Our lives are separated into stages. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. In each of these stages we learn important lessons — how to walk, talk, pick up girls, get a good deal on a car, save money, when a woman is about to slap you, when someone is and isn’t a rebound after a bad relationship, and so on.
Some things can be learned by observing other people. For instance, I’ll never bungee jump in my life. I’ve seen it done. It’s looks awfully terrifying, and I won’t do it. You can’t make me. No. I said ‘no.’ STOP INVITING ME TO YOUR BUNGEE JUMPING PARTIES!
However, other experiences are best learned by going through them ourselves. How would we ever know what it’s like to be in love? Or what it’s like when someone close to us dies? Or the feeling of earning that first paycheck at a new job? There’s no way to really understand all the feelings and lessons of those and countless other things if we don’t experience them.
This makes me think of LeBron James. When he came into the NBA, he was only 18 years old, but made an instant impact on his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the league as well. In four short years, he was in the NBA Finals getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs — a tough basketball and life lesson for him, I can imagine. After some more time and development as a player and person, he decided to leave Cleveland for Miami. We’ll never forget it. Instead of just telling his team that he would be taking his talents to South Beach like a mature person, he chose to listen to the wrong people and make a spectacle out of his departure. Thus, The Decision happened, and many NBA fans took to hating LeBron, including myself (Although, I already didn’t like him much. The Decision certainly didn’t help things).
After four years, four Finals and two titles, LeBron did what everybody thought was a possibility but never really thought would happen: he left the Heat and went back home to Cleveland. This time, his decision was executed with class in form of an essay posted on SI.com. No television special, no sponsors, no douchebaggery. It was refreshing to see James take the high road, especially saying in his essay that one of the reasons he was going back to the Cavs was because he felt he owed it to the city, that his life was bigger than basketball. Not many players say those kinds of things anymore. His words echo the sentiments of transcendent players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, and other legendary players who are great players, but seem to understand that basketball isn’t all there is. These three players are also lifers on their respective teams. If it weren’t for that stint in Miami, LeBron would also be one of the few who stuck around with a team for his entire career, becoming not only the best player the franchise has ever seen, but a fixture in the community for decades after his playing career was over.
So now that he’s officially back with the Cavs, he asked his fans via Instagram what number he should wear this upcoming season. He gave fans two choices: 23 or 6. The 23 was, as we all know, the number he wore in his seven years in Cleveland. And 6 was what he wore in Miami and Team USA (something I was unaware of before I writing this column: LeBron was actually going to change his number to 6 before he decided to leave Cleveland). The reason for his choosing number 6 was twofold: it’s the same number he wore for Team USA and during practice, and he wanted to respect Michael Jordan, who wore 23 for the majority oh his career.
Speaking of MJ, I just want to make this point. There are many NBA insiders who have said there will never be another MJ. Others (and even some of the same ones) have said LeBron is the closet thing to Jordan. Others have said it’s Kobe who is heir to His Airness’ throne. So which is it?
I’ve thought a lot about this, and it just dawned on me: it’s LeBron. Of course it’s LeBron. Now before you violently click the X button on your internet browser and throw your laptop across the room, hear me out for a second. In terms of how the game is played, yes, Kobe is the closest thing to Jordan. Everyone with eyes and a YouTube account can figure that out. But that’s not all MJ was. When it comes to how Jordan won and how many times in how many categories, there will probably never be another MJ. However, LeBron is getting close with four MVP trophies to MJ’s six.
Here’s the kicker: neither LeBron or MJ suffered a truly career-staining incident. Their on- and off-the-court lives have been pretty much clean. Yes, Jordan had his gambling, his golf games on days he had to play basketball and so on, but you don’t really think of that when looking back at Jordan’s career. With LeBron, the one thing he did that would qualify as potentially putting a bad mark on his entire career was The Decision, but his return to Cleveland — and the way he announced it — probably made up for about 95 percent of what he did when he left for Miami in 2010.
Kobe, on the other hand, had the whole sexual assault incident. I’ll talk to some of my friends about Kobe, and many times they’ll drop a “rapist” comment or joke about it, as if that mistake a decade ago had anything to do with basketball legacy. But — and as a huge Kobe fan, it pains me to say this — it does. People don’t just remember public figures for how they do their jobs, but also for how they live their lives.
As great as Kobe is, his career won’t be mentioned without that incident and the resulting court case coming coming up in conversation. And that’s what sets him apart from LeBron and MJ. No amount of titles can erase that part of Kobe’s career, much like Metta World Peace jumping into the stands at the Malace at the Palace did for his image after that incident. That’s partly why Ron Artest changed his name to World Peace — it tied him to that melee for the rest of career.
Bryant changed his number from 8 to 24 two years after the charges of his case were dropped. By that time, his teams had been eliminated in the playoffs a couple of times, and in a way, resembled a new Kobe. A year after he donned the number 24, the Lakers got Pau Gasol via trade, and the Lakers made the Finals. The next two years, the team won back-to-back championships. Kobe said in a Q and A session that he chose 24 because it reminded him to take every day as it came, and he once took for granted all he was given. It was also his jersey number in high school before he wore 33, the same number as his father.
When fans think of Kobe, they think “The number 8 Kobe” and “The number 24 Kobe,” as if they’re two different people entirely. Similarly, when fans think of Jordan, they think “The Chicago Bulls MJ” and “The Washington Wizards MJ.” But what will fans think of when they think of LeBron? Pre-Decision vs. Post-Decision? That would make the most sense, and it coincides with the number change that eventually followed.
But with LeBron choosing to go back to the number 23, he misses an opportunity to show his fans and the city of Cleveland that he’s really changed. In his essay to Sports Illustrated, he said playing in Miami the past four years was like going to college, and if I’m not mistaken, college is when you grow up, gain an identity and become a different, better version of yourself. Shouldn’t LeBron have changed his number to reflect that? Why let yourself be tied down to The Decision? Changing his number would allow those watching — and maybe himself? — to tie his legacy into something more positive. “No, number 23 LeBron left Cleveland and pissed everyone off. But that number X LeBron, he’s a guy I want my kids to look up to.” Doesn’t that sound better? Doesn’t that mean more? It’s not just about the number. It’s about the person wearing the number.