone to boot, which made watching him play an eye-opening experience every time. But this particular year, it was much less fun, which was particularly painful for the usually upbeat LeBron.
The upside of course, was that the season was all part of the very necessary learning process laid out by the Monomyth. He got his help in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a mentor in Pat Riley and later perhaps even bigger helper in Erik Spoelstra6.
But, as we know, it all culminated in another playoff bust from James, another oddball series against Dallas in the Finals where we watched the greatest player of our generation shrink from the big stage and collapse under pressure. He looked like he blacked-out during the series, not like Will Ferrell in Old School, but much more like your fraternity brother who’s open secret is that he has a drinking problem. It was honestly scary, and if you were a fan of the game, very sad. No basketball fan should have to watch an all-time great fumble around like the Monstars stole their powers. I was as disappointed as the kid who met Charles Barkley on the playground in '947.
A normal person would have collapsed under these circumstances, perhaps scoring a prescription for a new anti-depression drug. LeBron James however, is not a normal person; he’s a hero, and heroes have to die first. LeBron died in that playoff series and after a summer of contemplation in Europe, returned a god.
Have you watched phoenix-like LeBron in the last three years? It doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t make sense. After LeBron scored 49 against the Nets in the playoffs by going one of two from the line to end it, I joked with my friends that in an alternate universe there’s a world where LeBron scored 50 and the Heat lost. And they immediately agreed! Because when LeBron drops 49, grabs six boards, dishes two assists, and rips the ball for three steals, that is the perfect stat line for that particular game. LeBron has perfected the art of playing team basketball as the world’s greatest player. When his team wins, LeBron’s numbers are not just what they are, but what they should be8. You don’t question LeBron. So yes, while he used to be very, very good, he came back damn near perfect.
During the transformation that was fully realized at the end of a 27-game win streak, LeBron won two championships. If Mike Vick can become a decently well-liked and respected figure by returning to form as a serviceable starter, LeBron can be atoned after two rings.
IX. The Return: “I’m Coming Home”
After the Heat (and not LeBron) crumbled against the San Antonio Dues Ex Machina this year, I was angry and terrified of the upcoming offseason. I just knew LeBron was going to be ripped to shreds by the media--pieces would be written about his legacy, talking heads would compare him to the greats that “he could never be.” I was preemptively pissed off at these (absolutely fictional) arguments (occurring solely in my head). His team stunk, the Wade We Knew is long gone, Kwahi is a freaking beast on the defensive end, and he still performed like an unstoppable champion! Why couldn’t the voices in my head see that?!
Instead, it was pretty quiet. A beautiful silence like the kind left behind after a thunderstorm wreaks havoc across a woodland countryside. I very much enjoyed the lack of hottakes, while trying to distance myself from that time I almost went crazy just thinking about unfair LeBron criticism.
During the time, LeBron once again thought about his future in the enclaves of Europe, wrestling the fish with his children. And then, after letting his agent field offers, he made a very interesting decision: to go home.
In his absence created by the World Cup, he was nonetheless paraded in the streets like a victorious general returning to Rome with the spoils of war. In his case, it was a championship resume, but you can’t blame Cleveland for reacting like he was carrying chests of gold. The gift he brings back is himself, one that will eventually culminate in a championship, and everyone in Cleveland and the basketball universe knows it. He is the hero come home, free from death, free to live even if by some miracle of spiteful gods he never wins again.
The question is, has there ever been an NBA player (or any other athlete) who has come this close to being a prototypical hero? LeBron has every single major point of contention covered. Jordan obviously comes close with the whole retirement thing, but he didn’t exactly die and return from the grave. He had already won three championships and just needed a vacation. It was not a rebirth so much as a retuning.
Shaq is probably a pretty close anti-hero archetype, having left Orlando for the allure of a Los Angeles rebirth. He won his championships and returned to Florida to win more… in Miami. Such a playfully spiteful move from the big fella. Toss in his quotes and a personality that lends a Deadpool-vibe, and he can't be considered in the same category (something he would probably appreciate since he always wanted to stand alone and above the rest).
Somewhere in the futbol universe, there may be a close rival for Titular Monomyth Hero, but as far as I know, LeBron stands alone, following the blueprint like he studied it in high school. When/if he wins a championship for Cleveland, he will cement for himself a very unique legacy in the context of sports, while simultaneously fulfilling an age-old and supremely satisfying journey in the context of history.
So what is the one contention that spurred this whole article? He should have chosen No. 6. It just makes more sense. No. 6 is Lebron, the Championship-Bringer. No. 23 was titleless, and he has morphed himself into No. 6 during his transformation. No. 6 would have been a nice, simple metaphor for returning with the gift of himself. But whatever. No one is perfect.
Full disclosure: This was indeed loosely inspired by “Game of Zones.”
1. Turning Mo Williams into a bonafide all-star is a greater accomplishment than most people will ever achieve in their lifetime.
2. He didn’t even have Mo Williams, the second best wing he had played with, before coming to Miami! That team is the Charlotte Bobcats of yore, plus LeBron! Check the roster. Also, what award does Eric Snow get for being on two of the worst Finals squads in the past 20 years? I’m talking about the 2001 76ers of course, who were also a Bobcats team but with Allen Iverson. (This is where we become sad and wish this post was about Iverson.)
3. Since you like self-inflicted pain, it went Anderson Verajo, Donyel Marshall and then Drew Gooden… I’m at a bit of a loss for words.
4. I think we’re starting to come around to the idea that that mantra was just thrown at us over and over by crappy owners who lucked into superstars and then lucked into some more; we’re opening ourselves up to the idea that if athletes are indeed professionals, then they have every right to choose the professional organization that best suits their needs. There are some growing pains to the process, like yelling that it’s unfair for players to collude and make super teams because "My team can’t do that!," but we’re moving in the right direction.
5. I actually feel somewhat bad writing that, but it’s too good for the narrative. The man this is attributed to deals with some personal mental health issues, but generally seems like a fun and cool guy who needs to catch a break or two. Best of luck to him!
6. Eric Spoelstra often gets written off by my friends as an average coach who lucked into LeBron, and that anyone could/should win with him. Well, Mike Brown tried with traditional methods and failed, though his teams did have a much worse supporting cast. But even with traditional methods and a better cast, Eric Spoelstra failed! It took reengineering an offense specifically suited to the gravitational pull on the game that LeBron naturally exudes.
Traditionally, basketball is viewed as a game being played in closed and flat space. Like planets in orbit, players revolve around each other in synchronization. Gravity in this situation is the game and affects the players, but the players don’t affect it. Massively talented players can force other players to revolve around them, but again, they are powerless to the game’s constraints.
However, much like in the reality’s analogous situation, basketball is actually played in open space. This means that a player’s talent can actually bend the game itself around him. Spoelstra realized this after one failed trip to the Finals and created an offense that allowed LeBron to make plays geodesic to his reference frame. Simply put, LeBron was free to make plays only LeBron could make. Instead of throwing five guys out there and telling Lebron to make it work, Spoelstra carefully placed all four of his teammates in the optimal position according to LeBron and LeBron’s vantage point alone. No one else could be the perfect focal point of that specific offense like LeBron was because it was designed around the unique way he bent the game itself to his will.
7. I know Space Jam was released in 1996, but it obviously takes place during MJ’s 1993-94 retirement phase, so I’m guessing it was the second half of the '94 season.
8. This fact of course makes Lebron the platonic ideal of a basketball player. On any given possession, he’s able to guard all five positions on one end, and on the other, whatever play he makes is “the right play.” He’s (the idea of) the Great Gatsby on the hardwood. What you would imagine if you wanted to make a team out of one basketball player cloned five times.
You can reach Danny Galvin here.