For a large subset of the basketball-viewing public, LeBron James has been gleefully excluded from the concept of “liberated fandom.” He’s a love-him-or-hate-him kind of player, and for those on the latter side of the fence, he elicits the type of disdain usually reserved for only the world’s most despicable pariahs. Just look at how fans greeted him upon his arrival in the Bay Area.
They don’t see a 6’8, 250-pound athletic specimen who can play all five positions and who regularly dominates his opponents in ways we never previously imagined. What they see is a flopping, coach-killing, crab-dribbling complainer who uses new technology to passive-aggressively berate his teammates, a world-class pretender who shies away from the big moments (and not even a mountain of evidence to the contrary could disprove that last part in their eyes).
This has always been his cross to bear, and if we’re being honest, he’s brought a lot of it on himself. The LeBron James management style over the years has been a grab-bag of exclusionary tactics and subtle barbs aimed at no one in particular that still somehow always manage to find their mark. His decision-making, at times, has also left something to be desired, whether that includes one particular capital D decision, the now outrageously-premature promise of “not one, not two,” but a seemingly limitless number of championships for the city of Miami, plus a laundry list of other things.
He’s heard all these criticisms before, and Steph Curry’s ascendance only further complicates matters. When the 2016 NBA Finals tips off on Thursday night, it will mark LeBron’s sixth-consecutive Finals appearance, and his seventh overall. It’s a truly remarkable achievement by almost any measure. But like everything else with LeBron, there’s a big caveat. So far, he’s just 2-4 in the NBA Finals. It’s a record that likely already affects his stature on the list of all-time greats, a dark smudge on an otherwise extraordinary career resume that will be difficult to overcome as he grows older and the prospect of winning multiple titles down the line grows dimmer with each passing season.
What’s more, he has been undoubtedly the player most affected by the enormous shadow Curry has cast over the league these past two seasons. LeBron has long been considered the best all-around player in the game, and you wouldn’t be carted off in a straight-jacket by a group of orderlies in boiled whites if you still wanted to argue that today. But a second-straight Finals loss to Curry and Co. with a fully-healthy Cavs team would make it impossible to hold that distinction any longer.
Which brings us to his whole ostensible reason for returning to Cleveland to begin with: to bring home a title to his long-suffering franchise. It’s been more than 50 years since the city has won a championship of any kind, and LeBron has — in many ways unfairly — been heralded as its savior since his arrival as an 18-year-old high-school phenom. But he’s always embraced those expectations, especially upon his prodigal return in the summer of 2014 when he reaffirmed his commitment to that ultimate goal.