As he reminded us on Sunday night, LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. But given that it's such a widely acknowledged fact, that's not a very interesting point of entry into discussion about him. Recognizing this, or perhaps not, the basketball commentariat has agreed to construct all conversations about LeBron on both sides of a singular fulcrum: LeBron has "haters," and you are either a "hater," or you are a response to those people, that is, a smart basketball fan. There are plenty of illuminating and frankly beautiful things to say about LeBron, some of which have already been said, by writers like Bethlehem Shoals at GQ, and many of which have not. LeBron, because he's so good at so many parts of the game and can play so many different roles within it, could potentially be the epicenter of a self-sustaining hurricane of great writing. LeBron is the Homeric epic of the NBA, capable of being read from nearly every interpretive lens. Certainly some of that great interpretation exists, but unfortunately for those who are looking for it, far too much of what we find falls within that well-trod pathway of the reactionary assaults on stupid people and their stupid opinions. It's The War on the Haters, and even for those of us unwilling to fight it, we can't escape spectatorship.
The Haters are a monolithic faction of basketball fans who have criticized LeBron at every opportunity, from the Decision in 2010 to Game 1 of the Finals last Thursday, when he failed to continue playing a rigorous sport at its most competitive level without the use of one of his legs. The Haters don't like him, and because they react emotionally to everything they see him do, they're only interested in contextualizing his career in terms of that disdain. When he plays well, or more commonly, when he plays heady, overpowering, superhero basketball, they don't talk at all. If you can't say anything bad about LeBron, the Haters sadly opine, why say anything at all?
There's no disputing the existence of the Haters. They are waiting, and when the sliver of a window opens up, they are there, loudly pouring their hatred through it. There might be a right and real way to dislike LeBron, but that is not their way. You might know them from work, or from the bar at which you watch the games, or from comment sections, or from the gym where you play pick-up ball. They're pretty easy to spot: they're the guys you hate talking basketball with. But perhaps most frustratingly for their enemies, those warriors stemming the tide of the Haters' stupidity, the Haters will never change, never yield, never stop screaming their mangled comparisons to MJ and their vaguely defined epithets. To them, LeBron will always be LeChoke, or LeCramp, or Le-"Not a Leader of Men". You'll break yourself long before their tide of high-pitched irrationality ever subsides.
Of course, the best way to treat these people is the way you actually do treat them when you are forced into talking to them at work or the bar or the grocery store. You ignore them. You change the subject. You feverishly seek out refuge in whichever conversation topic will redirect you away from the hot takes. This is a thing we've all tacitly agreed to endure every day of our lives—the uninformed or willfully ignorant opinions of the uninformed or willfully ignorant. Except in the way we talk about LeBron James. On that subject, even the smartest writers and the most interesting interpreters of the game can fail to engage with it beyond that marginalizing paradigm. The Haters see LeBron succeed and all they can do is seethe; the anti-Haters see LeBron succeed and all they can do is spit smarm. It's either madness or schadenfreude—a programmed reaction hinging on LeBron's performance.
None of this would bother me—and maybe none of it actually bothers you, and I apologize—except that the conversation surrounding the NBA is frequently so enjoyable and so unlike any found in any other sport, that it's frustrating to see so little of it explored. Because the NBA thrives as a cult of personality, so too do its greatest writers, who watch and analyze and comment on players like the best novelists flesh out their characters. To read the best writing about the NBA, Grantland's Brian Phillips on Russell Westbrook for example, is to delve into sports in a more expansive, more empathetic way than the strict analysis of the game itself would ever allow for. This is a profoundly rewarding method for interpreting the game, and one that I've only solidified after reading so many others do it so well. But then there's LeBron, perhaps the richest source of any player for this kind of discussion, who is unfortunately deprived of it, of being imagined and thought about with complexity and nuance, by even his most ardent defenders.
There was a point during LeBron's cold, calm onslaught of jumpers in that 3rd quarter of Game 2 when, once I had swallowed enough of my awe to think clearly, I tried to fathom him as a human being, on a basketball court, doing things that no other human being could do. I can't pretend to understand that feeling. I will never be as good at anything as LeBron is at basketball, and I will never push the boundaries of possibility in any vocation the way LeBron does with basketball. And yet, after the game, as he talked with Doris Burke, I felt a certain sort of kinship with his satisfaction—satisfaction at a hard job, finally done. He kept talking about the work he put in when no one was watching, and how that was the work that mattered. LeBron James the person, worthy of fascination, analysis, imagination maybe, said something like a person, and it was true and honest. The world only swirled around him, the smart fans wringing hands and talking down and the Haters lathered up and lashing back, as he told us about himself. I think he does that a lot, and he does it sincerely. It should be gratifying, but it's just so hard to hear.