“… and I want my damn respect too.” – Lebron James. That line, delivered with an edge and ferocity that we don’t usually associate with Lebron James’ off-court persona, said volumes about his focus on leaving a legacy. 4 championships, 4 Finals MVP’s with 3 different teams. 8 straight NBA Finals (10 total appearances), 4 league MVP’s and two gold medals. He’s first all-time in playoff minutes played (10,769), points scored (7,463) and wins (172) and every year he adds to those numbers. Lebron’s statistics are so overwhelming that even a life-long hater like myself has to concede that he’s at least pulled within striking distance of Michael Jordan. He’s the 2020 NBA Finals MVP and he’s not done. Mark Jackson said it best: “greatest professional career in the history of basketball.”
I hate that I’m writing this right now. I hate that the Lakers tied my Celtics for the most Championships in NBA history with Lebron James at the helm. Yet underneath all that hate, I have to give my respect. We are witnessing greatness and as a basketball fan, I’d have to be an idiot not to recognize it. The things Lebron does on a basketball court are insane. Yet he makes them look commonplace. During these playoffs, he’s averaging 27.6ppg, 10.6rpg, and 8.7apg at 35 years old in his 17th year in the NBA. Lebron isn’t going anywhere anytime soon either. As we witnessed his 4th championship on Sunday, I started to think about how long he’s tormented me. Tormented me and my Celtics specifically. And his 2020 NBA Finals MVP was just the latest dagger.
I talked a lot of shit between the years of 2008-2010. I’m a huge Celtics fan and the date June 17, 2008, has been a singular moment in my mind for the last 12 years. That 17th Celtic championship filled me with so much pride and confidence. I thought it would last forever. Once Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston, I knew we were a powerhouse that not even Lebron James’ ascendance could stop. For three glorious seasons, that was true.
In 2008, the Celtics beat Cleveland and Lebron in 7 games in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. In 2010, they beat them in 6. My favorite memory from 2010 is the image of Lebron James walking off the court at TD Garden in defeat while taking his Cleveland jersey off for the last time (or so we thought). I loved it. I said things like “he can’t get it done” or “he’s soft” or most damning: “he doesn’t have it in him.” However, I failed to remember Lebron dropping a 27/19/10 triple-double or the Cavs playing Mo Williams 46 minutes that night. Of course, I remember that slow walk off the court though.
Then Miami happened. Lebron and Chris Bosh joined Dwayne Wade in South Beach and my revelry was over. I just didn’t know it yet. I was still riding high. Rondo was playing great, the big three still had “it” and my Celtics were in the running for a championship every year. “Lebron’s a loser”, “he chokes in big moments”…. blah blah blah… Young Sean was running his mouth. Sure enough, the Heatles lost that first finals in 2011. I was vindicated. However, I failed to see the writing on the wall when they whooped my Celtics in 5 games a round earlier.
2012 Eastern Conference Finals
2012 was really the year my confidence was shattered. Allow me to take you back in time and set the scene. The Eastern Conference Finals started with Miami winning their two home games and Boston winning theirs; 2-2. Game 5 was set up as the “pivotal game.” I still remember talking about it with my dad saying if we win this game, the series is ours. The Celtics came through in stunning fashion winning the game. Everything I said about Lebron was true.
Then this happened. 45 points, 15 boards on 73%(!!!) shooting all while making the face you see below at me and every other cocky Celtics fan throughout the nation. Lebron and the Heat went on to win Game 7 (a blowout victory…) and the Celtics went out with a whimper as my favorite childhood team died right in front of me.
Lebron and the Heat would win that 2012 championship over the Thunder. They would win the following year over the Spurs in spectacular fashion before finally losing in 2014 to that same Spurs team. By this time, my Celtics were in full rebuild. Lebron had his two rings but they felt tainted. Lebron’s legacy was far from “glowing.” Regardless of whether or not Lebron heard that criticism, he went back to Cleveland to bring a championship to his hometown.
Lebron was on a mission when he went back to Cleveland. Pairing up with a young Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, those Cavalier teams were dangerous and hard to beat. It had been 5 years since Lebron had last ripped my heart out. I suppose I was due for a bit more. Lebron and his Cavs swept my Celtics in 2015, beat us in the Conference Finals in 2017 and won a devastating 7 game series in 2018. During that time, Lebron got his championship for Cleveland and pretty much solidified his status as the best player the NBA had ever seen not named Michael Jordan. Lebron’s detractors will talk about the Finals losses but the performances he put forth in those battles with Golden State are the stuff of legends.
When Lebron announced he was going to the Lakers, I was relieved. Sure, he was going to a team that I’ve hated since the moment I was born but at least he was out of the East. At least my Celtics had a shot to make the Finals now. I also saw it as a retirement plan. Lebron knew his run of greatness was coming to an end. Why not do it in Los Angeles? I never thought we would be hailing Lebron as the 2020 NBA Finals MVP with the Lakers. I should have known better.
We can’t take Lebron’s greatness for granted. What we are witnessing is not only one of the best to ever play the game of basketball but also one of the best athletes to ever live. When thinking of Lebron’s legacy, it’s his consistency and longevity that will stick out as the years pass. For example, I was a senior in high school when my Celtics beat him in ‘08. I’m now a 30-year-old man watching him do the same shit that he’s been doing since he walked into the league in 2003. The 2020 NBA Finals MVP proved me wrong yet again.
I am a Witness
While the pain of defeat he’s caused me was terrible, I can’t say I’m not grateful to have seen this run happen in real-time. I am a witness! I’m going to tell my kids and grandkids I saw this guy. I’m going to tell stories of how I choked on my chicken wings watching him beat my Celtics in a dorm room in ’12; how I witnessed him make history while sitting in a San Francisco bar (surrounded by Warriors fans) in ’16. I’ll even tell them about the devastation I felt when my Celtics lost game 7 while I watched from a tiny bar TV at my best friend’s wedding in ’18. Lebron James’ career is embedded in my basketball fandom for better or worse.
Don’t mistake this for a eulogy on Lebron’s career though. The man is still going strong (shit, he was the 2020 NBA Finals MVP) and now he’s got a 6’11 game-breaker with a unibrow running beside him. A guy who’s in the prime of his career no less. Lebron James ain’t done yet. I can only hope that my Celtics get another chance at him. Lebron may never be the unanimous GOAT but he’s put himself in the conversation. I’m a witness and I got nothing but respect for Lebron James.
Written by Sean Curley