For at least the first decade of his career, nearly everyone around me hated LeBron James. His immediate greatness, and the corresponding hype machine—remember when his high school games were aired on ESPN?—framed his career, from its beginning, as a thing so historical that it would threaten Michael Jordan’s spot atop the throne of basketball’s mythologies. Since I grew up outside of Chicago and in Iowa (which was largely, in those days, a contingent Bulls state), the words being said about LeBron were sacrilegious. And this was before he teased Bulls fans with the possibility of his coming to our team in 2010, potentially along with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, or both. When he didn’t, and formed our unbeatable rival with the Miami Heat instead? Hoo boy.
The regional hate roiled on, metastasizing into something unbearably ugly during James’ Heat years. But then, he went back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and something started to change. Not quickly, mind you; in 2015, with the Cavs, James beat the Bulls in the playoffs for the fourth and final time, igniting regime change in the organization. At that point, those of us who were still grossly pubescent when James began his career were now adults getting married and buying property as his domination of the league chugged onwards, and we felt liberated to admit something that had been growing inside of us for a while: admiration, even reverence, for the man we once so horribly feared.
In 2023, James is now a totemic mirror for elder millennials in a way that no other American athlete has been. I am surrounded by people who used to curse his very name, but now swell with pride every time he extends his legacy for another year—or, really, for even another playoff series conquest. Especially when it comes against a team of young punky upstarts, representing the sourness that comes with change. Such were the Memphis Grizzlies, who James’ Los Angeles Lakers dispatched last week, with their capstone 125-85 victory representing a particularly resounding message of weathered and well-earned experience defeating hubristic, entitled vulgarity.
As the Lakers overtook the Grizzlies, the most staunchly anti-LeBron minds of my generation warped in real-time, before us, into the Boomers they so gleefully mock. Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant made it easy. With their willfully gnarly styles, cocky dance routines, and unearned displays of superiority, they have made many still hoping they had a strong connection with their youth quickly realize that they don’t. Have some class, you might hear the current father of a toddler say about this team, understanding a second too late that he is echoing his own dad’s embarrassing words. Respect the game, he may add as he stands out of his seat during one of Memphis' especially distasteful celebrations.
LeBron said as much to the Grizzlies, the day after sending them home. On Twitter, he posted a verse from Jay-Z’s song “Trouble,”; “Unlike you, I’m a grown ass man,” the rap begins, before going on about the lacking maturity, gratitude, and grace of an enemy who needs to be put in his place. The moment that ensured this cringey blast of senior defiance was probably Brooks’ interview after the Grizzlies won Game 2 of the series. While wearing ostentatious sunglasses indoors, with a buttons-open flannel shirt and a massive gold chain sporting his initials, Brooks was asked whether he second-guessed trash-talking James during the game. “I don’t care,” he said. “He’s old.”
The enemy of anyone’s enemy is, frequently, their friend. And so, those old enough to remember the start of LeBron’s career wanted badly to see what they saw, which was the loud dismissal of a funky, rude 27-year-old showing up to say that this older guy’s time is over. It isn’t, for now, but whether James can dig deep enough to get back to the NBA Finals at 38 years old is an open and epic question. As he seeks to do just that, he will represent, more than anyone in the NBA before him, the hope of a demographic who doesn’t want to believe that their time as a central cultural curiosity is expiring, their shared struggles and traits ossifying into a known and unchanging set of moments and stereotypes (there is even a new word for our cultural sundowning, invented by Zoomers). If LeBron can do it one more time, though, then maybe it will feel like we aren’t done with the spotlight either.