By the time a professional athlete reaches the 15th year of his or her career, nature begins to take its course and the natural regression of gifted athleticism and skill begins to wind down.
Usually, this isn’t a conviction of the athlete’s talent level or their place amongst their sport’s history. It’s simply nature.
In his 15th season, on his 33rd birthday, LeBron James looks like he’s just getting started. Even if he’s already played enough basketball for a lifetime.
Take a quick glance at James’ numbers this season: 27.8 points, 9.3 assists, 8.2 rebounds, 56 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc. He’s posting his highest player efficiency rating since 2012-13, and he is piggybacking the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 24-11 record after a 5-7 start.
Simply put, James is operating at his best during a time where most greats begin to enter their twilight.
To appreciate the sheer dominance of James’ play, first, you have to understand the gargantuan pressure he was placed under nearly 16 years ago.
Feb. 18, 2002, a 17-year-old high school junior graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. At the moment, he was taking the basketball world by storm. The feature by Grant Wahl, titled “Ahead of His Class” was the story of a hoops prodigy pictured on the cover of the world’s biggest sports magazine with the words “The Chosen One” beside him.
James had already befriended the greatest of all-time (at the time) in Michael Jordan, as Wahl’s piece outlined. He’d cozied up to the likes of Antoine Walker and Tracy McGrady. James was set to sign the biggest shoe deal ever for a rookie ball player.
When the hype is built up around an athlete from such an early age, and the expectations follow them wherever they go, it’s reasonable to understand when that player collapses under pressure. Being labeled “The Chosen One” before he was even old enough to vote would’ve been enough weight on his shoulders to crush the ordinary man, but not James.
As his career continues to wind down the road of impressive feats, statistics, and trophies, it’s almost easy to forget what James has been able to accomplish with all eyes on him from his late-teenage years, all through his adulthood. His life has been chronicled by the public, scrutinized under the lens of the social media era — to the likes of which no athlete had to deal with before him — and compared to the ghosts of the legends before him.
For every amazing highlight James would gift to us, a voice from the crowd would lash back with unwarranted negativity such as, “He’s no Jordan!” They’re right, though. James isn’t Jordan. Their games don’t line up the way that Sports Illustrated cover projected them to all those years ago. Always lauded as a playmaker, James seemed to lack what many loved to call a “killer instinct,” regardless of the countless times he would go on to score or assist a bucket that led his team to a win. To the Jordan purists, James would never be his equal. The blemishes on his Finals record always were enough to keep Jordan’s legacy at arm’s length.
By his 33rd birthday, James has been named the NBA’s MVP four times, one more than Jordan, and made it to the Finals eight times, five more than Jordan by the same age.
James, throughout his entire career, never suffered a first-round playoff exit. In his fourth year, at just 22, he carried the likes of Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, and Sasha Pavlovic to an NBA Finals appearance.
Jordan lost in the first round three times and was swept on two occasions.
But looking back on James’ career isn’t about just trying to best him in particular categories when matched up with Jordan. An honest reflection for James is looking back and recognizing that a kid from nothing worked his way to the height of his field, perfecting his craft, with those along the way always trying to knock him down a peg or two, and still managing to mount the unrealistic expectations placed upon him before he was even mature enough to realize what the outside world had done.
Looking back on James’ career in its entirety up until now allows a certain level of appreciation for this particular season. Coming off of a Finals loss to arguably the greatest team ever assembled, James’ No. 2 option, Kyrie Irving, decides it’s time for him to move on from Cleveland. For all the heroics James pulled off during their 2016 championship run, it wouldn’t have been accomplished without Irving. Instead of conceding defeat, James rose to the expectations, as he’s done countless times before. Turning in a season worthy of James’ fifth MVP trophy, in year 15, at age 33, playing more minutes than anyone at this stage of their career has done, is a microcosm of James’ entire life since that Sports Illustrated cover.
Just when you think there’s no way LeBron James can do it, there he goes again defying the odds.
So, the next time James gets brought up in conversation, keep in mind the road he’s traveled to get to where he’s at. His career isn’t perfect. No career is. But in spite of it all, James delivered on incomprehensible expectations to sports fans worldwide. Enjoy the greatness.
Happy birthday to the King.
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