The first forty-odd pages of Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire is a primordial history of the Americas told through native mythology. It’s like if the Bible were written by a sentient hash pipe, and it’s beautiful: existence is a dream of a dream; the sun is a lesser god who threw himself on a bonfire; menstruation is the work of a mischievous parrot. Many voices flow through Galeano. Memory is written in his laconic style, but he’s primarily channeling others, setting stories from various indigenous cultures end-to-end so that they reinforce and amend and contradict each other. What results is an impressionistic history that breezes past coherence in pursuit of imagery and color. The tales are light on fact—the book gets a mite more conventionally truthful once the Spanish show up—but the fact that they exist is the edifying thing: they reflect how pre-Columbian New World peoples interpreted themselves and the mysteries that surrounded them.
So much has been said about LeBron James that it can’t possibly all be true. He left Cleveland because he and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh conspired to make it happen years in advance and because Delonte West slept with his mom. He returned out of an almost Catholic sense of mission and because the Heat were flagging and old. He’s not a killer and he’s assassinated a stacked young Thunder, a peerlessly intelligent Spurs squad, and the best regular season team in the history of the league in the NBA Finals. He’s a leader prone to lapses of orneriness and passive-aggression. He speaks humbly and acts arrogantly. He’s a businessman who cares only about winning basketball games. He’s the most complete player ever and he’s missing something.
Pick whatever you want out of that thicket of assertions. LeBron has tried to steer us toward the most flattering ones, but all that has revealed is one of the few things we know about him for sure: he’s inordinately concerned with legacy, which is different from saying he wants people to like him. He’s suffered enough emotional bruises by now to know that certains fans and writers and talking heads will always defame you, and that you can’t make everyone happy. But he obviously worries, when he has time to slow down and think beyond basketball, about the shape he takes in the popular imagination and what history will make of him. If this weren’t the case, he wouldn’t be such a fastidious custodian of his image.
Of course, no one gets much of a say in what they become. Barack Obama, eloquent and graceful as he is, never looked more fatuous than in moments when you could see him trying to write the definitive account of his presidency in real time. Chasing the esteem of strangers is utterly human, but it’s also foolish at best and squickishly vain at worst given the zeitgeist's moment-to-moment capriciousness (see: Taylor Swift’s constantly fluctuating approval rating, the point at which the internet turned on the Wendy’s chicken nugget bro, etc.) and the evolving sensibilities of successive generations (Lenny Bruce’s once-progressive comedy scans as not a little bit racist to modern ears). There’s no beating this, only living and hoping to keep your neck above the surf. If you’re lucky, by the time you go through a period of everybody deciding you suck, you’ll already be dead.
LeBron has it easier than a president or a pop star. We judge athletes relatively narrowly, mostly on the basis of their on-court accomplishments, and in that respect LeBron attained broad unassailability last season when he won his third title by downing a spectacularly talented Golden State team and posting back-to-back gobsmacking all-around performances in Games 5 and 6 before closing out the series with a triple-double and a fourth quarter chasedown block that’s going to live immortally in the memory like Magic’s skyhook at the Garden and Michael’s pull-up in Salt Lake City. Having delivered a championship to northeast Ohio in the most thrilling manner possible, he’s heading into the 2017 Finals underburdened, by his standards. If he can take the Cavs past the Warriors, it would be a stunning feat. If he doesn’t, there’s no shame in succumbing to a team that won seventy-three games a year ago, then added an MVP to their roster in the offseason. Kasparov lost to a few computers. Hemingway couldn’t beat depression.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be a lunatic fringe who brand LeBron a faint-hearted choker if the Warriors dismiss the Cavs, or that a few of them won’t genuinely believe it, but this is probably as comfortable as LeBron has ever been. He’s a victor with an impossible task. He has nothing to lose besides actual games. And yet, his characteristic uneasiness hasn’t subsided. He spoke this past summer about chasing Jordan’s ghost, which rang boringly hollow, as if he was saying something he thought he should say, to get people to think of him the way he would like to be thought of. He couldn’t cop even to momentary contentment. On the eve of the NBA Finals, he’s talking about owning a franchise after he retires, plotting his next steps as a Jordanesque global brand.
One of the neatest aspects of Galeano’s book is that, through pulsing prose, he deconstructs history, positing the historian not as an authority but as a curator and surrogate rememberer of long-dead people’s perspectives. The historian isn’t important as such; he’s just gotten ahold of God’s megaphone—a publishing deal—and is trying to use it to disseminate his particular truths. Galeano attempts to do this through narrative pastiche, and in the act he creates both history and metahistory: a not altogether cogent story about the Americas and an implicit comment on the impossibility of capturing a land or a people with any one particular story, or even a multitude of them. In the end, there’s a degree of resignation to Galeano’s approach. Perhaps something is itself—perhaps essence exists—but essence is impossible to get at. Instead, we understand something as everything we have ever heard about it, filtered through our sense of what seems correct.
LeBron definitely doesn’t conceive of himself as a diffuse text. Nearly all athletes are empiricists,. They don’t accept helplessness and they don’t like gray areas. They live those Randian slogans Nike and Adidas peddle, seizing greatness and never stopping and silencing doubters and all that. But LeBron’s persistent desire to construct himself for us rather than speaking freely and letting us do the work we’re inevitably going to do anyway is itself a (knowing or otherwise) admission of the strength of the current he’s swimming against. He’s LeBron James, and totally understandably, he thinks he should have the strongest word on who LeBron James is and what he stands for. Unfortunately, the subject can’t control history and the celebrity can’t marshall the minds of the contemporary masses. No matter how extraordinary you are, other people will swallow you up.