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LeBron James, basketball player, was born December 30th, 1984. I wasn’t there, but I’m sure he gave a memorable performance. LeBron James, Global Icon, was born February 18th, 2002. It was the first time we were introduced. My mom came in with the mail and plopped Sports Illustrated down in my lap. On the cover was a kid my age, holding a basketball, reaching out of the page and into my living room. I didn’t know anything about him except what the image told me.

“This kid is a once-in-a-generation basketball player. Remember his face.”

After all, SI doesn’t put 17 year old kids on the cover. What I didn’t realize at the time, but I see so clearly now is what the image said beyond the game of basketball.

“This kid is a once-in-a-lifetime icon. You’ll see his face everywhere.”

In May 2003, LeBron signed a $90 million contract with Nike. Before he was drafted or played a single NBA or college game. Before he was an NBA All-Star, he was an advertising superstar. The following June, he was the number 1 pick. His first 7 years included two MVP’s and a finals appearance achieved, in part, through one of the most dominating individual performances I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals in Detroit. LeBron scored Cleveland’s last 25 pts in a double overtime win. He went 9-11 from the field down the stretch. It was the first time since Jordan, I’d seen a player take the game over and single-handedly carry his team to victory. That night, LeBron would not let them lose. That night, everyone watching realized he was the best player in the world. We were all witnesses.

The Jordan-LeBron comparisons had always been there. Murmurs, whispers from the background of the 24 hour talking head cycle. The comparisons were made, but they weren’t real. Both Jordan and LeBron were dominant athletes and endorsement kingpins. But LeBron had no championships. That was all that was missing.

After his unbelievable performance in The Palace and trip (albeit short) to the Finals, the whispers became shouts. In just his fourth year, LeBron had led his team to the Finals. Like Jordan, his leadership, talent, and motives were never questioned. LeBron was beyond reproach. His time had come. A championship couldn’t be far away.

LeBron wanted a championship terribly. Not because of an innate desire to win, but because he wanted to be Jordan and a championship was a necessary part of the resume. He wanted that Jordan level of recognition. He wanted it from the fans, from the media, from all his fellow players. He wanted people to view him the way they viewed Michael. He wanted to be a brand. A global icon recognized instantly from Bangkok, to Beirut, to Boston. I suspect this desire had lain within him since that SI cover. Maybe not right at the surface, but somewhere deep inside. That snapshot had shown him how huge he could be. This desire grew larger in Cleveland, where buildings were adorned in posters of King James. Now he finally knew how to get to the mountaintop. How to be more than LeBron the basketball player. In the words of Al Davis, “Just win, Baby.”

In his quest for a ring, LeBron overlooked two small, but ultimately defining details. First, Jordan became a transcendent player AND winner before he was truly a Global Icon. He was a basketball player first and above all else. He was singularly focused on winning. His icon status was derived from his success, not the other way around. In addition, Jordan’s icy, competitive nature, gave him a very cool charisma. LeBron’s persona often seems manufactured, like it was designed by focus groups. He very rarely seems genuine.

Second and more important, Jordan didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of him. And that fact, more than any other, is what separated LeBron and Jordan. It wasn’t the rings. It was the motivation. Jordan wanted to win above all else. LeBron wanted to be Jordan above all else. So in essence he was making the game of basketball harder than it needed to be by chasing not one goal, but two.

So he set out on his path, with no one around him to point out his faults. The next year, LeBron took the eventual champion Celtics to a seventh game in the second round. Again, the message was: LeBron is good enough, he just needs help. LeBron seemed unfazed by the early exit. The following year, LeBron led the Cavs to 66 wins (39-2 at home) and the number one seed. The time seemed right until Orlando inexplicably, ousted the Cavs in 6, despite James averaging 38-8-8.

Look at those numbers again. 38 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists per game. In the Eastern Conference Finals. Those are historic numbers. Those numbers alone would get him Hall of Fame consideration. But he still fell short of a championship. Now you may think this is just further evidence of LeBron needing help to win. I agree, but there is more to it than that.

To me, this series was the tipping point in LeBron’s career. Though most people see it as the Boston series the next year, I believe the Eastern Finals against the Magic was the point when LeBron finally broke down. He killed himself to do everything for his team, but it wasn’t enough. It was here, that the real Decision was made. He knew he couldn’t win a championship in Cleveland. So a year later, LeBron made the most un-Jordan “Decision” of all.

Then something happened that LeBron did not intend. Vitriol and hate. Two things never mentioned in the same Sportscenter as LeBron James, much less the same sentence. Sure the crowds were booing the Heat, but in reality, all those people were yelling directly at James. This was really the first time anything James had done had ever been questioned. He had near universal approval ratings for nearly 7 seasons, but now every one was mocking and chiding him. And why? Because LeBron wasn’t who we thought he was. Because he came out and said (without actually saying) he’s not Jordan. He’s not a killer bent only on winning. He’s a player AND a public figure. He left Cleveland to win, but not simply for the purposes of winning. To LeBron, how the Championship was won was irrelevant, so long as it was won. So why did we care? Why did the fans and media pay so much attention and voice this disdainful opinion so loudly? Because of the spectacle of “The Decision”. Because of the smoke machine coming out party. Because LeBron had just created the single most intriguing sports franchise ever.

And so LeBron spent the entirety of this past season as the most scrutinized person of 2011. President Obama didn’t get this level of coverage. What we saw was unprecedented. Every shot, every pass, every win, and every loss was analyzed, digested, and rated. Never in the history of the NBA, has one player been talked about so much in the course of a season. And in the Finals, it finally got to him.

So why the Finals? Against the Bulls, LeBron was who we always wanted him to be. At the offensive end, he was an assassin and a closer. On the defensive side, he shut down Derrick Rose, and showed the entire league who should have been the MVP. The stage was set for LeBron to finally get everything he wanted. But he wanted something out of reach. He wanted the universal approval he used to enjoy. He wanted the whole world to love him and cheer for him again. But instead he received a big crap sandwich. The scrutiny continued and increased as the intensity of the games heightened. Every shot, every pass, every Decision. When the Heat fell apart in Game 2 and allowed Dallas to even the series, the pressure on LeBron effectively doubled. Meaning the pressure he put on himself quadrupled. This immense, self imposed pressure is what led to his disappearing act in this series, especially in crunch time where the gravity of the moment cannot be escaped. In pick-up hoops vernacular, he psyched himself out. He was in his head so much he couldn’t make any decision, let alone the right one. He tensed up visibly, short arming several shots, not driving to the hoop, and passing out of favorable matchups. He removed the best player on the planet from those games without having the stones to actually remove himself from the floor. Once that happened, Dallas’ victory was inevitable.

So where does he go from here? The good news is his complex problem has a simple solution. For one year, LeBron must tune us all out. Everyone. The media, the fans, and critics across the globe. Ignore them completely, and just play basketball. This is the only way LeBron will ever remove the pressure from himself enough to the let his talent come through. His talent which is more than enough to succeed.

Now this plan may seem impossible to execute, but there are several reasons to hope. First, he is the most talented basketball player to come into the league in the last twenty years. On talent and physical gifts alone, he may be the best ever. He has what it takes to win a Championship, if he gets out of his own way. Second, he has a teammate in Dwyane Wade who, in addition to being one of the Top 5 players in the league, relishes the leadership role, both on the court and in press conferences. LeBron can let him take the questions and handle the media. With that extra time, he can work hard on his game, perfecting every facet. Third, in the NBA, zebras can change their stripes. Look at Mark Cuban. Since he bought the Mavericks, he has taken every opportunity available to scream craziness into the microphone, but he gave no interviews in the playoffs. He went cold turkey. And sure the media commented on it, but ultimately they were supportive because they understood he was doing it for the good of the team. In the same way, if LeBron took a year long hiatus from Icondom, stopped caring about the media and their opinion of him, they would eventually lend their support, knowing his reclusivity was for the good of the team.

Before the season, LeBron famously said, “not three, not four, not five” in reference to the Miami Heat’s championship potential. Well I have another number. One. All he needs is one. The prevailing thought is that LeBron has done irreparable damage to his reputation, but that is bullshit. All he needs is one Championship, and all will be forgiven. Want proof, look at Dirk. After the ’06 finals and losing as the top seed in the first round the next year, the media killed Dirk, saying he would never win because he was too soft, too Euro. Well now he’s the champ and the media is lovingly touting him as one of the 20 best of all time. LeBron the basketball player doesn’t need five years. He can win it right now. If the King, the Icon, will simply take a seat.

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