USA Today Sports

Why it's so hard to appreciate LeBron James

Jim Hackett
May 21, 2018 - 12:42 pm

There’s been no shortage of LeBron legacy chatter around here of late and it’s time to get the full story straight.  

I’m hearing lots of bits and pieces on-air from show to show that don’t really add it all up. In fairness, LeBron is a complex cocktail and it can be tough to get a full grip on why we like him, hate him and are reluctant to fully anoint him, despite his status as King James. James is clearly one of the most physically gifted, talented and prominent athletes to ever walk with the elite of the elite. So why can’t we truly appreciate him?

There has always been a ton of conversation about James and his standing among the greatest to ever play the game. Many say (like everyone that has ever worked at ESPN) that he, in fact, is the greatest of all-time and there is certainly plenty of evidence to support that. I, however, am laying out why he simply isn’t the greatest, or even deserving of sharing that rarified real estate at the very tip-top of the mountain with the greatest elites in sports.

James too often reverts to behavior and actions on and off the court, which the greatest of the great simply don’t do. I think of LeBron as I do A-Rod or Peyton Manning. Their greatness is obvious for all to see, but there’s just something there that handcuffs you from fully committing to their perceived ‘elite’ status.  

With A-Rod the issues were numerous. Even putting the documented steroid abuse aside, he carried an air of vulnerability that you just never pick up off of those who that are truly great. A-Rod to me always seemed beatable, even when playing at his best. With Manning?  Just check the playoff record and his statistics in the biggest games. When the games meant the most and the lights were the brightest, he played far below his typical performance level. He set a high standard in regular season play and never played up to that same standard during the postseason, despite having home-field advantage several times and multiple bye weeks to leverage. He failed in the playoffs, period. End of story.  

LeBron has had his share of postseason success. First, with help in Miami, and on his own during his second tour with Cleveland. That success is also joined by a significant share of postseason shortfalls, despite the national pundits at ESPN pre-anointing him as "King."  Oddly, despite the more recent success, the baggage LeBron carries and the way he carries it has clearly never left him and that’s why I refuse to put him in the class of say, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  

Let’s dive in.

Could you ever imagine Jordan, Bird, Magic or even Tom Brady or Joe Montana checking out of a game when things weren’t going their way?   Absolutely not.  The greatest of the great, the true elite, never show weakness and they certainly don’t quit on the floor, ice or field. LeBron James does this from time to time and most egregiously, we’ve seen him do this more than once in big playoff games, like Games 1 and 2 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. During the fourth quarter Celtics surge in Game 2, despite his gaudy stat line, the expression on the face of James told the ultimate truth. Down 11 with three-plus minutes to go ... time to check out.

That did happen, and it’s happened before this week.  

You may recall some vintage scenes vs. the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett-led Celtics teams were watching LeBron quit before the buzzer sounded was commonplace. This is his biggest fatal flaw, but it doesn’t end there.

If there’s a problem with the coach, the refs or the team, you’ll hear about it from James. That’s a certainty.  Listening to LeBron after a loss, lackluster performance or a great individual performance by him during a team’s loss reminds nobody of a Patriots press conference, where finger-pointing of coaches, teammates, or referees is non-existent. Can you say the same about James? Hardly. The meter is always running before somebody gets tossed under the bus if a tense press conference is forthcoming. Taking out this rather bizarre Patriots offseason, you would never hear Brady in this same type of context and that goes for any of the true greats we’ve come to know over our sports watching lifetimes. 

Taking the high road is a characteristic among the truly great. This is a road James travels too infrequently to be held in the highest regard.

Then there is the Pouting. This is an epidemic in the NBA, I get it. But I expect more from a varsity letterman. James cannot WAIT to complain. According to him he’s never fouled anybody, despite taking about a step and a half less the Giannis Antetekoumpo on every drive. (Footnote: Antetekoumpo averages about six steps per drive.) James is a notorious complainer and as recently as this past Saturday night, his pouty influence changed a referee’s call once the ref locked eyes with the seemingly oppressed James. He jumps and they say how high. It’s embarrassing to watch and again. This is a big part of the LeBron package we’ve come to know, make no mistake.

Now a lot of this criticism is also an indictment of the current state of the league and our society in general. There’s a ton of "me-me-me" sports and society these days. I also understand that all James has heard his entire life from those surrounding him is "how good he is." This has seemingly been the way with him since birth, so I can see how it happens. Even I cut him some significant slack and blame his generation and his coddling influences for say 50 percent of him being the way he is. But let’s not forget this is a grown man we’re talking about here.  

At 33 years old, and over 15 years in the bright lights of stardom, he should be better at these things. Maybe if he played 25 years ago it wouldn’t be so bad, but I suspect the LeBron we’ve come to know in his era, would’ve shown itself in some form years ago too. Regardless, I don’t recall the likes of Jordan, Bird, Magic, Brady, Montana, Roger Staubach, Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky ever quitting, pouting or eschewing blame.  

That’s because those guys are the best of the best. And that's why it's difficult to really embrace King James.