June 2, 2016 by NowhereButPop
No other athlete’s legacy, in any other league around the world, is more closely tethered to a championship ring than professional basketball players playing in the NBA. The fact that Ewing, Barkley, Stockton, Malone, Nash, and Iverson all failed to win that one elusive championship will forever hang over them like a stormy cloud perpetually raining down on them even if the Sun beams down on the rest of the world. More so than in any other league, whether that league is domestic, international, or multinational, if you play in the NBA and you fail to win a title, your legacy is tarnished, and your impact is lessened because small-minded idiots can say things like “Well if he was so great, how come he never won a championship”. No one cares how you win, or how often you win, just as long as you win. It’s for this reason above all others that we have to stop questioning the validity of Lebron James’ legacy.
He’s won…twice…in a row, something that not even Tim Duncan, for all his purported greatness, has ever accomplished. When we look back on Lebron James’ career, no one’s going to bring up how he lost four (and counting) Finals. No, we’re going to look back at the two (and counting) that he’s won. If a player wins once in the NBA, no matter what follows, they will always be remembered as a champion; a player’s legacy becomes absolute just by virtue of that lone victory. So when people like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith say that Lebron has to win this year to salvage his legacy, or that another Finals loss would just be another blemish to an underwhelming postseason career, they’re completely eschewing the historiography, and the oral history of the entire NBA landscape.
No one cares that Jerry West was 1-8 in the Finals. When we look back on his amazing half-court shot against the Knicks, it doesn’t matter that it only tied the game, a game that they wound up losing anyway. It just matters that it happened. Wilt Chamberlain’s 2-4 record in the Finals (currently the exact same record as Lebron James) doesn’t diminish his monstrous dominance of the NBA, as he’s still routinely listed as the second greatest basketball player of all time behind Michael Jordan. Gary Payton was 1-2 in the Finals, Jason Kidd wheezed his way to a championship, and Wes Unseld was embarrassed twice in the Finals before he finally won in the Finals. Clyde Drexler was 0-2 in the Finals before he won a ring riding on the coattails of Hakeem Olajuwon, and yet he’s spared the ignominy of being just another star who couldn’t win a championship. The point is, it doesn’t matter how you do it, or even if someone else does it for you, in the eyes of history, winning is all that matters.
The superstars win championships, and that’s a feat that Lebron has already achieved. At this point in his career, and for the future narrative of his legacy, he really only needs to win one more championship. As long he brings home the Cavalier’s first championship, it won’t matter how many times he had to fail in order to get that elusive ring for Cleveland, nor will it matter if he never brings home another title after that initial one. All we’ll care about is that he did it. We just want to know that it happened, not how many times it happened, or how many times it took for it to happen. It took Dr. J three losses in the Finals before he finally captured a ring on the fourth trip (with Moses Malone at his side no less), but after that victorious fourth trip, he never played in a Finals game for the rest of his career. We still remember Dr. J as a champion, not as someone who went 0-3 in the Finals before teaming up with arguably the best player in the league at that point to win only one ring.
As fans, spectators, journalists, or commentators, we don’t really appreciate a player’s skills until they’re no longer playing. Because of that, we try to overcompensate by romanticizing their career after the fact. We’re not doing that with Lebron though, and I don’t know if we ever will. He’s already won two consecutive championships, took what was otherwise a high school varsity team to the 2007 NBA Finals, and restored what was one of the most unstable franchises in the NBA back to respectability. As far as other superstars go, no one besides Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson ever had so little to work with. He won’t go 6-0 in the Finals with two three-peats, nor will he ever win 8 championships in a row, but guess what…no one else will ever again. Because he’s so good, and because basketball is much more of an individual sport than baseball, football, or hockey, we expect much more unimpeded greatness from Lebron James.
Winning a championship in the NBA cuts both ways though. No one cares how a player wins just as long as they win. Likewise, if they lose, there’s no excuse for it. No one cares that the Houston Rockets only won their two titles because key players on the opposing teams were having a nervous breakdown on the court. When we talk about the 2007 Finals, all that’s mentioned is that Lebron lost. The fact that the rest of the team was maybe good enough to beat a D-League team isn’t discussed. Whenever Lebron loses, it becomes a reflection of him, and not of the team. Even if he has a monster series, like he did in last year’s Finals, people will always be quick to point out his own personal failings, like a sub-par shooting percentage as they did last year during the Finals.
Because of his skill we hold him to an impossible standard, one that disavows the play of his teammates, or the intelligence of his coach, the historical greatness of the opposing team, or the surrounding factors of the game. Every game that he plays, we fixate on him, and treat him as an absolute, as though he is the sole factor in determining the outcome of a game. Much in the same way that we view winning and losing as absolutes, that’s how we’ve come to understand and analyze Lebron James, not really as a person or a player, but as a living, breathing, and highly mutable legacy. He’s a concept, a biological understanding of how we perceive our own construction of the history of sports.
The ongoing narrative that we construct around him actually exemplifies the hypocrisy that comes with comparing present day champions with champions of yore. There’s no way that someone can criticize Lebron for being 2-4 in the Finals, but then label a guy like Jerry West, Clyde Drexler, or Dr. J a “true champion”. It seems that “Champion” is an absolute label reserved for anyone who’s ever won one except for Lebron. The only thing that Lebron has left to do in his career is win one championship as a member of the Cavaliers. And that is more of a self-imposed goal rather than one mandated by society; anything beyond that would just be padding his legacy. At this point in his career, Lebron’s done enough already that any criticism is pretty much unwarranted. He’s been to 7 Finals in 11 postseasons, and of those four loses, three of them came against superior teams. His legacy shouldn’t be on the line at all during the 2016 Finals. But because we force Lebron to compete against the ghosts of the past, on top of his present pursuit of a championship for #TheLand, we’ve locked Lebron into an unfair game against a foe that he can never conquer—our expectations. He’s done more than enough in 13 seasons to satisfy our need to witness greatness. For anyone who’s not content, well then, that’s on you, not Lebron.
 The best example of this phenomena is Patrick Ewing and how he’s been idealized by the very same New York media that hounded him for his entire career about not winning a championship.