LeBron James does not have a filter. He says what’s on his mind, a reflection as much of his intelligence and knowledge of the topics he chooses to dissect as of his confidence in his words. He’s not always right, of course; no one is. Nonetheless, his capacity to speak his mind and willingness — desire, even — to be challenged informs his actions. He dares all and sundry to prove him wrong, and, in their subsequent failure, basks in the validation it brings. Meanwhile, he uses their doubts as fuel for his fire; in his relentless pursuit of excellence and, by extension, approbation, he first courts criticism.
Indeed, James thrives in the dichotomy. Being told that he can’t do and be what he wants to is precisely what drives him to succeed. The talent and skill sets have always been there, admittedly, but, in his particular case, they come with a passion for perfection that is motivated by malediction. He has long been the most scrutinized athlete in the world; his exploits on the court are alternately revered and reviled, subject to intense scrutiny in an effort to find examples to prove an already-formed opinion of him. He then injects his own without prompting, all too aware of the power of the reactions to prod him to progress.
Taken in this context, James’ declaration that he’s the Greatest of All Time in his sport cannot but be deemed par for the course. He said it in the latest episode of a series his venture developed and co-produced with broadcasting giant ESPN, in the company of friends ostensibly to indicate that these were his private thoughts but with complete understanding of its purpose for public consumption. And, on surface, it isn’t that he’s mistaken in his assessment. After all, the 2016 Warriors were, by any advanced metric, historically without peer on both ends of the court, and yet he proceeded to beat them by stringing together masterful performances and leading the vast-underdog Cavaliers to the championship.
“That’s what I felt,” James argued. “I was like: That one right there made you the greatest player of all time.” If nothing else, his contention was backed by developments; down one and three in the Finals, he put up back-to-back 40-point games to force a clincher, and then, on the road, a triple-double to give his home state its first professional sports championship in 52 years. That said, not a few quarters have taken issue with his belief, as well as with his hubris in daring to declare it. For all his accomplishments, critics noted, he could have simply waited for other quarters from far more objective vantage points to draw the conclusion.
James isn’t stupid, so he surely knew that his estimation, biases and all, would raise heck. Why further incur the ire of naysayers, then? Why make it harder for casual observers to accept his body of work in the face of his prideful declaration? The answer is as clear as it was back in high school, when he first sought to emerge from the imposing shadow cast by idol Michael Jordan: It pushes him to do more. Even more — at 34, and already with 15 years’ worth of achievements that firmly nets him at least a Top Two standing in pro hoops annals.
Truth to tell, James can bid goodbye to his day job and just enjoy the fruits of his labor. Basketball no longer defines him. He’s an entertainment heavyweight, an influential figure who moves needles in political and social issues, an accomplished entrepreneur with diverse ventures and interests, a giant in every sense of the word. But he doesn’t. Every day, he hones his craft, outworking those around him and, in the process, defying age. Why? Because he can. Because he is who he is. The greatest player of all time? Ask him. He knows.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.