The Loneliness of LeBron James

This article originally appeared on this site.

Despite his incredible gifts,there has always been something of the Man of Sorrows about LeBron James.Despite his incredible gifts,there has always been something of the Man of Sorrows about LeBron James.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ / AP

The first two games of the N.B.A. finals matchup, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, were nothing, really, to remember for long. In the first game, the Warriors, led by Kevin Durant—whose change of uniforms, from the Oklahoma Thunder’s electric blue to the bright yellow of the Warriors, still disorients me from time to time—coasted to a merry, almost tossed-off trouncing, beating the Cavs by twenty-two points that looked like they could have been forty. Cleveland’s defense, which has been questionable all season, was to blame: LeBron and company couldn’t figure out how to guard Stephen Curry at the three-point line—the site of so much of his freewheeling demolition—and simultaneously pay attention to the painted area near the net. The result was a flurry of unworried fast-break dunks and layups for Durant, who, once limber, showed off the other aspects of his game—a slick, subtle stutter-step here, a blasé three-pointer there. The best thing about watching Durant play is his utter ease on the court. His much-vaunted scoring efficiency is more than simply statistical; he never seems to move his wispy body a flicker more than is absolutely necessary. At his best, he looks half-asleep. In Game 1, this effortlessness was a model for his entire team: for most of the night, the Warriors floated more than fought.

Durant was the brightest star on the court, but the brightest in the building was Rihanna. The pop star and fashion plate, seated courtside, at times provided more entertainment than the action on the floor. Once, on the way to her seat, she took a long, ostentatious bow in LeBron’s direction—her long-standing appreciation of the King is well documented—then stood for a moment, until someone behind her (reportedly a higher-up at Apple) shouted for her to sit down. In answer, she offered a curt, dismissive, almost dainty dab, forehead to elbow-crook, and, in her own pointed time, obliged. At another point, she shouted imprecations at Durant as he took a free throw; after it went through, he made a point of shooting her a look. He gave another glance, long and teasing, after making a three, then pretended not to remember this when questioned about it after the game. The N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, inadvertently served as Rihanna’s escort out of the arena (“Happy to play that role for her,” he said later), and she was caught shouting, “It doesn’t fucking matter!,” as a friend teased her about the Cavaliers’ loss. “The King is still the King,” she said, correctly.

The sideshow felt a bit like a metaphor for what, at least recently, has been the N.B.A.’s core cultural trait. The league keeps growing closer, sometimes to the point of dissolution, to the various realms that surround it: celebrity and art, marketing and hype, politics and current events. Since the league’s ascendance, in the nineteen-eighties, the rich and famous have made their presence felt on the sidelines. But Rihanna may be the first—give or take a Spike Lee special—to look like she might jump out onto the hardwood and try her hand at a possession or two.

LeBron is surely hoping for a different kind of intervention—divine, preferably. After another blowout loss for the Cavs in Game 2, 132–113, tonight’s game is a must-win—a daunting proposition against the Warriors, who have yet to lose in this year’s playoffs. The signature image of the first two games, and maybe of the entire post-season, is a picture of Curry, his face hidden by a towel, appearing to rest his eyes while lying on the floor near the Warriors’ bench. LeBron’s characteristic excellence notwithstanding—he is averaging a triple-double in the finals—the proceedings have been a snooze, and LeBron’s exploits, so far, a futile exercise.

Despite his incredible gifts, and attendant laurels of appreciation, there has always been something of the Man of Sorrows about LeBron. This is not—contra the writer and T.V. bombast Jason Whitlock—to label LeBron a “victim” but rather, simply, to observe that his accomplishments have never fully concealed the vulnerability that seems essential to his character. Unlike with Durant, we always see LeBron’s effort—mental, physical, societal, etc.—and this, in part, is the source for our interest in his game and in his person. Even when surrounded by an all-star cast of his own—Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor, Rihanna on the sidelines—he always seems strangely alone.

This was driven home just before the series began, when an unidentified bigot sprayed the word “nigger” in unsteady letters—these types never have good penmanship, I’ve noticed—across the gate outside LeBron’s home, in Los Angeles. Luckily, LeBron’s wife and children were away, and no one was hurt, but the encroachment has cast a shadow—at least for me—on the action of the imbalanced series so far. The incident, which prompted Whitlock’s ridiculous criticism of LeBron, is the latest in a series of sadly timely real-world intrusions into the N.B.A. in recent years. Two playoffs ago, during the hottest days of the ongoing struggle against unaccountable police violence, the Atlanta Hawks swingman Thabo Sefolosha had his leg broken by the N.Y.P.D., during what seemed, in the first place, to be a frivolous arrest. Sefolosha sued the N.Y.P.D. and, earlier this year, arrived at a four-million-dollar settlement. More recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter has had his life upended by his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kanter was briefly held in Romania, after his Turkish passport was abruptly cancelled, and his father—who had previously publicly disowned him—was reportedly detained in Turkey last week.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s ascension to the Presidency has given coaches such as Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich the opportunity to deliver mini-sermons excoriating the new Administration’s policy orientation and abrasive demeanor. Unlike the N.F.L., which has apparently decided to excommunicate Colin Kaepernick on grounds of heresy, the Silver-led N.B.A. has developed a knack for folding these extracurricular worries into its own narrative fabric. LeBron’s press conference about the vandalism was no different. He didn’t say anything groundbreaking—racism still exists, was the message in miniature—but the wider basketball community of executives, coaches, players, and reporters all cheered him on, seemingly eager to have his words stand in for the league’s self-conscious multicultural liberalism. It was proof, maybe, of the N.B.A.’s growing confidence as a purveyor of more than simply sport: absent drama on the court, it found, even in a nasty occurrence, a story to tell.