08 July 2010

The Meaning of Lebron

Tonight at 9 pm, Eastern Daylight Time, the man they call King James will speak to us on national television. On that broadcast he will reveal the secret that millions have longed to know and thousands have striven to learn: the identity of the NBA team for which he will be playing basketball for the next five or six years. Or possibly fewer.

So tell me something I don’t know. Obviously the whole ESPN broadcast is a massive ego trip, but accusations of egotism against a man who openly aspires to be a “global icon” are nothing but redundant. Lebron not only transcends sports, but conventional notions of celebrity. He is not only a new kind of superstar, equal parts athlete, pitchman, and free-floating signifier, but a literal superman (he may not be the greatest basketball player of all time, but he's surely the greatest basketball talent). As the likes of BeyoncĂ© have shown, there’s no such thing anymore as overexposure, and backlash is reserved for history’s greatest monsters, like Tiger Woods. It is what it is. Hate the game, I say, not the player. The news that Lebron had opened a Twitter account this week seemed almost quaint. Lebron is the new medium. ESPN has a presence in Lebron, just as it does on television or the Internet. And as with TV and the Web, Lebron is now a part of us, like it or not. Despite a seven-year basketball career that would already rank him among the sport’s greats, what we are now witnessing is not his apotheosis, but indeed the birth of Lebron. It’s sort of like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, if that helps any.

So whether you’re a basketball fan or not, you too are now bound up in the meaning of Lebron and its implications for our collective future. Hence, the frenzy of the past few weeks, which have seen a deafening vuvuzela-like buzz of reports and rumors, in which it’s become impossible to separate fact from opinion, truth from spin, solid journalism from hope, spite, and wishful thinking. No piece of minutiae has gone unexamined, no stray comment or sartorial detail left uninterpreted. As with all things Lebron, the media attention is unprecedented, and everyone has an opinion. Because, rightly or wrongly, the choice he announces tonight will go a long way toward defining Lebron, forever shattering some cherished interpretations of him while validating others. It is a choice fraught with unintended consequences and hidden meanings, meanings totally unrelated to the idiosyncratic, even capricious, factors that motivate actual human decision-making. With the ever-hapless Los Angeles Clippers and the talent-depleted New Jersey Nets seemingly out of the picture, we’re down to four teams in the running for Lebron: the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks, and of course the Cleveland Cavaliers, and each has developed its own text, its own commentary on the meaning of Lebron.

Miami. The latest of a series of frontrunners, Miami would pair James with fellow superstar Dwyane Wade, along with all-star forward Chris Bosh. There are a lot of questions about the rest of the roster, and the idea of Lebron teaming up with another of the league’s top five players rankles basketball purists, but it’s easy to see why the Heat are considered the favorite tonight. Miami is The Show, Miami is Amazing, Miami feels like Now. Miami is three friends getting together to play pickup games, to create the nucleus of the kind of fun, freewheeling winner that veterans would sign up to play with for the league minimum salary—that is, if the NBA weren’t looking at a probable lockout in 2011-12. Miami says that Lebron is Spectacle.

Chicago. Chicago is the choice of the serious basketball crowd (unless they’re fans of one of the other teams in the field, of course). Unlike the attempts to build a roster from scratch in Miami and New York, Chicago offers a ready-made cast of talented basketball players whose skills complement each other. Chicago is where Lebron goes to win multiple championships as (unlike in Miami) the undisputed alpha dog. Chicago is rational. Chicago is greatness. Chicago is also a city in the shadow of Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Chicago says Lebron is Basketball.

New York. New York is the proverbial big city, the place where dreams are made, or at least the place where Lebron is supposedly most likely to fulfill his potential as a worldwide superstar, while reviving a moribund franchise in a rich basketball market. But New York is a bit nostalgic too, perhaps even more so than the final option below. Nostalgic for the days when it was the undisputed center of the universe, the days before Lebron and all the other new media made everything so confusing and complicated. New York says Lebron is The Big Stage.

Cleveland. And then there’s Cleveland, the team for whom Lebron, a native of nearby Akron, has won back-to-back MVPs without their reaching the NBA Finals either season. The roster is mediocre and appears unlikely to improve much in the near term. Cleveland is the choice of the traditionalists, of finishing what you started. Cleveland is destiny, living by faith and not by sight. Given the excruciatingly drawn out (not to mention nationally televised) nature of this affair, Cleveland doesn’t exactly say Lebron is loyalty, and we can safely pass over Lebron is humility, but mabye Lebron is Home.