At this point in the NBA’s history, everyone who comes to the game comes to it in media res. Wherever you enter the stream, it’s bewildering: maybe your hometown team has a player you fall in love with, and then you learn who his teammates are, and then you think they’re amazing, but then you find out they’re fine but not nearly as good as some other players on some other teams and then before you know it, you mystically know a ton of basketball players. But these guys were all there when you got there. You inherited them.
When I got into basketball, I found Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett, but LeBron James was the first player I saw approach the league from a great distance, first on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, then on ESPN when they televised a high school game (A HIGH SCHOOL GAME!) between James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and Carmelo Anthony’s Oak Hill Academy, then going first overall in the NBA draft and then his debut in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Sacramento Kings. I had to walk from my apartment to downtown South Norwalk, Connecticut, to watch that game at a Tex-Mex restaurant and bar because we didn’t get ESPN.
My roommate at the time couldn’t see what the hype was about. He’d seen Michael Jordan and here was this kid, this 18-year-old boy with a half-formed game. What was there to get excited about?
I didn’t care. The year before, the number one pick had been Yao Ming, who was definitely giant, but not exactly exciting. The year before that it had been Kwame Brown. The year before that I had barely been paying attention, but 2003 was going to be my chance to get in on the ground floor, to see a possible all-time great’s career through from beginning to end.
And look how far it’s come.
With last night’s win against the Golden State Warriors to force a Game 7, LeBron James became just the fifth player since 1964 to score 40-plus points in back-to-back games in the NBA Finals. The others are Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. James also accomplished that feat in back-to-back elimination games. No team has come back to win the Finals after being down 3-1, and of the 32 teams that have tried, only two have forced a Game 7. The Cavaliers just became the third.
To call James’ career a roller coaster is an understatement. From an early trip to the Finals and eventual destruction at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, to Cleveland’s repeated attempts to provide the right supporting cast (admit it: you forgot he played – actually played – with Shaq), to The Decision, to disappointment and triumph in Miami, to Coming Home, to coming up short against the Warriors last year, James has traversed an incredible amount of territory and we’ve gotten to watch it all.
It’s ridiculous to see the grainy, standard-def quality of his first games and realize that James has spanned the gap from broadcast cable to League Pass, from video tape highlight reels to YouTube mixtapes, from AOL subscription CDs to Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Periscope and everything else. All that, and yet somehow it’s hard not to see him perform like he has the last two games and feel a lurch in your stomach, a sudden panic that even if you’ve been watching the whole time you’ve somehow not seen enough. That you’ve missed it.
Prior to the start of the Finals, there was talk of legacy – because talk of legacy is always there when it comes to James. Some predicted the Cavaliers wouldn’t get a game off of the Warriors. What would it mean if James fell to 2-5 in the Finals? What would it say about his decision to return to Cleveland? And on and on and on.
It’s not time to mock the doubters. With Game 7 in Oakland, the Cavaliers still have a formidable mountain to climb if they want to bring a championship home to Cleveland for the first time since the Mesozoic Era. It’s possible his sterling play in these last two games is eventually washed away by history, that they become just two points on the map of his career. But I don’t want them to.
It seems crazy to think that a career can pass so quickly and, certainly, James’ is far from over. But the end is out there somewhere, just as the beginning was for those of us who could see it coming, and there’s a particular weight to seeing the end of something you saw from the start. More and more I’m reminded of that weight as I see James trailing the fast break to catch a J.R. Smith lob for an alley-oop, or else stick with the play to block the stuffing out of Steph Curry and then scowl him down.
A Cavaliers win on Sunday would finish off a historic upset and a historic comeback. If James has another performance like the ones he had in Games 5 and 6, it would be historic. But history’s being written all the time in both big and small ways, in both successes and failures. It’s human nature to look ahead and try to figure out how we’re going to view what we’re seeing right now in the future, but it’s worth remembering that we’re seeing it right now. It’s worth being there for it.