Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Lonely Life of the Real Superman

One of the few questions to emerge from the first-round matchup with Arenas and the Wizards was whether The Once and Future King could drive to the basket with such apparent ease against a team who actually played defense. This question has been answered in the form of his 4th-quarter performance versus the Pistons today.

Yes, the Pistons performed poorly and the game was much more Detroit losing the game rather than the Cavs winning it. That said, even a flaccid performance overall does not mean that Detroit players had any less intensity on defense. That LeBron could take Prince off the dribble and get to the rack faster than the best help defenders in the league shows his physical ability and his ability to see openings not apparent to others. And of course the comparisons were made to Jordan. On one hand, the parallels are too many to ignore. He wears Jordan's number. He's the only star on the team. He's regarded as the team's future. His team seems doomed to lose to a physical Detroit Pistons team to the tune of 4-1.

These parallels obscure the fact that we are incapable of discussing future stars without comparing to Jordan, at least if the players in question are African-American. It's only natural that this is the case because Jordan is the first media superstar of the NBA, the first player to really take advantage of his public perception and create an iconic figure that was larger than the sport itself. Since this is America, he is regarded as the Alpha and Omega of sports marketing, even if you could realistically say that Jordan was just the NBA version of Pelé.

The other problem with these comparisons is that there's a distinct difference between James and Jordan. When LeBron was driving to the hoop, swishing that late 3 and dishing to the absolutely-disgusting-in-a-bad-way Damon Jones, I wasn't jumping out of my seat and whooping with exhiliration. I was nodding to myself, saying "nice play" and only later reflecting on the actual difficulty of these events.

I think of LeBron as a tragic figure even now, because he is stuck in a no-win situation. He is expected to create a Jordan-eque myth, as we can see by Scoop Jackson's latest, in which he half-boasting, half-deadpan refers to how LeBron will win 7 or 8 titles before his time is done. If LeBron fails to win all those trophies, he will have tarnished his image. If he does so, he will only be living up to expectations.

It is similar as to why his relentless drives to the hoop are lacking in electricity. There is no surprise or sudden epiphany to his game, just a player already recognized as superhuman exerting his will. Part of this problem is the man's game. Jordan was elasticity and acrobatics, James is all power and grace, so beyond the pale that he makes the impossible look effortless. James is the Real Superman, doing the incredible yet doing it so easily that we cannot sustain interest, spectacle reduced to the mundane through seeming omnipotence.

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