By Tom Walker | Head of Sport
During the LA Lakers winning ceremony following their game six close out win against the Miami Heat, Lebron James received his fourth finals Most Valuable Player to go alongside his fourth NBA championship. In his acceptance speech he made one thing very clear: “I want my damn respect”.
This is Lebron James’ 17th year in the league, and he is about to enter his 18th still being widely recognised as the best player in the world. But for some, and obviously Lebron feels it too, this is not enough.
The Chosen One
James was drafted straight out of high school at the age of 18 by his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. There had never been this much spotlight on a high school player before, with Sports Illustrated running a front page feature labelling Lebron James ‘The Chosen One’ back in 2002.
The focus only increased when James took the rise to superstardom, winning Rookie of the Year in 2003, becoming an All Star the following year and in 2006 finishing second in overall NBA MVP Award voting to Steve Nash.
His first stint at Cleveland did not bring too much joy in terms of championships. A trip to the finals in 2007 was the closest he got, but the much-experienced San Antonio Spurs team dealt with James and co pretty easily. The remaining years were met with disappointment, putting increased emphasis on LeBron’s 2010 free agency decision.
Time for championships
His choice proved to be a fruitful one, teaming up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to reach four NBA finals and win two championships. Leaving Cleveland made James one of the most hated sportsmen on the planet but turned him into the killer he would channel on multiple occasions during his later career.
Following the four years in South Beach, Lebron opted to go back to Cleveland and promised he would not leave until he brought a Championship to the city. Of course the Cavalier fans opened him back with open arms, but this time Lebron was there by choice, not obligated to by the drafting system. He went about crafting the team to a championship calibre, demanding the organisation trade for All Star Kevin Love to partner alongside himself and the incredibly talented Kyrie Irving.
This team was special, but there was something just as intriguing happening in San Francisco with the Golden State Warriors. The two teams would meet in the NBA finals over the next four years.
The Warriors would take the first in 2015, beating an injury stricken Cavalier team in six games. 2016 proved to be one of the most remarkable seasons in NBA history, with the Cavaliers coming back from 3-1 down in the series to win 4-3, a feat never achieved before in finals history.
For whatever happens during the remainder of his career, 2016 might go down as The King’s greatest achievement. James brought an end to Cleveland’s 52-year title drought, averaging a stat line of 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks per game throughout the run. Just incredible.
The Warriors came back and retooled, adding MVP Kevin Durant to their already star-studded line up to assemble one of the best rosters ever to exist. This, alongside the departure of co-star Kyrie Irving, made 2017 and 2018 too much of an ask for James, but his work in Cleveland was done. He had provided what he had promised, and it was time for a new challenge.
It was a year to forget in 2018-19, with injuries hampering any chance of James’ record eight finals appearances continuing. The acquisition of Anthony Davis from New Orleans, and several NBA veterans meant the Lakers were ready to challenge again in 2019-20.
By the end of 2019, the Lakers were the best team in the Western conference, with Lebron and Davis working brilliantly alongside each other. But then 2020 hit. The passing of Lakers’ legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter completely shook the basketball world to its core. It was only a few days before that LeBron had passed his good friend on the all-time scorers list, where the two shared a beautiful moment courtside, images of which will feature heavily in basketball minds forever.
Following the tragedy came the coronavirus pandemic, in which the NBA elected to play out the season in a Disney resort in Orlando. Far from normal conditions did not phase King James, who proceeded to charge through the playoffs, only losing three games up until the finals whereby he faced his old team Miami.
It was a tough series, Miami were a brilliantly well drilled team, with star Jimmy Butler doing everything in his power to stop Lebron and co winning the Lakers 17th championship. But despite his best efforts, it seemed destined for the Lakers to secure this one, which they did, blowing out Miami in the closing game six with a monster 28-point performance by James.
The greatest of all-time argument is boring. Everyone has their own opinions, that’s fine, but like James said, “I want my damn respect”. What he has done for the league, organisations, players, and social justice movements is unmatched and should be credited correctly.
For all the Last Dance documentary might have done for Jordan’s legacy, and that justification those who watched him at the time might have felt for him getting his just rewards, nothing compares to appreciating greatness in the moment.
We need to stop reducing these players’ careers to how they compare with others, take solace in the fact we get to witness these athletes execute their craft to the highest level, and give them their respect whilst they are doing so.
With that said, whether it’s number one, two or three, Lebron James will go down as one of the greatest NBA players of all-time, that’s not up for debate.