I never got to see Babe Ruth up at bat in a baseball game, watch Jesse Owens run and jump, or cheer as Jim Brown carried the football on a sweep . . . but I am getting to watch LeBron James play basketball.
Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so spectacularly gifted that they break all the records, bust through every preconceived notion, and change their sport and the expectations about it in fundamental ways. Babe Ruth singlehandedly turned baseball from a bunt and steal, scratch for a run, “small ball” game to one in which home run hitters and big innings were what brought fans to the ballparks. Jesse Owens set records that lasted for decades and thumbed his nose at Hitler and his racist notions about a “master race” while doing so. Jim Brown crushed every NFL rushing record then in existence and was such a dominant player, in size, speed, and power, that he is probably one of the few NFL players of his era who actually could have played, and starred, in the modern league.
And, then, there is LeBron James. He hasn’t had quite the same impact on his sport as Ruth, Owens, and Brown, because he’s working against a much longer history of NBA players — but he’s still steadily moving up the all-time records lists, routinely scoring 30+ points in the playoff games when the challenges are the greatest, and winning, winning, winning, wherever he plays. He’s probably not going to catch Bill Russell or Michael Jordan when it comes to winning championships, or score the most points every year, but in every game he is the dominant player and, to use Reggie Jackson’s phrase, the “straw that stirs the drink.”
And, speaking as a non-athlete, it’s pretty amazing to watch a barrel-chested, 6-foot-8, 270-pound man who can run like a deer, jump out of the gym, dunk from the free-throw line, shoot three-pointers, and block shots from the cheap seats. He’s basically unguardable, and he imposes his will on every contest. Watching LeBron James play is simply an awesome spectacle.
Let’s not engage in petty arguments about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, or worry about whether LeBron’s team wins the championship every year. Let’s just savor the fact that we’ve got an athlete for the ages in our midst, and we’re lucky enough to watch him work his magic in real time.