LeBron James’s return to his home state Ohio reminds me of an author who pens his first great American novel and then becomes bereft for the topic of another.
By Andrew Pridgen
There’s something else to LeBron’s narrative besides the search for a follow-up or an apt third act; this obsession with perfection, for BEING the person on the brochure has also forced him to stumble.
When James left Cleveland to repurpose said talents for South Beach, he’d already changed the Cavs’ and the NBA landscape by being of lithe size, speed, talent and personality, not just a successor to Michael Jordan but an engineered tomato postscript to the era of the greatest. Created by men in white coats and grown under fluorescents to later ripen in the deadly rays of the Florida sun, LeBron’s legacy would have been well-suited to come a half-century or more after MJ, after his predecessor’s light and still-marketable silhouette had faded.
But it didn’t.
It’s not fair to the rest of the world and all of time that we had Paul and John birthed in the same era, much less the same country, province and, eventually, troupe—yet there they were in brief harmony. Hawkeye and Burns could only banter so much behind the mask until the sexual tension overtook them and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal would prefer to have been born centuries apart, yet there they were simmering in one pot on Dick Cavett’s shag carpet.
LeBron had a different problem. His idol was his only would-be contemporary. And that man wagged his tongue at opponents for the final time in the 2002-’03 season for the Washington Wizards just as Who’s Next was being drafted number one to be the “Air” apparent in his home state. They never got the chance to face off above the paint and that’s probably for the best, the lion in winter shouldn’t be batted around by the cub—especially in the East.
LeBron, regardless of zip code or rationale for it, remained without peer. There have been others, other contenders: Kobe is somewhere in the ether as the bridge between the pair. Durant in any other era is the lanky version of an ideal, though his small flaws reveal more a man than legend. There’s Carmelo and Wade and Garnett and Dirk, but there just hasn’t been…that other one. The counterpoint.
Until Stephen Curry.
Curry, a point guard who is now The Voice of Point Guards Everywhere, has a game that can coerce opponents into asymmetric battle and at once lull teammates into a false sense of winning. In prior seasons, under less capable coaching, it did—and the results were mixed.
The league was more than accepting, willing even to have Curry take his rightful place in accordance to his NBA lineage as a middle-tier star for a second-run franchise, a nice stopover on a West Coast swing to pick up a win and some sushi.
But Steph kept going.
His hectic reserve seems to have no bottom and has broken or at least elevated the form of true point guard, at least the old definition of. Long errantly distilled as the quarterback position on the hardcourt, there have been others in this era, Nash and Kidd and even contemporary Westbrook who fill out slideshows with trickery and resolve, punishing teams for opening seams thickness the realm of a sheet of tissue paper. But Steph is different. He didn’t matriculate into the NBA as Who’s Next and he didn’t arrive with his game in his carry-on. It came to him with each bead of sweat that jumped back into his hand on the dribble drive.
Curry’s game has crossed over limbic heights, or perhaps depths. It is cerebral and mortal, as he stands with no freakish height, weight or contract. His image not cultivated, but earned. In a league that requires one superstar per winner, Curry decided to appoint himself rather than being anointed.
In words of post-punk lyricist Joel, “That hasn’t happened for the longest time.”
At 5 p.m. Pacific tonight, Curry and his Golden State Warriors, a supporting cast of workers who aren’t given the time to realize their mereness on the court, rather they’re enveloped in the show, every pass, nudge and bump to awakening—led by the budding essential Klay Thompson, the killer drone Draymond Green and the boy who in any other era on any other team, Harrison Barnes, through body and game type may have drawn the most accurate comparisons to Jordan.
But it is James himself who still dons the heavy headband, surveying all he can back home while eyes remain downturned, peeking intense and boyish at the faceless and too-willing of Quicken Loans Arena.
After early season adolescence, the Cavs have only dropped a pair of their last 18 and fancy import Kevin Love seems to have found his role as sidekick.
The TNT booth collective will drool their headsets to static over tonight’s match-up being the inevitable seven-game conclusion of the season, but that point is lost on vague hope. Tonight’s is an existential map of how this era’s game, when diagnosed properly, should be treated.