The kid’s only 22. Easy to forget, isn’t it?
When I was 22 years old, I was pretty much a knucklehead. Not stupid, mind you, but a knucklehead. I was a freshly-minted college graduate with a degree in English, butwithout a clue. A school district was willing to pay me a whopping $19,000 to enlighten the minds of about 150 seventh graders and I jumped on it.
It was a bit nerve-wracking those first few times at the front of the classroom. Twenty-five pairs of eyes upon my every move, listening intently to my every word, six times per day. The knowledge that one misidentified predicate noun on the chalkboard would result in 25 giggles from the gallery and a world of embarrassment for the new teacher was more daunting than I ever would have admitted at the time.
Imagine 25 pairs of eyes, multiplied by one million. Imagine the knowledge that one missed jump shot, one missed free throw, one turnover … would result in 25 million taunts from the gallery and that you weren’t allowed to be embarrassed by it.
I think we all need to put ourselves back in the wayback machine from time to time just to give us a little perspective. Maybe when we recall our own minute struggles under pressure at that tender age, we’ll be able to more fully understand and appreciate the difficulty that must come with being LeBron James.
With the possible exceptions of Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, no superstar athlete has had to endure the expectations James has faced at such a young age, nor has any superstar ever been more graceful and accommodating in meeting them. Anointed as “The Chosen One” while still in high school and crowned “King James” before cashing his first professional paycheck, James has been asked to be a hybrid superstar that combines the greatest traits of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson all rolled into one. Not when he reaches his prime in four or five years — but now. At 22.
Michael won six titles, Kid, how many you got? None? Then you ain’t Jordan.
Magic won a title as a rookie, Kid, how ’bout you? No? Then you ain’t Magic.
Oscar averaged a triple double for a season, Kid. You? Fuhgettaboutit.
I’ve read or heard every one of those statements over the course of these NBA playoffs from one critic or another. And you can bet that LeBron’s heard them too. Yet he says nothing. Would anyone blame him if he asked the media where his Scottie Pippen, his Horace Grant and his Dennis Rodman were before they compare his performance to M.J.’s? I wouldn’t.
Would anyone blame him if he reminded us that Magic won his rookie title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy running alongside him, as opposed to Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden? Me neither.
Would you fault him for pointing out that he and Robertson are the only two players in league history to average 27 points, six rebounds and six assists for three consecutive years? Not for a second.
And would you think any less of him if he, just once, pointed out that he’s only 22? That he has barely even tapped into his own limitless ability? Nope.
Yet the critics were not kind following James’ 14 point performance in his team’s Game 1 loss to the Spurs. Seems we’re all expecting his first foray into the Finals to be otherworldly, despite being on severely out-talented team, playing in the home arena of a team that has won three of the last seven NBA championships. Seems the same critics who were unanimous in their praise of the Herculean 48 point explosion against the Pistons in the conference finals are ready to knock the crown off the King’s head already.
LeBron James is not Michael and he is not Magic. But if you watch the rest of the Finals with an open mind, along with many more Finals appearances that will follow, you’ll come to realize that LeBron’s game contains elements of both — and may be even more fun to watch than either.
But for now, remember: He’s only 22.
Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail himat firstname.lastname@example.org.