Let me start by stating my bias from the outset: as a diehard NBA fan, I believe that LeBron James is a gift. And not just any gift, like a “#1 Dad” mug on Father’s Day or box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day. LeBron James is an impossible gift, one that seems so outlandish that you can’t imagine you’d ever receive it. LeBron James is the $80,000 Lexus in the driveway with the dumb Christmas bow on it from the TV ads that you see and say, “Nobody would ever get that gift.” And yet, here we are.
So, you can imagine my joy at watching him pull off the seemingly impossible on Sunday, helping the Cavs to become the first NBA team to ever recover from a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Warriors.
Not everyone shares my joy in this, of course. Sports fans are combative and passionate, and there is no such thing as a unanimous opinion in the world of sports. Add to that the fickle nature of fandom, and you start to see how narratives are built. Specifically, how in the hell did the greatest player of his generation suddenly become an underdog?
Consider the following question (data generated prior to the start of the Finals) as an example:
Stephen Curry is (or perhaps was, depending on the lasting effects of his NBA Finals meltdown) the new poster child for NBA success. He was an underdog story: an undersized point guard from a small Division 1 school that entered the league with questions about his toughness and durability. Fast forward a few years later, and suddenly he’s the most dominant offensive force in history, hitting 3 pointers at an almost alarming rate and playing for a Golden State team that some theorized had solved the game of basketball. Fresh off of his first MVP and first NBA championship last year, Stephen Curry elevated his game even further this season, hitting 400 threes (shattering his own record) and scoring more efficiently than perhaps anyone in NBA history. He earned his second MVP (the first unanimous vote ever) and was cruising to his second championship.
He was so good, in fact, that a good portion of people must have forgotten about the last 10 years of King James’ rule over the NBA. While James still had a slight advantage over Curry in the eyes of the public, they were in a statistical dead heat prior to the start of the NBA Finals in terms of perception of which player was better; despite the fact that LeBron James had not suffered a significant decline in his play this year in Cleveland.
This post is not meant to take anything away from Stephen Curry, who by all measures is having one of the most outstanding runs of offensive brilliance in the history of the NBA. He’s utterly electrifying. However, as a LeBron appreciator, it was nice to re-run the same poll this morning and see that America got the wakeup call it needed after witnessing him put together perhaps the most impressive performance in NBA Finals history.
As written above, sports fans are notoriously fickle, and quick to pile onto a narrative as it develops. Two dominant offensive seasons by Stephen Curry suddenly relegated LeBron James to “old guard” status, “LeDecline” was memed all over reddit.com, and the face of the modern NBA was a fresh-faced point guard in the Bay Area. But sports narratives have a way of being rewritten on the fly, or, in this case, being swatted off the backboard in the final minutes while we watch with mouths agape.
The people have spoken. All hail the King. Now, let’s just hope it doesn’t take another near-miracle for NBA fans to appreciate the outlandish gift they’ve been given.