James' peers are not contemporaries but rather ghosts, so people compare him not to Parker and Durant and Duncan but to Michael Jordan. And it is probably worth noting today, despite our revisionist blindness, that we did this to Jordan once, too, saying he was a ball-hogging chucker who couldn't win the big one until, you know, he did ... at which point we soon turned him into a myth no one is allowed to approach without genuflecting. That was pre-social media, so there was more restraint and less bile than today, when James is covered like a modern-day Roger Maris chasing the legend of Micky Mantle, and with an undercurrent of the hostility we gave Muhammad Ali in a more racist and war-torn America. Those are the only two athletes who have ever known this kind of noise, and one of them is dead, and the other one is no longer able to speak about it.
Two championships and two gold medals have never bought an American sports hero less. James knows it, too, which is why he at once revealed to Michael Wilbon last week that he is the easiest piñata in sports and that he doesn't much care. Four years he has lived here. Four years. In a noisy world that has strengthened even the Bosh America loves to mock for his fragility. Maybe none of this matters. Maybe this is all mythologizing gibberish about nonsense intangibles. Maybe Duncan is even more immune after all these years, and his team hits a bunch of 3-pointers, and Miami spends another offseason surrounded by laughter and mocking. But, win or lose, this is something worth considering for those who love to hate and howl:
For four years now, James has been building these relationships in Miami, through failure and success, through unholy noise and through blessed quiet. He looks to his left, and he looks to his right in that locker room, and those are the only people who have endured and shared and understood the weight of this with him as the noise outside that room has lapped against their locker-room cocoon like ocean waves coming to shore. "Us against the world" can be an athletic cliché, but it is very real thing in the Heat's locker room, and his teammates have been the closest to him in more ways than one. When this is over this season, however it ends, the world's best basketball player will have a choice.
He can go out into the noise and find new men with whom to fight it.
Or he can stay with the ones with whom he has already conquered it.
This story also appears in the Miami Herald