Watch the Throne

Everything that works as an excuse for everyone else has never worked for LeBron James, and so it’s no wonder why nobody understands when he tries to explain what that feels like.

LeBron knows that, win or lose, you’ll never get it; you’ll never forgive him for how he was born.

Image courtesy Erik Drost.

“I don’t know why the man above always has to give me the hardest road,” LeBron James said last night, after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to that city’s first championship in five decades, his third; an effort for which he was unanimously awarded the Finals MVP, also his third. It was one of James’s Kanye moments, when a transcendent, genre-defying black genius runs afoul of his homeland’s Puritan neuroses. Concealed deep in our collective unconscious, these snares lie in wait for the upstart who has not been told that, as in war, the first casualty of fame and success is the truth. The more obvious and indisputable one’s achievements, the more important it is to act like they don’t exist. This is part of the competition, too; the part that white people don’t talk about, in order to keep men like James and West from reaching the places reserved for even the most obviously ruthless of the Aw-Shucksers, like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Or Steph Curry’s daughter. How could LeBron, on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teen, ever think his road hard? Never mind the hardest.

Kanye has responded to the funhouse of fame by wielding a crazed, Byzantine egomania intended to reveal, one way or another, the distance between the truth and the presentation of the truth. LeBron is temperamentally so different—he is, essentially, an Aw-Shuckser. The fact that he’s smarter and more capable and competent than everyone around him manifests as a heaviness and a weariness and lines on his forehead. He did not ask to be born in the inner city of Akron, Ohio, with an otherworldly combination of size, speed, strength and agility. He did not request a hometown in the middle of this blighted continent, a perfect distillation of the violent racial animus that grips a region in the midst of half a century of economic decline. The moment that Milton gives Jesus, in Paradise Lost, where he volunteers to redeem humanity in the face of his father’s rage? James never had that. He just found himself here, and set about doing the best he could.

Any migrant who’s gone from a smaller town to a big city and back again will be familiar with the indignations James has suffered since returning to Cleveland. Gone are the sharps like Pat Riley, and the “supporting cast” that was really a set of near equals in the form of wily Dwyane Wade and enthusiastic Chris Bosh. In their place is an overpaid white man—it is Ohio, after all—named Kevin Love and a point guard, Kyrie Irving, who somehow still believes it’s all about him. It’s not just that James went back to Cleveland and won, it’s that he went back to Cleveland and won with a team that feels like Cleveland. Everything was his responsibility. The head coach, the chemistry, the play selection, everything. Even when it was technically someone else’s job, if they weren’t doing it, it was going to be James’s fault, because that’s how it has always been for LeBron. He didn’t bring the big city home, he made the small city big.

That the historically successful team he defeated to do so is, itself, a perfect distillation of its own, historically successful region just makes it that much sweeter. The Warriors, though they’ll continue to slum it in Oakland until their new arena is built, are San Francisco, a technological juggernaut fitted out with just enough countercultural trappings. Americans love technology. We are an engineering people, predisposed to love a new way to solve an old problem. Golden State’s record 73 wins behind a point guard with an unprecedented jumper was exactly the kind of disruptive paradigm we can get behind.1 Their arena is named for Oracle, the kind of planet-consuming corporate megabeast that other countries would give their groundwater for. Cleveland’s arena is named for a fast-food mortgage provider, because there’s a future there.

The true Kanye moment came earlier, when Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken, the Cavs, the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, the Arena Football League’s Cleveland Gladiators, and the JACK casino in downtown Cleveland, got to hold the trophy first. Gilbert not only occupies the truly shitty role of sports-team owner but is shitty at it. They interviewed him for a while; meanwhile you couldn’t even see LeBron on the screen, and a bunch of rich little white kids got to touch the trophy before he did. Which Kanye knows something about; you can literally be the most famous black man in the world, but you’re going to stand on the side of the podium and wait your turn.

The trophy ceremony is a moment of pure American feudalism, and the pageantry is correspondingly courtly and fascinating. Reporters ask exhausted athletes impossible, existential questions with no real answers. How do you exist the way you do? Why does history happen the way it does? Athletes learn quickly that under no circumstances can these questions be answered honestly. When Doris asks Tristan Thompson, “What motivates you to do all that dirty work?” The answer cannot be “Earthly renown and 82 million dollars, Doris!” Especially when that is what the answer is.

These are the things that James means when he speaks about his road being the hardest. Everything that works as an excuse for everyone else has never worked for him, and so it’s no wonder why nobody understands when he tries to explain what that feels like. The only moment when the two worlds, his and ours, could possibly meet took place last night, when the buzzer sounded, Cleveland became world basketball champions, and LeBron James collapsed to the floor and wept like a child. He had done it. Whatever else happens, however many more Kanye moments lie down the road, this was his one instant of pure communion with the rest of his strange and demanding species. You don’t have to love him to understand the relief he must have felt. In fact, it’s because you don’t love him that you understand his relief. He knows that, win or lose, you’ll never get it; you’ll never forgive him for how he was born. So why not whine and berate the refs and break the unwritten rules about trash talk, or whatever they’re saying he did wrong this week. The LeBron thing he can do to make being LeBron all right, if only for a moment, is to win one for Cleveland. With the third triple-double in Game 7 history, he’s done just that.

  1. Nikil Saval discussed the Warriors’ tech industry fans earlier this month. 

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