Player Capsule (Plus): LeBron James -- the King and I

Posted on Tue 02 October 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

"Can a man who's warm understand a man who's freezing?"

-- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It was a mid-autumn dawn in the year 2009. Light crept, and I had nerves. The test was in three hours and I knew about as much about the Rao-Blackwell theorem as I had when I started the day before. I'd gotten some serious headway in grasping Bayes Estimators, but still felt the pangs of an active gap between the limits of my knowledge and the bare minimum I'd need to ace the test. I'd been studying for what felt like days. I'd done all the homework on time, I'd gone to office hours, I'd read study-sheets when I had free breaks at work. Maybe I wasn't really cut out for this. Maybe I really wasn't smart enough to hack it for the major. I turned the page of my study guide again, and started scribbling calculations. Then I shook to my core.

A cough, a hack, a spasm. I fell out of my chair in a moment of dizzy confusion. Papers scattered. It was a deep, hacking, bellowing cough -- I knew I was sick, and had been for weeks. But there was a certain edge to the cough I hadn't ever experienced before. I drew a white handkerchief from my pocket. Coughed into it a minute. Finally subsided. Sniffling, I made to put the handkerchief into my pocket. Stopped cold when I realized -- the handkerchief was a one-tone Jackson Pollock, signed and notarized with the ghastly sight of coughed-up blood. I stared at it, for a time, wondering the implications.

Then I hid it in my pocket and got back to work. Out of sight, out of mind.

• • •

I nestled into my bed, uneasy. The brightness was on low, the covers draped over me and the laptop -- I didn't want to wake my roommate, but I wanted to sleep as soon as the game finished. It was a constant battle,when I'd want to watch those late-night western conference games on the east coast. The Jazz were missing Deron Williams, and I'd expected I'd be able to turn the game off at halftime. Not so. Behind a classically dull performance by my Cavaliers, the Jazz had climbed back and taken a fourth quarter lead. The Cavs needed this game, but with about three minutes left in the contest, the game looked decided -- the Jazz had taken a 12 point lead and lethargy had wrenched the Cavs by their scruff. It was all just about over.

Except, well. We had LeBron James, you see.

And as any brilliant player of his brood was wont to do, he completely exploded -- within 30 seconds, LeBron had singlehandedly cut that large Jazz lead to 6. A three, a stop, a power-rim move. I bit my lip, rocking back and forth. LeBron threw a feed to Andy -- we got free throws, we made them. LeBron powered to the rim -- a score, free throws. Suddenly that 12 point lead was 2. LeBron drew free throws, again, then he made two straight heat check threes. Cavs lead! Free throw, free throw, free throw -- Cavs lead was six. Less than a minute to go. I sat grinning like an idiot, virtually patting myself on the back. We'd come back. We'd taste victory again.

But then they missed a free throw -- Price made a three. Missed another -- Millsap made two. Missed another -- Korver made two. One point game. The Cavaliers send Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- one of my all-time favorites -- to the line. One of two. Yet again. Your heroes let you down, sometimes. But we were up two, they didn't have Deron, and I needed a win. It was a bad day. Bad week. Bad month. Needed the rush. Had to have it. Korver gets it, but the defense is strong. They pass it around, time runs off. Will we force a violation? Was the game in hand?

"Down to 3, down to 2, down to 1 -- it's Gaines... YES! The Jazz win!"

• • •

Some people hit rock bottom on drugs. Opiates, booze, sex -- fun things. Mine had nothing to do with any of those. Never had drugs -- not once, not even marijuana. I got drunk once in college. A single night. Sex was common, but only with a steady girlfriend, and only prominent my senior year. Addiction? Heck no. I hit rock bottom on something far less fun. I hit it, believe it or not, on work. All my life, I've been prone to overwork. It started when I was young, constantly trying to live up to what I once felt were impossible expectations. I had a short period of lazy teenage snoozing. Then my grandfather died, things began to shift, and I went through a confrontation with my parents they probably don't even remember. And something snapped within me. I started working as though I had no other goals. Working to the point that my parents -- who had spent most of my young life telling me to work harder -- actually told me to chill a bit. Live a little. Calm down.


This only got worse in college, and as I said, hit rock bottom my 2nd year. I was reeling from the death of my beloved grandmother, sad about a ill-timed breakup, and worried that I wasn't good enough to succeed. I was taking an overload schedule in an effort to graduate in three years and save my family a good chunk of change. I was working 12-15 hours a week as a transcriptionist, and trying to get more work on the side to help raise money to placate our finances. I was actually taking a stats class with prerequisites I hadn't taken, trying to grease the wheels on my graduation plans. I was learning Russian. I was volunteering. And everything was difficult -- nothing was easy. I realized about halfway through the semester that I had no chance of graduating early if I failed any of the classes on my roster. I realized that -- unless I really lucked out -- I needed that semester more than I'd ever needed anything in my life.

So, I panicked. I pulled all-nighters like an addict pops pills. One, two, three times a week -- it didn't matter, to me. I just needed to get all of my work done, sometimes twice, and study my brains out like my life depended on it. It didn't, in retrospect. But at the time I had no idea. I stressed myself out and alienated friends and ruined my social life. And then I got sick. First it was coughing, then it was a constant hazy fever, then it was nausea. I started to relapse back into an anorexic state, skipping meals and forgetting to eat. It culminated with coughing blood, blacking out, and (finally) sleeping for a day or two straight over thanksgiving break and getting a bevy of sinus-related OTC medications at a local pharmacy. I took the Mucinex, drank a lot of tea, and went on long runs. Ate natural stuff, tried to focus on getting better. I couldn't go to the doctor, because my plan's doctor was only available from 10-4 and I had class or work during that whole duration, every single week. So I kept it a secret and hoped I hadn't ruined my body too much. I wanted to recover, and with more sleep and less stress, I finally did. The last day I coughed blood was in early December -- it stopped soon thereafter, and I haven't since.

• • •

I took solace in basketball. I was never a huge fan of any sports in my youth, preferring my father's general dismissal of sports to my mother's active fandom. Sure, I had my favorites -- on the playground at school I'd always pretend to be Tim Duncan or David Robinson when we were playing ball, and I thought them the best of all possible sports stars. A nice little SI for Kids feature on the two of them cemented all that. But other than a few scattered games, there weren't a ton of things I remember watching in high school, or my youth. That changed significantly in college, as I started to play a little more and take a more active interest in the two teams I loved -- the Spurs for Duncan's brilliance, and the Cavs in memory of my Cleveland-rooted grandfather.

Following the 2009 Cavaliers from the start of the regular season to their eventual fall in the playoffs was an experience I'll never forget. It brought me into the game, made me want to learn the ropes and analyze it from a smarter perspective. I started watching basketball almost religiously, tons of games every night and (on breaks and the offseason) downloading classics to bulk up my knowledge of the things I hadn't seen. I watched almost every game of each Spurs championship, I watched key games in LeBron's development from phenom to epoch, I watched the best games of the 90s and 80s. Everything I could possibly stomach. I saw Jordan, Dirk, Duncan and more. I grew to love the game, to know its intricacies, and to appreciate the subtle beauty in a possession's span. And more than that, I grew to appreciate and enjoy the brilliance of LeBron's game, and his immortal challenge.

I'll avoid the worn-out Cleveland tropes -- they're stodgy and unnecessary. What LeBron was attempting to do on those final Cavaliers teams was still otherworldly. He and the front office constructed some of the most well-built teams of the last decade, piecing together a wealth of minor talents and lower lights in a situation that perfectly leveraged every facet of each player's talent. Not a cog in the Cleveland machine lacked its place. And at the center, like Iron-Man's arc reactor, LeBron buzzed and whirred and made the machine run like clockwork. Dominating, ever-ticking clockwork. LeBron wasn't simply questing for a title, he was questing for a title in the manner of Duncan in 2003, or Dirk in 2011. He quested to become the primary catalyst in a way few ever imagine. Fame, fortune, glory abound, but along with it a sense of personal ownership and trust in his own power. He clearly didn't believe he was ONLY the greatest player in the league -- he felt he had the ability to transcend that, and become one of the greatest players of all time.

I related to and understood this general idea about his game. I felt a personal kinship with LeBron and felt that his quest to be not only the best player in the game but one of the historical greats was a greater reflection of the things I wanted to do. I didn't want to simply survive -- I wanted to thrive. I wanted to be brilliant, successful, celebrated. I wanted to be so good at what I did that people would want to be me. I wanted to wake up in the morning and feel like I'd done well enough, that I'd succeeded. I've spent my life with inordinately high personal expectations, and in their constant disappointment, I'd simply taken to working harder and harder in pursuit of impossible goals. I felt LeBron had the same ideals, goals, and general principles that I did. And as the 2010 Cavaliers hit their apex, I was hitting the worst points of my health-threatening overwork and my untreated depression. The Cavs kept me going. I had to keep watching, keep them close.

And just as I had unrealistic personal expectations, my fandom turned to unrealistic sports expectations -- it wasn't simply that the Cavs had a chance to win the title, it was that they had to win the title. I'd put so much of myself into my fandom, and I needed LeBron's success to validate my retrospectively insane and self-harmful efforts. And then, well. You know how that went. The 2010 Cavaliers collapsed within themselves, LeBron handled free agency like a fool, and finally left us in the skid. He left, my dear Zydrunas departed, and much like my work had left me with fewer friends than I'd had a year before, my team had left me without my heroes. Left to take the easy way out, the road oft-travelled. I had projected too much. LeBron James didn't want to be like me, he didn't want to succeed on his own terms -- he'd only found himself in that position by chance and coincidence. The criticisms and jeering rang true. The hero was a lie in a world of blithe untruths, and I sat in the dust of a dynasty deferred, mulling escape from the quicksand that had slowly consumed me.

"Are you the best player in the game, LeBron?"

"I mean, I've thought that for a long time."

• • •

In 2011, I graduated with my Bachelors. That last day -- with the gowns, the hats, the speeches -- was simply crazy. There was the graduation ceremony, where I actually fell asleep on an ex's shoulder and completely missed the speech. There was the stat department brunch, where we drank mimosas and celebrated our accomplishments. I was the first three-year grad in department history, as it turned out. People applauded as the department chair shared a short appreciation for each and every member of our small and lovable graduating class, and then we went our separate ways. My girlfriend went back to UNC, my parents went back to the hotel, and I rushed to finish packing -- I was moving out the next day. I threw my vinyls in a bin, ripped down my Duncan posters, loosely boxed my notes. Rushed, all of it.

Then, digging through the confines of my dorm closet, I came across something I thought I'd thrown away. It was a dusty old handkerchief, shoved behind a box, spotted with dried up blood. It really, really wasn't supposed to be there. I thought I'd thrown it and the rest of the bloody things out a long time ago -- after so long, I imagined the thing still had to be covered in nasty bacteria. I grabbed a towel I didn't care for, used it to pick the thing up, and chucked it as well as the towel in the bathroom trash can. Then I sat down at my desk and paused a second. It hit me.

College was over. I'd survived.

I wouldn't really put it any other way -- I didn't thrive, per se. My grades were mediocre at best, my social life was minimal, the numerous jobs I took were little more than tedium. Sure. I'd made some friends, I'd made some enemies, but generally I didn't feel like I'd met a ton of people who'd really care to keep in touch with me. Sure, I'd come back to see Sarah now and again. I'd die if I didn't keep in touch with Andrew and Hazal. Probably would text Eddie something incomprehensible at least once a month, onwards into the infinite. But what had I really gained? Circles under my eyes that'd never quite pass? Trade knowledge that would immediately be made useless by the specifications of whatever job I'd go to next? A sleeping disorder, depression, an affinity for sports? The echoes of my too-high expectations taunted me, and made me look forward to the uncertain future. But I shook them silent, continued packing, and left those awful years behind me. After all. My future looked a bit shaky, but it'd be what I would make of it. At least I'd succeeded in that much.

• • •

LeBron James has won a title. Few expect this to be the only ring LeBron will win. They expect more, and consider this a sub-summit on the constant climb towards a brilliant legacy yet to be written. But he's thrown the first-time monkey off his back, and in some ways, he did it exactly as he would've in Cleveland. Dwyane Wade had fallen off, just enough, and Chris Bosh was out or injured for almost the entirety of the playoffs. Where the late-period Cavaliers were an Iron Man suit with James as the arc reactor and precious little without him, the 2012 Heat were actually just about the same -- with LeBron off the court in the playoffs, the Heat were outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions. With LeBron on the court, they dominated opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions. Without LeBron, the 2012 Heat may not have won a single round -- not even against the hapless Knicks. Just like his cast in Cleveland.

In my case? There aren't really "titles" you can win in everyday life, so I'm not exactly there. But I do feel I've reached my own sort of personal sub-summit. I'm not at the top, and I certainly have a ways to climb. Without a doubt. But I've reached a nice level of complacency. I work long hours for a lucrative job I enjoy, and while my hobbies are extremely time consuming, I've succeeded in almost all of them and reached a steady level with my life as a whole. I make more money at my job than I ever dreamed I would. Gothic Ginobili has found a level of success I'd never imagined. I have flexibility, loved ones, and -- above all -- a comfort I could scarcely have dreamed of in my college experience. The man who coughed blood is now the man who sleeps in on weekends and looks to buy a house. The dark circles under my eyes are fading, the skeletal frame of a man self-starved becoming healthy once more. A smile can be seen, if you look hard enough. Depression still hits, at times, but I've worked through so much and continue to get better. Finally I can see a future. I can see the path to contentment, happiness, and things I'd never thought I'd taste when I found myself at my low of lows.

Speaking of things I never thought I'd say -- I can't really hate LeBron James anymore. I doubt I'll ever like him again, or root for his success. But for me, the hate faded well before he won his title. And in truth, it didn't come back when he hoisted the trophy. I think I've figured out why. Before, I looked at his flight and saw a man fleeing the challenge I was stuck in. I saw a personal hero abandon my team and city and insult our capabilities. Now? I see a man who fled one challenge only to find one just as difficult elsewhere, a man who still couldn't quite escape his demons without a hell of a lot more work. We both reached our rock bottom, we both languished and toiled, and we've -- in some sense -- both arrived. We're at a better spot, now, both at a certain level of triumph with so much of the mountain left to climb. When he left Cleveland, I was in a ditch. A low gutter. But we meet now at an intermediate step in our development, a bit older and a bit wiser. We are, for this precious moment, at equal footing. Neither freezing, both warm. Not as friends, not as allies, not as enemies. Just as people, ever-striving. So we sit, relaxing in the interim. I will root against him, later, and he will forget I exist. But in this moment, we stop. Consider. We have a drink. We sup.

Because the summit beckons, we trudge forward. And we move on, as comfort affords the privilege.

• • •

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