I don't watch much NBA regular-season basketball. I'm not sure who does, with the exception of David Stern, Bill Simmons, Jack Nicholson and my friends at Slam magazine. Me? If I'm going to spend an hour absorbing something mindless and haphazard, I prefer Chris Matthews.
For the most part, the NBA regular season is a frustrating and defeatist exercise: It is 10 incredibly muscular and athletic men engaging in a glorified rec center pick-up game for 40 minutes, before 2 or 3 of the best dudes on each side choose to actually pick up their feet and play defense and engage in isolated games of one-on-one down the stretch. Sometimes, this lethargy carries over to the playoffs, which explains why one team can suddenly make up a 28-point deficit in the course of seven minutes. In no sport I can think of is the lack of effort such a glaringly obvious--and tacitly accepted--part of the game.
I don't think LeBron James can change this entire culture by himself. But I watched the Cavaliers dismantle the Hawks last night, and what was enlightening about it--what feels different (and strangely disconcerting) about watching the Cavaliers play--is that they actually seem to be playing hard all the time. They chase after loose balls. They throw the extra pass. They take charges (even LeBron, who saved what would have been an otherwise simple alley-oop dunk by stepping in on the passer at the last possible moment). "If the newly crowned MVP is willing to hit the court [and that often hurts] like an undrafted free agent trying to make the team -- it tells everyone else to follow his lead," wrote Terry Pluto. "Later in the first half, 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas hit the court twice for loose balls. Remember, this is the same Ilgauskas who had five foot surgeries in his career."
I think that's what could wind up being most unique about the Age of LeBron (which certainly feels as if its glorious arrival is upon us). More than any other player in the modern history of basketball--moreso even than Michael Jordan--LeBron has a way of making his teammates care, of eliciting the kind of effort that seems almost anachronistic. Jordan accomplished this by being a taskmaster--and often, by being an absolute jerk--but we accepted this, because this was Michael's way, and it worked for him.*
But with LeBron, these things occur organically, given his natural tendency to pass before shooting, given his genial (and often outright goofy) persona. He can be dominant and still somehow be utterly likeable. I'm not sure if we've seen anyone like that in the modern age, with the possible exception of Magic Johnson. And--while I hope against hope that LeBron will somehow be powerful enough to cajole his peers, as well as the next generation of Lil LeBrons, into revolutionizing the NBA--I'm not sure we will ever see anything like this again.
*Kobe, of course, came of age the Era of Jordan, and therefore mimicked Jordan's domineering style. This is why Kobe was not very likeable, even before that, um, thing happened.