LeBron James has more than met the hype. He passed the hype a long time ago, in fact, turning hyperbole into understatement. Whether it’s biblical SI covers and tens of millions of dollars from Nike before he’d played a minute in the NBA, or the ubiquitous lens of the media and smartphone-savvy fans, LeBron hasn’t strayed far from his path to greatness––perhaps even to The Greatest. Yes, there have been some stumbles––passive-aggressive tweets about teammates, a canned coach, and a trade demand from a superstar teammate––but those came after he was a champion.
And while James’ on-court skills have ripened into a seemingly unstoppable combination of size, stamina, agility and acumen, his interactions with the media have taken longer to mature. Like the wine he now prefers in the offseason, LeBron’s public pronouncements have only improved with age, and this past Finals round might be his vintage year.
The Decision will always be part of LeBron’s legacy, and hopefully the media’s often malicious response to it will be, too. But the public wasn’t angry about the Decision, they were angry for participating in the announcement. We were all pissed James leveraged his stardom, and the anticipation over where he’d play next, for such a bald-faced spectacle. Nevermind that it net the Boys & Girls club over $2 million, or that he was simply changing employers. The move was castigated still further when it aligned with the smug way he answered the question about his detractors in 2011 after losing the Finals.
The histrionics of that first free agency make up LeBron’s Second Act, and it was his collapse in the 2011 Finals where he was confronted with the nadir of his public perception. The ebullient, fresh-faced LeBron was gone, and in his place was a world-weary, spiteful adult who edged close to the misanthropy of a child actor gone rogue. Remember this doozy of an answer when he was asked, “Does it bother you that so many people are happy to see you fail?" after Game 6 of the 2011 Finals.
"Absolutely not," said James. "Because at the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.
"They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.
Yikes. His countenance and body language merely add to the bitter, jaded response:
He was crucified again over the comments, and we all reveled in his comeuppance. Devoid of context, it’s easy to see why James’ anger bubbled to the surface: He had lost again on the big stage despite being the favorite. To the public, LeBron was still caught in the vortex of the Decision, and it eddied nicely into his Finals performance (e.g. only scoring eight points in Game 4’s loss). The ensuing maelstrom after losing the Finals only exacerbated the schadenfreude for millions of NBA fans outside of Miami-Dade County.
Winning the title in 2012 altered the prism through which we viewed James’ comments, but more abrupt was how the questions themselves changed. Look at the query posed LeBron following Game 5 in 2012:
"You've spoken so much about growing as a player and growing as a person over the last year. Do you think where you are in your life now makes it even that much more special, and is there a pride that it wasn't just growth as a basketball player, but that you're in a better place as a person to really enjoy it now?"
That question sounds unctuous, even now. James’ response is what you’d expect, but it’s the sudden change in how he’s covered that’s so striking. The challenging timbre is gone, and in its place is a slow-pitch softball question about growth. It’s a question that lets James narrate his story, rather than the reporter. All the other questions that June were in a similar vein. A win over the ascendent Oklahoma City Thunder, and the title summit we lambasted LeBron for bivouacking near without ever reaching became James’ semi-annual cabin retreat.
Fast forward seven years, seven more series in June, two more titles––including a victory, after being down 3-1, over the greatest regular-season team of all time––and LeBron has reached a level where he can end an NBA Finals press conference early because a reporter asked a dumb question. More than that, though, is that even though we applaud him for it, James wasn’t malevolent.
After Game 1 this year, James stood up in a huff wearing suit shorts––itself a harbinger of just how much cultural cache he possesses now––and dramatically walked out while chastising the interviewer to “do better tomorrow.” After J.R. Smith’s blunder at the end of regulation in Game 1, and ensuing Cavs loss in overtime, ESPN’s Mark Schwarz pestered LeBron about Smith’s state of mind. He tried so many variations of the same question, James finally had enough:
This exchange came following what could have been James’ most incredible feat to date: single-handedly pushing perhaps the greatest collection of talent in the history of basketball––on the biggest stage, and in their own arena––to the very precipice of an upset. Schwarz was trying to get LeBron to lay the blame for the loss solely at the feet of J.R. Smith. James didn’t take the bait. That fact, and his preceding seven trips to the Finals, meant we forgave James for the gruff departure, and some even thought it was warranted. Except, this wasn’t the final scene. It was how James handled Schwarz later in the series that reveals how far he’s come addressing the media.
After Game 3, where the Cavs ostensibly lost the series (no NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit), James had a little fun when Schwarz asked: “Knowing that you had that tremendous recall of moments in games, can you describe what was in your mind both tonight and last year when Kevin Durant launched that shot from the wing?”
“I actually think you should be like a psychiatrist,” James answered with a smile. “You want to keep trying to get inside somebody's mind, is the whole thing, Mark. What's in my mind? Miss it so we can get the rebound.”
LeBron was grinning, even after losing at home He was having some fun while gently pointing out the silliness of the query. He even answered Schwarz’s guileless follow up in a forthright manner. Yet, it wasn’t just his back-and-forth with the ESPN reporter that showed his command of public relations.
Before having some fun with the ESPN scribe, LeBron extolled the surprising offensive output of teammate Rodney Hood. The former Jazz swingman has likely cost himself millions of dollars on his next deal with the way he’s wilted under the glare of these playoffs, and James––knowing this––took time to compliment him for his contributions. He did this despite how Hood’s uninspired play directly affected LeBron and his legacy. James was being a good teammate and a good person; contrary to popular belief, they aren’t mutually exclusive. Someone should tell Kobe or MJ.
For James’ last answer after Game 3, he magnanimously compared this year’s Warriors team to the 2014 Spurs who also beat him in the Finals; Both executed to a degree that made anything less than perfection likely the only real path to victory. That low margin for error is untenable, especially with this current Cavs team.
LeBron’s demeanor after losing again in Game 4 was more of the same, with one major change: he didn’t try to duck his own culpability––”Self-inflicted, postgame after Game 1. Very emotional.”––for the brace he was rocking on his right hand. Some thought it was a preening excuse, like when he takes some time to milk the moment before standing up after a hard foul. But no one even knew about the injury until after the series was over, and he was so upfront about it, the idea he’d use it as an excuse for the sweep seemed sillier than a Mark Schwarz question to Bron about J.R. Smith’s mindset.
James will again be the major domino in this summer’s free agency after he likely opts out of the last year of his deal. Most agree he’s not likely to return to a Cavs team that owner Dan Gilbert is determined to run as proxy general manager, but which doesn’t have the talent, the draft picks, or the cap space to compete against the best teams in the league, even led by perhaps the greatest player of all time.
But James wasn’t about to keep aggregators up at night, or beat reporters scrambling to re-file when he was asked a question that implicitly divulged his thoughts on returning to Cleveland. Here’s that exchange:
Q. When you tell Rachel [Nichols] you came back because you had unfinished business, does one championship finish that business?
LEBRON JAMES: I mean, that's a trick question at the end of the day, and I'm not falling for that.
Q. It's not a trick.
LEBRON JAMES: Yes, it is. I mean, for me, I still have so much to give to the game. Like I said, when you have a goal and you're able to accomplish that goal, it actually -- for me personally, it made me even more hungry to continue to try to win championships, and I still want to be in championship mode. I think I've shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode.
Sure, you can do your best Madame Sosostris impression with what he said, but James had just finished trying to win a ring, so there’s no way he’s made up his mind about next season. He adroitly dodged the meat of the question and was firm on why, but he also gave the reporter something they could use. It was a masterclass in how to handle yourself in a tricky situation.
You could make the case James’ all-around game has never been better than it was in the 2018 Playoffs. But his off-court game has reached the same rarefied air. And that might even be more impressive considering where he started off eight years ago.