Before the four championships, all-time scoring record, and 19 years of highlight-worthy plays, a kid named LeBron James was already being called “the King.” The Akron teenager’s confidence was so brazen, many thought he was another phenom strung out on his own ego, writing a check that his play couldn’t cash. In an article when LeBron was just 17, longtime hoops writer Charley Rosen opined derisively on his prospects. For ESPN, he wrote, “In high school, LeBron James might be a man among boys—but in the NBA, he’ll be a boy among men.” He was put off by the teenager’s “narcissistic” attitude and wrote that “LeBron James can’t guard his own shadow.”
It’s an analysis that in basketball lore has become a “Dewey Defeats Truman” take, a bad look at someone who became a once-in-a-century player. It’s easy to scoff at Rosen now. But back in 2003, while many were piling on the hype, Rosen represented a common sentiment among the old-timers. After all, how many teenage basketball demigods had fizzled out? How many of the high school greats were overwhelmed once they became millionaires? Enough had fallen by the wayside to make LeBron skepticism current. But James has proved everyone wrong for two decades. His indestructible long-term health, his size and speed, and that super-computer he has in his head have put him in a statistically rare air. He is not only the game’s all-time leading scorer; he is now fourth in assists. It’s a combination of statistical greatness that no one can touch. We now know what it would look like if Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were combined in a lab with Bo Jackson’s shoulders and Chris Paul’s brain.
We’ve also witnessed someone who has accomplished this under a “double burden.” LeBron has had to live the last 15 years not only as a player expected to bring his team to the finals every single season but also as someone under the added pressure of being expected to have an opinion on the issues dividing this country, most prominently racist police violence and the presidency of Donald Trump. In the process, he has been badgered about issues—ranging from the NBA’s business interests in China to the politics of anti-Semitism—about which he has expressed neither passion nor expertise. LeBron reminds one of a quote from Muhammad Ali: “I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.” Other than Serena Williams, it is difficult to think of anyone in recent years who has had to carry so much beyond the weight of athletic success.
What is certain is that the media has demanded LeBron’s opinion in a way not seen since Ali, and something that neither Jordan nor Shaq nor white athletes like Tom Brady have ever had to endure. This is primarily because LeBron has come of age politically and professionally in the era of both Black Lives Matter and social media. People in the streets have asked athletes and celebrities to use their platform to amplify the movement. Some have answered the call. Others have focused on their play and their pay. But LeBron has attempted to rise to the occasion, even if awkwardly at times. He has used the tools at his disposal—social media, documentary films, a highly curated HBO show called The Shop—to try to impact the world. Far from being content to “shut up and dribble,” LeBron even took that ugly phrase of Laura Ingraham’s and turned it into the title of a documentary about the history of rebel NBA players.
Like with Ali, what LeBron has been able to achieve, given the political fires raging around him, makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been the standard for so many decades as an NBA player and outspoken activist that we forgot that much of Kareem’s outspokenness came early in his career and as a prolific writer and speaker during retirement. During the 1980s, there simply wasn’t a world that asked anything of Kareem other than that he be the steady centerpiece of the Showtime Lakers, and he quite understandably retreated into himself. LeBron could have taken a road of empty celebrity, but chose instead to not just talk but listen. This is not to say that LeBron has handled every political test to perfection or that everyone needs to agree with the choices he has made. It is just to acknowledge that on the road to being the King, LeBron has had to slay dragons on and off the court. As praise rains down this week on those Hall of Fame shoulders, this double burden should be recognized. LeBron wanted to be the King from day one. But his greatness lies in achieving these goals while also knowing when to take off the crown.