Of Lions and Kings: LeBron James in the Forum

“Gladiator” is one of LeBron James’ favorite movies—as evidenced by his eldest son’s name, Bryce Maximus James—and, knowing this, it’s kind of surprising that when he stood bent over in the paint, legs wracked by cramps in the final minutes of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, waiting for someone to help him off the court for what would be the last time, jeers raining down from the sweltering stands, that he didn’t call for the ball and heave it far into the upper seats—or perhaps directly into one of the AT&T Center’s luxury boxes—and bellow, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”

Because while the endgame is far more pleasant for the modern athlete even when he loses—first class transportation and lodging rather than a beheading—the crowd hasn’t changed much since the days when they wore togas and the role of the Lions and Tigers were played by actual lions and tigers. The endless echo of social media (Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, oh my) with its stream of armchair analysis and instant memes has only made things worse. Imagine what the immediate reaction would have been to Isiah’s inbounds or Scottie’s migraines. Legacies would have been savaged before they were even established. Turn down for what?

Ps. I hope MJ was watching. #midol

— Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle) June 6, 2014

What makes social media so great is exactly what makes it so terrible, especially when it comes to sports. The immediacy (and impermanence) of it means that everything stands alone, every game—every play—is judged on its own. In 140 characters there is no room for nuance or context, just high praise or the basest insults. And in the effort to be heard amidst the din, it’s the sharpest jabs that echo loudest, no matter how inaccurate. Then they’re just as quickly forgotten as the next play and the next restart the race all over again. It’s no longer a matter of a player being great one night and terrible the next as much as it is being great one second and terrible the next. Nothing is permanent except the race to be heard.

This is where things have changed for the athlete, and for LeBron in particular. Anyone of this era really, but seeing that he is the one who has been the main character through four straight NBA Finals, he’s the one to bear the brunt of the change. For Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and even Kobe Bryant, their failures and successes were merely small parts of a larger narrative. “Tragic Johnson,” Jordan’s struggles against the Pistons, Kobe’s airballs against the Jazz—they were the story, but the leisurely 24-hour news cycle ensured they didn’t spiral out of control. Plus, those were all significant events, ending series and seasons. Now a single game, a single play, can be minutely parsed and dissected, granting a vast sense of importance to, well—everything. Instead of top-down from journalists to fans, stories go bottom-up, with even the most credible journalists mining Twitter and Instagram for columns and features in the effort to feed the ever-hungrier beast. The ups and downs are everything, and career arcs wind up looking more like EKG readings from the ICU.

In the long run, last night’s LeBron-related insanity won’t really matter. The Spurs won Game 1 of the 2013 Finals as well, and the Heat still won the title. Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you who the leading scorer in Game 1 was (it was Tony Parker, with 21) or what LeBron did (an 18-point, 18-rebound, 10-assist triple double). All that matters now is that the Heat won the series, LeBron won Finals MVP, and the long-anticipated rematch has finally begun. By next year at this time—by next month, for that matter—LeBron’s cramps will likely be a footnote, either to a Heat three-peat or a Spurs twilight title. In the mad rush to say something, anything, everything is made to seem important when it’s happening—how else to justify so much noise? But in the end, only what champions do echoes in eternity.

Follow me on Twitter @RussBengtson

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