The average NBA player’s career lasts only 4.8 years, about the same time it takes for a drink packet to decompose or the lifespan of a guinea pig. Players who choose to endure the relentless mental pressure and physical pounding for 15 or 20 years are rare. Only seven NBA players have made it to 20 or more seasons, myself among them. Those of us who were still playing in our mid-30s faced the endless speculation about whether we were still fit enough, strong enough, and skilled enough to continue to be an imposing force in the game. Every news article or commentary about us was guaranteed to include the qualifier “for his age”. Ageing athletes are treated like terminally ill patients, with everyone speculating when our demise will finally come. LeBron James, 33 years old and finishing his 15th season, continues to break records, including my own all-time field goal postseason record, as he gets ready to play in his eighth straight NBA finals.
I often get asked about LeBron. How does his play now compare to when he was younger? How long can he keep playing? What does it take to stay in the game so long? Is he the best player who ever lived?
LeBron is a much better player today than he was when he was younger. Few can dispute that he was the catalyst who drove the Cavaliers to defeat the Celtics in the playoffs. Having that power isn’t just a matter of skill, it’s a willingness to take on the responsibility of rallying the team and of having the respect of the team as a leader, not just a player. Seizing that responsibility shows a man of confidence, maturity and inner strength. Earning the team’s respect shows a man who is knowledgeable about the game, dedicated to the team as a whole and cares about players as individuals. LeBron is a great individual player, but he’s an even greater team member. And that’s what wins championships.
Based on the fire inside him that we witnessed during the playoffs, LeBron could probably play another seven or eight seasons, during which time he might also break my record and become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. If he does, my reaction will be the same as when he broke my postseason scoring record: good for him. Any time someone breaks a record, everyone benefits because the limits of what a person can accomplish have been nudged just a little further. The real question isn’t can he, but will he want to continue playing that long. He has nothing left to prove to himself or anyone else. If he walked away today, he would still be considered one of the finest players in history.
Playing professional sports in your mid- to late-30s is not for the faint-hearted. As The Eagles say in After the Thrill Is Gone: “Half the distance takes you twice as long”. When I played at that age, I had to make a conscious effort to stay in shape all year round. I lifted weights for strength, jumped rope for cardio-vascular, and practiced yoga for flexibility. Younger players might be able to fall off the training wagon during off-season, then jump into an intensive fitness regimen before the season to get back in playing shape. That doesn’t work for older players. Will LeBron want to continue with that unrelenting routine for five to seven more years? Especially given the level of his achievements, his wealth, and his young children at home. His skills will eventually deteriorate and there is some nagging frustration at not being able to play at the level you used to, even if it’s at a higher level than most other players.
Fans love to speculate about who’s the greatest player ever. Is LeBron greater than Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant? Am I better than Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell? While this might be a fun pastime for fans and sports journalists, most players find this kind of alternate universe pondering to be fairly boring, somewhere along the lines of who would win in a fight: Hawkeye or Green Arrow? Aquaman or Sub-Mariner?
In sports, a player develops his style, his skills, his sensibilities based on the time period he grew up in. The way basketball is played today is different to what it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Then along come game innovators – whether players or coaches – and the sport evolves. LeBron is one of the best players now and his intelligent combination of team leadership, brawny lay-ups, dominating rebounding, and surgical passing is elevating the game to its next level. Just as Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and others did. In fact, for those paying attention to the playoffs: Bill Russell went to eight NBA finals in a row, and his teams won all eight.
Basketball may be the only sport in which fans are guaranteed to see an amazing feat of athleticism every minute or so. On Thursday, LeBron James will once again demonstrate why he deserves to be a living legend as he leads his team, regardless of whether they win or lose, further into greatness.
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