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Love Him or Hate Him, LeBron Is Just LeBron

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Ironically, despite his gargantuan frame, the giant managed to silently and meekly creep to his seat. With a heart as heavy as his legs, those blinding, beaming lights and flashing bulbs had difficulty finding his eyes. LeBron James found refuge under his baseball cap.

“Obviously, it’s a dramatic situation to be in,” James said after letting out a boisterous sigh.

“But it is what it is.”

A departure from the norm, James didn’t appear as his mighty self. He wasn’t certain, he wasn’t excited and he wasn’t confident or basking in sweet victory.

Yet still, despite finding himself on the precipice of his fifth loss in the NBA Finals, LeBron James was still LeBron James.

True to himself, still, after all these years, he was still The Man In The Arena.

* * * * * *

About 13 months after his term as President of the United States expired, then-President Theodore Roosevelt had awoken one spring morning in Paris. Nine years earlier, he had improbably inherited a United States of America that was reeling after the assassination of President William McKinley, Jr.

Valiantly, President Roosevelt assumed the office, and despite dissension from within his own party, admirably laid the foundation for what would become an economic genesis for the country.

And on this day in Paris—on April 23, 1910—President Roosevelt told the world something quite important.

In a speech entitled Citizenship In A Republic that he delivered at the University of Paris that day, he delivered a message that has echoed throughout American history and has been applicable across all walks of life. The message was incredibly simple, yet certainly profound.

Worry not with your critics, the President said.

Today, LeBron James reminds you of the same.

With his team’s season hanging in the balance, James made a fateful decision to refrain from taking a shot that could have clinched Game 3 for his Cavaliers. That he passed, of course, caused an immediate uproar from those that dissect and criticize his every move.

“I don’t even really care,” James said of his critics.

“One of my favorite quotes, when I really stopped caring about what people say, is Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The Man in the Arena,’” he said. “So if you read that, you’ll see where I’m at right now in my life.”

In “The Man in the Arena,” President Roosevelt, using his own experience as a lens, encourages mankind to pursue their own goals and their own greatness on their own terms. Win or lose, those that haven’t walked a mile in your shoes will criticize your decisions and process.

In the end, the public should revere the man that’s actually in the arena, for his foray requires true courage.

* * * * * *

Seemingly larger than life itself, James was a household name by the time he was 17 years old. He stood head and shoulders above each of his peers, and it was then that he began to draw comparisons to Michael Jordan.

Certain to be the next big thing, James embraced our attention, our critiques and our expectations.

Still, though it all, he remained something remarkable. Through it all, he has simply remained LeBron James.

Over the years, we have failed to typecast him. His all-around game was reminiscent of Oscar Robertson, but his passing ability and court vision rivaled that of Magic Johnson. He wasn’t a perimeter player necessarily, but his post-game had been subpar. He lacked the selfishness of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and, to his core, stuck to the simple belief that there was no “I” in team—sometimes, to his detriment.

And even as the ghost of Michael Jordan appears before him—even as the whispers of James and his mighty legacy supplanting some of the greatest players ever grow louder—James has remained the same.

Through it all, he has continued to play the game his way, on his own terms.

So, with his team trailing 0-2 in the 2017 NBA Finals, James saw Kevin Love and J.R. Smith set him staggered screens. Extended out to the half court logo, with his team leading by two points, with an opportunity to potentially seal the game and preserve an opportunity at back-to-back championships, James saw Draymond Green in front of him. He raised his right hand, instructing Smith to stay put. He took three dribbles with his left hand before crossing back over to his right. After he and Green played a perimeter game of cat-and-mouse, James drove to his left, making a beeline toward the basket. By the time he had gotten to the free throw line, James had Green on his hip and Kevin Durant standing outside of the restricted area. With Stephen Curry cheating off of Kyle Korver momentarily, Kevin Love managed to strategically stand between Korver and Curry, effectively giving Korver a screen that would give him the time and separation to get off what would have been a game-clinching three point look.

The play worked to perfection, only Korver couldn’t deliver.

Soon thereafter, Kevin Durant did.

Even the most ardent James supporters grow frustrated with his willingness to cede those moments to his teammates. As James continues to draw comparisons to both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, it has been noted—and perhaps rightfully so—that neither would have made that pass in that situation.

James, on the other hand, would do it again.

“If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three screen situation,” James said before describing exactly how the play unfolded.

“… I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest three-point shooters in this league’s history, and give him an opportunity in the short corner,” he said.

“I would do the same exact thing.”

James knows who he is, and long ago refused to try to play by anybody else’s rules. He leaves the debates of his place in history to us and puts adherence to his basketball principles above all else.

In short, while still playing the game to win, James truly plays as if he has nothing to prove.

That, above all else, is what makes him remarkable.

* * * * * *

For more than 15 years, the world has told LeBron to be Michael Jordan and has dared him to compete with Kobe Bryant. Pundits have implored him to play selfishly and revert to hero basketball in tight, waning moments. Through it all, James has shrugged off those suggestions and continued to play his game, his way and on his terms.

He has taken the words of President Roosevelt to heart and, long ago, decided to worry not with his critics.

Over the course of his 14-year NBA career, as James has accumulated a career accolades most-wanted list and steadily ascended the NBA’s Mount Rushmore, we have spent far too much time trying to fit him into a box rather than simply appreciate him for what and who he is. Because “greatness” isn’t defined, the only objective measure used to make inter-generational comparisons are championship rings. Less attention is paid to things like the amount of teams in the league vying for championships, the skill level of the game’s elite players or the division of conferences. What’s most unfortunate is that of all things, when trying to define greatness, the least amount of attention is paid to how a player actually plays the game.

One could argue, though, that it is there that true greatness is most revealed. The NBA had only 18 teams as late as 1974. Fewer teams and no free agency, one could argue, diminishes the credibility of the 13 championship rings that Bill Russell has. During the time that Michael Jordan dominated the league, the Western Conference, one could argue, wasn’t as talented as their Eastern counterparts. As for Kobe Bryant, three of his five championships were won with Shaquille O’Neal, and O’Neal was named the Most Valuable Player in each of those three Finals appearance.

In other words, if one were to dissect any all-time great and the circumstances under which they found success, it would be easy to discredit them.

James has long understood this, which is precisely why he has long ceased trying to play by everyone else’s rules.

As a true team-first player, James took just as much joy in feeding Mike Miller and Shane Battier and watching Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving’s fateful three pointers as he did putting the Spurs away in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals.

Extended out to center court, with his heart racing, his sweat-soaked jersey clung to his frame. With his mouth dry and his breath short, James looked up at the ticking clock. He made his move around Mario Chalmers’ screen, and although Tony Parker showed, Kawhi Leonard was slow to switch back out onto him. James had an opening, and despite being regarded as a poor shooter, pulled the trigger on a 20-footer that found the bottom of the net.

With a four-point lead, his Miami HEAT would eventually find their way to victory in one of the finest Game 7 performances we have ever seen: 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.

What truly lies at the root of the crowd that contends that James isn’t “clutch” is nothing more than a false perception. The reason the public doesn’t believe James to be good in clutch situations is less about the extent to which he has hit big shots than it is the fact that he is just as willing to cede them to his teammates.

If there is a fault to find in that, it would be that James may be underestimating the extent to which others have the capacity to come up big in the most trying moments.

Just because Korver is a 43 percent three point shooter over the course of his career doesn’t mean that he can convert a game-clinching shot in the NBA Finals.

Above all, though, what makes James truly special is his willingness to find out. He is a rare example of a superstar player who can live with the results, so long as he makes what he feels is the right play.

Having taken each of two franchises to four NBA Finals, James has dominated the game in a way that no other player in the contemporary era has. His unimpressive record in those Finals appearances, truly, is more an indictment on the individuals that he had surrounding him than they are of his individual greatness. Despite that, he always has been and always will be willing to trust those very teammates, even when everything is on the line.

In the same way that Stephen Curry made it cool for a generation to shoot step back jump shots and Vince Carter made it cool for a generation to boost their verticals, James made it cool to share the wealth and to be willing to live and die by giving others an opportunity to bask in the spotlight.

And depending on how you define greatness, in a way, one could certainly argue that his refusal to play by anyone else’s rules truly makes James the man in the arena.

Without question, James is very different from both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. And that’s okay. He has long since stopped trying to live up to their standards.

Frankly, it’s probably about time we stop expecting him to.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.