- LeBron James has stayed timeless on the floor, but he's going gray on the podium. At 32, LeBron is wiser, more thoughtful, and a leader in every sense of the word.
OAKLAND — On the court, LeBron James hasn't looked his age this postseason, humbling opponents by finishing off-the-glass alley-oops, spinning the ball dramatically while lining up jumpers, and turning his back to the basket as if bored before blasting towards the rim. To find the most relevant comparison points for his postseason numbers—32.5 PPG/ 8 RPG/ 7 APG—one must look back at previous James vintages rather than to other players. 2017 James is scoring than 2009 James and more than 2015 James, dishing less than 2016 James but more than 2012 James, rebounding less than 2013 James but more than 2014 James. At 32, the three-time champion and four-time MVP is producing like he did at 24, 26, 28, and 30… pick a number.
Even though his stats seem stuck in a time warp, James clearly isn’t. After his one subpar game of the playoffs, he made a rare admission: that he “just didn’t have it” energy-wise. He then channeled a chunk of his exasperation towards a reporter he deemed to be an overly eager critic, sounding miffed rather than mean-spirited. Last week, he wistfully shared childhood memories and cracked hairline jokes after passing Michael Jordan on the all-time postseason scoring list.
At media day on Wednesday, James referenced Bill Russell’s Celtics to put his own run of seven straight Finals trips into historical context. He also repeated an assertion made earlier this month: That he has nothing left to prove after delivering the Cavaliers’ first title last June. “I'm not in that department anymore,” James said. “I left that in the 20s. I'm not in the ‘prove people wrong, silence critics’ department [any] more. I got a promotion when I got to the 30s.”
It’s become clear this postseason that everyone who has been looking for the tell-tale signs of aging—the lost step, the lagging defense, the plummeting three-point percentage—has been looking in the wrong place. Instead, James is going gray on the podium: reminiscing, reflecting, paying homage, snarking and grouching, cataloguing his feats, and making regular references to his children. He’s coming closer and closer to Wise LeBron from the old Nike commercials, even as his game clips along at an MVP-caliber pace.
There was a social media trending topic recently in which fans honored James’s Finals run by marveling at how much their own lives have changed over the last seven years. College students had been in elementary school. Doctors had been fresh undergrads. Happily-married parents had been single and looking.
James has better things to do than take his turn chewing on this meme: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and the rest of the Warriors are looming, while Cleveland is pining for back-to-back titles. But if he did look back to 2010 and 2011, he might see the man who left a franchise hanging, who fumbled through The Decision, got lost inside his own head during the 2011 Finals, mocked a sick Dirk Nowitzki with fake coughs, and lashed out at fans in defeat. “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,” James said, infamously. He tried later to clarify, but only after he had allowed himself to sink to the same level as his critics, only after the damage was done.
Wednesday brought truly vile criticism James’s way, in the form of a racial slur painted on the gate at his LA mansion, which was empty at the time. His response was thoughtful, detailed, and wide-ranging, recalling his tribute to boxing legend Muhammad Ali at the 2016 Finals.
“I think back to Emmett Till's mom, actually,” he said. “She had an open casket because she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime and being black in America. … No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is -- it's tough. And [we’ve] got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America.”
James, noting that he was “not my normal, energetic self” because of the incident, spoke forcefully but without spite. He had no direct response to the person or persons who had targeted his home with a slur, only words of gratitude that his wife and children were safe. He had no interest in sinking to the level of the vandal.
“Racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America,” he said. “Hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. And even though it's concealed most of the time, even though people hide their faces and will say things about you and when they see you they smile in your face, it's alive every single day.”
As he sifted through follow-ups, James added that “basketball comes second” to his family and to his obligations as a “role model.” And then, in an extraordinary turn, he offered himself as a sacrifice.
“If this incident that happened to me and my family today can keep the conversation going and can shed light on us trying to figure out a way to keep progressing and not regressing,” he said. “Then I'm not against it happening to us again. ... As long as my family is safe.”
His words sounded less like a dare to would-be racists and more like a public acknowledgment that he knows that he will be a target for the rest of his life. No man can stop hate speech, James seemed to be reasoning out loud, but perhaps his fame and popularity could humanize the issue. Perhaps it will be more challenging to downplay or deny the continued existence of racism if basketball’s most recognizable face is able to speak honestly about its effects and is willing to bear the repercussions of doing so.
Here again it becomes difficult to find modern comparison points for James. How many Hall of Famers would speak so openly about race and hate? How many would do so the day before Game 1 of the Finals? How many would consider embracing this burden in hopes of influencing societal behavior? How many would decide to try knowing the inherent dangers and risks?
When James slices through the Warriors for a tomahawk dunk or throws a frozen-rope pass to a shooter 35 feet away Thursday, the initial temptation will be to wonder, “How does he still do it?” 2017 James might approximate 2011 James in the box score and on the highlight reels, but remember that this man has grown a lot as he’s “changed departments” and “gotten his promotion” over the last seven years.
James’s game might be fossilized brilliance, but his spiritual evolution and emotional maturation have taken him places that few leaders, athletes or otherwise, are willing to travel. This is, and isn’t, the same man.