(This is moderately off-topic, but in light of the NBA Finals starting this evening, and the fact that our owner will likely be mentioned a dozen times every night, I decided to persevere.)
An individual's reasons for becoming a professional athlete are as varied as those for any other profession. Some see it as an extremely lucrative business opportunity; others view it as a way to fame and celebrity. Some view it as a way to escape the horrors of their past, and some want to use it to save their families from the same horrors. Some, even, view it simply as the job they're best suited for- one they've been born into merely by virtue of being tall, or strong, or fast.
Yet, there is a precious few for whom becoming a professional athlete is something more. To them, being great isn't just about money, or jewelry, or even championships. For these few, it's about the chance to live forever. If one is truly transcendent at their craft, if they've done something immensely and uniquely special, they become unstuck from time and exist not simply corporeally, but also in the consciousness of society, the clouds of cyberspace, and the written records of mankind. Their greatness moves beyond the temporal and into the infinite.
On occasion, you might spot the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats courtside at Time Warner Cable Arena. Usually looking like an inflated Steve Jobs in a black Hanes t-shirt and jeans, he'll sit and watch a game he has forever changed. He'll see his silhouette on players shoes, his jersey on fans in the stands, and his face on the video games advertised on the jumbotron. And yet, the silhouette and that face are not the same ones sitting in the collapsible chair on the hardwood. The slender dunk-artist is dislodged from the individual, and exists as something more than a person can ever be. And Michael knows this. He's no longer the player who shifted the paradigm of the sport, but is instead an owner trying to rebuild his reputation. This Michael Jordan doesn't stick his tongue out, sweat Gatorade, or play ball with the Looney Toons. He signs papers and plays golf.
Right now, at this moment, LeBron James is getting ready for the most important 4-7 games of basketball in his life. The stakes for his team are the highest they have ever been. If they fail to secure a championship, the Heat, as they are currently built, will cease to exist. Someone will be traded, the coach might be fired, or any combination of events could occur to reinvent the Heat as something new. More specifically to LeBron, however, the notion that he lacks something necessary to win will persevere if he loses, as will the backlash to such a notion, and the inevitable bickering between the columnists and blog-sters over what it means to truly be "clutch".
We cannot know what goes on in his mind. We can guess that he quit on the Cavs in Game 5, that he choked under the pressure of 2011, or that he pulled it all together for one, amazing "fuck you" game 5 against the Celtics last week. These are guesses. We can't know for certain. Our clues are limited to enigmatic post-game interviews, reports from locker room "sources", and his clear passion for the Hunger Games trilogy. Does he hear the criticism of his game? Does he care?
Say what you will about Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame speech, but it reaffirmed what we all thought about him. As he rattled off a litany of people who wronged him, who didn't believe in him, or who motivated him, you saw a man with a pathological need to beat others. He ridiculed the poor guy who beat him out for the last slot on the varsity team, he insulted Jeff Van Gundy, and he even said he felt bad for his kids because they had to live up to his greatness. For Michael, the curse of immortality is living to see someone greater than yourself surpass you. He feels threatened by LeBron because for the first time in his life, he's powerless to stop him.
Tonight is the first chapter of the second book of LeBron James. In the last book, he rose to prominence, left his hometown for the excitement of doing something never done before, and ultimately failed to achieve it in a pretty spectacular way. Now, tonight, something new is beginning. Whatever the outcome, surely none of us will ever forget what we saw. LeBron is a great player, but the distance between great and immortal is staggering. Tonight, LeBron gets his shot to live forever.
I have no doubt that Michael will be watching.