warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

An Appreciation Of LeBron James' NBA Finals

Paolo Uggetti |
June 19, 2015 | 4:07 p.m. PDT

Sports Editor

LeBron James.
LeBron James.

When the final buzzer sounded and Stephen Curry hoisted up the ball in glee, the Warriors took center stage for the first time this series. It was only a clinching win that would at last place them at the forefront of conversation for good, and rightfully so. They were deserved winners of the 2014–15 NBA Championship.

But right up until that moment, that space had been occupied by LeBron James, the self-proclaimed and universally acknowledged best basketball player in the world.

It mattered none that the Warriors were a 67-win team. It mattered none that they were the best defensive team in the league as well as one of the top two offensively throughout the regular season. That their star, Curry, has risen to become the most popular player in terms of jersey sales carried little weight and small hope to usurping James’ customary place in the Finals’ spotlight.

In what must now feel like home to LeBron after five straight trips, the Finals once again positioned him at the crux of basketball discussion. That his team’s other stars were sidelined with injuries leaving the entire podium to his name was the icing on the cake.

Once again, James delivered with the ferocity akin to his early years in Cleveland, behind a back-breaking style that was the only viable option. It nearly worked, as he pushed the remnants of a competitive collective further than anyone thought possible.

This is where for the first time, in an unprecedented turn, empathy has entered alongside the discussion of the most scrutinized athlete of our time. Throughout the series, most basketball analysts all posited what they saw and believed to be true: LeBron could not, and would not do this on his own. As the games progressed, however, there was nothing more fascinating than to watch him try, and for a time succeed.

To see him relying on Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson and the triumvirate of mid-season additions in J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, was to essentially see a one-man team incarnate. For the first time, most of the basketball world produced an emotion never before applicable to LeBron: Empathy.

One could argue, it was more pity than anything, but the reality is that we rarely pity our athletes. What makes us succumb to unrelentingly wishing they would succeed is when they exhibit the traits, characteristics and issues that we, as “regular people” deal with. Failure, for example, is a common one.

In LeBron, the basketball fan had always seen an untouchable cyborg that embodied a force of physical nature combined with basketball acumen never seen before. For some, his impossibility made him easy to root against; he had always been seen as the favorite, and to the general public his failures were something to delight in.

Yet it was not until this series that we accepted LeBron as an underdog, and rightfully so. By some metrics, he would have to take this sloppily mended team and face one of the best regular-season teams in the history of the game. For us, there was no choice but to accept the narrative most had pegged LeBron with throughout his career did not apply. For James, there was no choice but to go out there and will his team to a title.

And oh, did he ever try.

From the moment the series kicked off, LeBron had to deal with his team’s inability to finish his daring dishes with makes, their repeatability to answer his diminutive turnover totals with bonehead mistakes, their incompetence to parlay his swathing scoring with inefficient shots and plays. That’s not to say he is without error, but nitpicking a performance so demanding almost feels like complaining about a perfect cut of steak because the grill marks were not perpendicular. The man averaged a near-triple double in this series, scoring 40 points with an almost matter-of-factly candor.

But it would not enough. For all his successes, there was a detrimental reaction from his teammates, alongside a gutting counter-action from his opponent. How could you not feel for the guy? What more could he do?

As avid fans, constantly craving more basketball, LeBron somehow delivered us a three-course meal when we only expected this series to last as long as the first course. Of course, once we got a taste of the appetizer, we wanted more. He delivered; painstakingly forcing his teammates to levels of play they may never experience again in their careers (See: Dellavedova), while reaching peaks in his own performance we thought he had left back in his South Beach prime. He forced his audience to do something they’d never fathom doing when seeing James on a Finals court: He made them sympathetic to his helplessness, and eventually, though not in direct fault to him, understanding of his failure.

I mean, how can one cast blame on someone who became the first player ever to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists at the Finals? Or chastise him for a crunch-time shot choice, when the option would have been unavailable had it not been for his prior work? How can one ask more of a player whose triple-doubles have turned from impressive rarities into repeated formalities? Or even dare to ask the question of what more could he do, because seeing what his teammates couldn’t do left no other choice?

Sure, the ignorant, crazed detractors will always exist, but for even his most-unabashed critics, this series left little to disapprove of when the context was observed. His efforts finally turning out to be insufficient, there was no choice but to empathize with his failures instead of typically criticizing them.

LeBron has bought himself good grace with his performance, a good grace that has been a longtime coming, but also one that unfortunately came at a steep price. His Finals appearances will now sport a 2–4 losing record, and though the feat of arriving at six of these should deserve a surplus of recognition, the sub-.500 percentage will fuel many nonsensical arguments in the days to come. Moreover, this series left James beaten, both physically and mentally. He said as much in the press conference afterward:

“I’ve missed the playoffs twice. I’ve lost in the Finals four times. I’m almost starting to be like I’d rather not even make the playoffs than lose in the Finals,” he explained. “It would hurt a lot easier if I just missed the playoffs and didn’t have a shot at all.”

Think about that. One of the greatest competitors of our time since is saying he’s thought before that it might be more beneficial to his career — his “legacy” even — if he did not even reach the Finals but instead lost in the first round where no one seems to remember anything. That is as much of a disheartening statement as it is an indictment of how the public and media have scrutinized James from the moment he entered the league. That his appearances in the Finals are seen as depreciations of his greatness simply because they did not produce the desirable results is a travesty.

It appears James has had enough with fighting the losing battle, and how ironic is it that it comes at a time when the basketball world has been finally forced to fully appreciate him amidst this series that had tasked him with yet another losing battle.

In pushing this series to six games, LeBron has done something strange, yet marvelous in the process. Not only has he made us have no choice but revere his greatness, he has remained an unparalled performer while simultaneously turning himself into a relatable human. The phenomenon that had made him feel unappealing and unreachable has not been shed; he is still the greatest basketball player in the world. But somehow, someway, through the remnants of the team around him, by the talent of the team across from him and due to the sheer perfection of his own performance, he has garnered both appreciation and sympathy all at once.

Given that he walked away ring-less and trophy-less after such unbelievable efforts, it is the least he deserves. Let us not ever take him for granted.

Reach Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter at @PaoloUggetti 



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.