National

LeBron James flat-out wrong in rewriting history after 40,000-point achievement

In dorm rooms and common areas on college campuses across the country, students congregated to watch LeBron James’ first professional basketball game some 21 years ago.

Shockingly, as he scored his first two points on a baseline jumper in Sacramento, there were no boos — at least not to recollection.

James has amazing recall, and even while he claims he couldn't have predicted his NBA career could turn out as it has — the 40,000 points, the championships, the moments forever etched in our brains — he seems to recall people rooting for him to fail.

Perhaps he read the first page of his hater-ography but didn’t go beyond it because that simply isn’t true.

James has every right to marvel at himself, his excellence and longevity, but it’s a bit disingenuous to paint things this way and it’s beneath him. It diminishes all the great things he’s done.

Will the LeBron haters from 2003 please stand up?

Oh, nobody but a few? That hardly registers.

The man was must-see TV, on magazine covers from the age of 16, selected as “next” and the “first.” His high school games were on ESPN, and he had Nike and Adidas clamoring for him to take their money and be the face of their respective basketball machines.

Following the Lakers' loss to Denver on Saturday in which James became the only member of the 40,000-point club, he was prompted with a question so many have been asked: What would you tell your younger self?

“I wouldn't tell him anything, honestly,” James said. “Besides my family and my friends and my city and some people in my city … everybody wanted to see me fail when I got to the league. Everybody was just like, ‘There's no way he's gonna be able to exceed the expectations that's put upon him.’”

Now, if James is saying people thought the expectations were too momentous for him or anyone to fulfill, that’s one thing. But saying only the small people in his circle wanted him to succeed, that's a fallacy.

Nike didn’t hand him $90 million, a great shoe and a subsequent campaign with comedian Bernie Mac, Hall of Famers Jerry West, Moses Malone and so many others because it wanted him to fail. Neither did the people who purchased that very shoe, the Nike Zoom Generation, or those who filled sold-out arenas as he began his trek to this very place — a short list of the greatest players we’ve ever seen.

People go to those arenas not to say, “Man, I watched this overhyped nobody once upon a time.” They go to tell their kids, “Remember when we saw this once-in-a-lifetime player when he came to town?”

You don’t go to concerts to watch bad shows, you go to be supremely entertained, and James has always been that — an entertainer.

And there’s something communal about this, wanting to be part of history. So many James fans are just that because they want their own Michael Jordan, their own Magic and Bird. There’s an entire segment of media planting their flags on that very notion.

In 2003, there was no Twitter, no Instagram, no immediate access to the board of governors of haters we see today, people who hide behind fake pictures, sunglasses or even the American flag. The access to information wasn’t plentiful, and while there were certainly a share of people who felt the hype was too much, it seems like it stopped there.

Yes, Michael Jordan had just retired after a two-year stint with the Washington Wizards, so there was a bit of a vacuum. Kobe Bryant’s reputation was in tatters because of rape allegations that would follow him through the entire season.

Stephen Curry wasn’t on the map yet, neither was Kevin Durant.

The basketball economy couldn’t afford for James to be a failure, the future of the game and its popularity was at stake. It didn’t need a hero, but it needed something authentic, someone who could live up to some level of expectations and be a possible torch bearer, not a singular one.

He just happened to be better from Day 1 than what most foresaw.

James certainly picked up haters along the way, and he made believers out of folks, too. His early failures, of making the “right play” instead of the best one, caused critics to lament that he wasn't Jordan or Bryant— but nobody denied his talent.

Going to Miami and starting the SuperFriends trend was definitely criticized, especially in the wake of the playoff meltdowns in Cleveland, so public tenor changed on him a bit. If he’s referring to his early days in Miami, where he had to wear the villain hat, he’s absolutely right — there were folks wanting him to fall flat on his face.

But he was already some eight years into his career, and had he retired before winning his first ring in 2012 he would’ve been a no-doubt Hall of Famer then, so it doesn’t feel like that’s what he was referring to. Especially considering by that point, once he turned his back on Cleveland, Cleveland turned its back on him.

He had more fans outside his home region than in it, more people wanting the villain to win than they did when he was the hometown hero the first go-round.

People were annoyed and skeptical when he handed over his growing businesses and influence to friends Rich Paul and Maverick Carter. And he certainly rankled the traditional system with that, but that is so micro in the basketball world it wouldn’t register enough with fans to make a real ripple to make the masses hate him. And again, that was years into his career.

Opinions have shifted on James so much over 20 years, and those who want to elevate him past Jordan in the GOAT debate are getting things a bit confused. He’s been knocked and lauded for causes he’s spoken up for and those he’s stayed silent on.

Going back to Cleveland and winning that improbable 2016 title won him over with so many fans. At the very least, the segment who believed his greatness went but so far had to reconsider.

His Lakers journey has been somewhat mixed. Winning a championship matters, even if it happened in unusual settings like the Orlando bubble. But the Lakers have also been closer to the bottom of the West standings since his 2018 arrival than the top, and being a Laker demands excellence, especially in the aftermath of Bryant’s untimely passing.

The constant drama around James can be exhausting. It’s always trade rumors, not enough help, the cryptic quotes after losses, and that can turn off fans. There’s even a sizable amount who believe there’s nothing compelling about James anymore, that he’s stayed on the stage far too long and should cede the oxygen to the next generation.

There are those who have their minds made up on this so-called GOAT debate, that no accomplishment borne out of longevity will change their views, given we tend to remember the best players at their absolute peak rather than how long they played at a reasonably high level.

But wanting him to fail back in 2003?

Nah, there were too many eager and curious folks in crowded residence halls who’ll say otherwise.