When I was five-years-old, I watched my first NBA game. It was the NBA finals featuring Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. And of the six NBA finals match-ups that Jordan won, that was, for my money, the best. Barkley came the closest to matching Jordan, pound-for-pound, and it was nearly enough to win a title for my beloved Suns. Alas, Jordan was too much, Paxson hit the three, and it was just another proof that the basketball gods hate Phoenix. (For further proof, just look at our playoff exits during the D’Antoni/Nash/Stoudemire era. Or just reflect on the fact that we’re owned by Robert Sarver.)
After that series, I hated the Bulls. I loved it when Jordan left and they suffered through two years of trying to win without their iconic leader. And even when he came back, I pulled for the Knicks every time they played each other, that’s how much I hated the Bulls. And if you were a basketball purist, rooting for the mid 1990s Knicks was like forcing a wine snob to drink Boone’s Farm. But at some point during that time, something happened: I realized, even though I was only ten when they won their sixth title, that Jordan was something different. When he rose up to take that jumper over Bryon Russell, I wanted it to go in. I didn’t care that I hated the Bulls. I didn’t care that Stockton and Malone were sentimental favorites to finally win a title. I wanted the shot to drop because that’s how the story had to end. When that shot dropped, something bigger than a ball going through a hoop was happening. For millions of fans, we were seeing a realization of perfection. True, Jordan turned out to be an egomaniac who, as people go, is a rather bad one. But that wasn’t the point. With something transcendent like that, it’s never the point.
If I’m looking for someone to grab a beer with, then I’ll pick Charles Barkley or David Robinson every time. But that’s not really what we want from our athletes. We say it is, but we’re lying. The best athletes, the ones that we remember 50 years later, are like Jordan. Sure, they’re a little arrogant and none of them suffer from a small ego, but we don’t want someone we can grab a beer with. We don’t want us. We want something bigger. We want the embodiment of an ideal. For fans, it’s a gateway to a brief moment of transcendence. John Piper is fond of saying that human beings don’t really want to be the center of the universe. We don’t want to be big. We want to be small. We want to stand in the shadow of something bigger than us and simply gape. That’s why we go to the Grand Canyon or the Atlantic Ocean and that’s what Jordan symbolized.
As a Phoenix Suns fan, I hated the Bulls and would have loved for Stockton and Malone to win a title. They wrote the book on how to run a pick-and-roll and were two of the greatest players of their day and they’d never won one. If basketball is just a game and what motivates us to watch it is mostly sentiment: the basic desire for amusement and small pleasures, then the Jazz had to win. Viewed sentimentally, they deserved to win. There couldn’t be any doubt.
But as a human being, I wanted that ball to go through the net. With Jordan, the game was more than a game: It was a place where we could project our deepest desires to experience the transcendent and leave feeling fulfilled. Karl Malone was a great player but no one outside of Salt Lake City is going to tell their grandkids 40 years from now that they got to see Karl Malone play. But Jordan? If they’re still playing basketball in 100 years, we’ll still be talking about him. He played the game at such an exalted, refined level… how could we not talk about him? If he missed that shot over Russell, he still would’ve been great. But he wouldn’t have been Michael Jordan. The mystique and the transcendence would have been considerably lessened.
I think Aristotle meant something like that when he talked about the particular containing the universal. It’s why shows like Friday Night Lights and Madmen develop such rabid followings. When you do something right, that particular becomes something bigger. Michael Jordan was an athletic dude trying to put an orange ball into a small cylinder hanging ten feet off the ground. Friday Night Lights is a teenage drama about football in west Texas. Madmen is a tragedy set on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. They shouldn’t mean much to us. They’re amusements, luxuries enjoyed by people who have obtained a level of wealth that they can pursue such seemingly-trivial things.
But in each case, these particulars are of such quality that they come to mean something more. We root for Coach Taylor and his family because we want to believe that such families can still exist. We follow characters like Don Draper and Roger Sterling because they too symbolize an ideal. It’s an ideal that stands in stark contrast to the ideal we’re affirming when we root for the Taylors, but it’s a similarly transcendent ideal. In Madmen we want to believe that money, booze, cigarettes, cool clothes and a nice house can be more than just money, booze, cigarettes, cool clothes and a nice house. And when we watched Jordan we knew that we were watching something greater than a skinny 6’6 dude from North Carolina bouncing a ball before throwing it into a hoop.
And that brings us to Lebron. When the first videos of him as a teenage phenom from Akron began to find their way onto ESPN, we started to think that Lebron could give us that same high that Jordan did. When we saw his high-school team’s games, which ESPN rather preposterously televised nationwide, we started to whisper and dream. And when he opened his career as an 18-year-old with an all-star performance against the Kings on opening night, the train of our ambitions started barreling down the tracks. When he single-handedly destroyed an aging Pistons team that had recently won a championship (and did it by beating the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, no less) the train officially went out of control.
LeBron was going to be an evolutionary Jordan and that was it. The narrative was written. All that was left was the acting out. After that Pistons game we were so convinced of LeBron’s transcendence that we felt the way you do when you hear Daniel Day-Lewis is doing another movie: “Well, I know who’s winning best actor that year.” It was that kind of certainty. And how could he be anything less? He has the same sort of physical superiority enjoyed by Wilt Chamberlain in his day, the floor awareness of Magic, and the sort of transcendent ability of Jordan that enabled him to destroy even the greatest teams single-handedly.
By the time he had finished murdering Detroit even Piston fans had to be rooting for the next shot to drop. We could use the word Jordanesque and it didn’t feel out of place. From that moment on, it wasn’t enough that LeBron was the most physically superior athlete since Chamberlain. It wasn’t enough that he saw the floor better than most point guards and lived for the spectacle (hence the white chalk thrown into the air before the game). He had to be like Jordan. The Witness campaign might’ve taken root in Cleveland, but deep down every basketball fan – and even many non-fans who were simply captivated by the spectacle – wanted to be a witness.
But something we never talked about was how we as fans had changed since Jordan’s majestic pair of threepeats for the Bulls. In the 90s, idealism wasn’t necessarily easy but it was plausible. America’s great bogeyman of the late 20th century, communism, was defeated and the bogeyman of the first decade of the 21st (fundamentalist Islam) had not yet arrived. We were living in an era touted as “the end of history.” True, we were still cynics. It was the era of OJ and “it depends on the meaning of the word ‘is'” after all. But life was more good than bad. For Americans, the bad was noteworthy precisely because it was a blip during an otherwise hopeful period. The economy was sound, our image abroad was generally positive, we had a likable (if somewhat sleazy) president. The dot com boom was happening and it looked like we were headed into a bright, progressive future of comfort, wealth and prosperity.
Fast forward to 2011 and LeBron post Game 5, The Decision, and Miami v Dallas. It’s not just that we’re more cynical now. It’s that our cynicism is so deeply-rooted that the slightest hint of idealism seems implausible. Through Twitter and Facebook, we have more access to our heroes than ever before and, more often than not, that access makes cynicism very easy.
For instance, before Twitter Anthony Weiner would still have been a womanizing creep who happens to be a member of congress. But outside of the beltway, most of us wouldn’t know that unless he did something really really over the top. Even then, think about how long the Clinton/Lewinski scandal took to develop. And that was in the 90s, so it wasn’t like the media was some small, mostly non-existent entity. It was massive. Yet it still took a fair amount of time for a story about the president getting blow jobs in the Oval Office by a White House staffer to surface. If the president could get away with something like that for a fair amount of time in the 1990s, just think what sort of things went on without anyone finding out.
I’d bet good money that there have been tons of womanizing creeps in the House of Representatives in our history. And I’m fairly confident that Weiner isn’t the only one currently serving. (Actually, that’s already established thanks to previous sex scandals involving members of congress.) But before Twitter, we didn’t know it – or at least we didn’t know it as definitively as we do now. Twitter, Facebook, and even the internet more generally, provide a medium that is virtually guaranteed to produce cynics because it’s the sort of medium tailor made to destroy the sources of our idealism by introducing us to them more completely.
This isn’t to say idealism is dead. The idealism inspired by the Obama campaign was shocking. You probably had to go back to Reagan to find a politician who inspired such hope for some Americans. But that’s the point: Some Americans. The parodies and mockeries of the Obama campaign are legion. Even amongst Obama supporters, my experience working at a newspaper during that time suggested there were two very different kinds of supporters. There were supporters like my editor, a leftist policy wonk who had no illusions about the Obama campaign. He saw through it all from the beginning. He knew that the inspirational rhetoric was nothing but rhetoric. Obama would govern as a left-leaning centrist because that’s the only way you can govern as a Democratic President in the USA right now. But Chuck went along for the ride because he liked the policy and knew Obama had a better chance of enacting parts of it. But my editor was the minority. More supporters were the sort being parodied in the Onion. And when Obama took office and didn’t live up to the expectations of the idealists, there was a severe backlash. Point being: We want to be idealists, but we’re more terrified of idealism than ever before. We’ve been hurt and wounded so many times that when someone comes who can cut through our ice choked hearts and make us believe again, we quickly develop a fanatical loyalty to them with extreme demands for them.
So what’s this have to do with LeBron? Set aside the fact that the dude clearly isn’t Jordan. Set aside the obvious deficiencies of his performances the past two seasons. While hoping for Jordan 2.0 was understandable given the first five years of his career, it was never really fair to LeBron. He doesn’t have Jordan’s heart. LBJ is what happens if you give Dr J the physical superiority of Wilt Chamberlain, the defensive range of Scottie Pippen, and the court vision of Magic Johnson. Read that again: He’s a hybrid of four of the top 25 players ever. And we’re disappointed with that.
Here’s my theory: More than ever, Americans in 2011 want to believe in transcendence. 2400 years later, we’re still Platonists. We believe that somewhere out there exists a true and perfect form, something we can fearlessly shower with adoration without the fear of disappointment. And for a good many of us, that’s what LeBron symbolized. Is it silly? Of course it is. Basketball is a game, that’s all. But for so many of us, it’s a game that has become something more than a game. And we wanted LeBron to be the true and perfect basketball player: Physically perfect, personally confident but still connected to his roots (he played for his hometown team, after all), the perfect teammate, a fantastic scorer, and able to put his team on his back and carry them to victory. We thought that was LeBron. It was never fair, but that’s what we do as sports fans: We turn a good portion of our hopes and dreams over to strangers and hope that they won’t fail us. It’s crazy, but it’s what we do. And when they live up to it, it’s powerful. Just look at the mania surrounding the current edition of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona over in Europe.
But when the fall from grace comes, we feel betrayed. It wasn’t just that LeBron failed to live up to the standard of Jordan, though that is certainly a factor. It’s also that we live in a day where cynicism is easier and idealism less plausible than ever before. To really believe in something has always required work. But now it requires a certain willingness to be made a fool and to have one’s dreams completely dashed. That’s a dangerous and fearful thing. So we take up the mantle of belief cautiously and with many fears, reservations and qualifications. Believing in Jordan was easier.
But for all our cynicism, sometimes something can still inspire that uncontrollable hope within us. And when that hope is failed, as it has been conclusively with LeBron’s disappointing finals performance, we lash out like cheated lovers. Seen this way, the career of LeBron James might be read as a cautionary tale about idealism in a cynical age: Perhaps the only thing worse than the scorn of the convinced cynic is the rage of the jilted idealist.