John P. Lopez – Be Like LeBron: The one thing that makes King James the undisputed greatest

Feb 7, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) poses for photos with his sons Bronny and Bryce Maximus, daughter Zhuri, wife Savannah and mother Gloria after the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

John P. Lopez – Be Like LeBron: The one thing that makes King James the undisputed greatest

By John P. Lopez

The first time I met LeBron James was in February of 2004, at a shootaround before a Rockets-Cavaliers game at the Toyota Center.

He was 19-years-old. And worth about $190 million.

I had heard of him, sure. Who hadn’t? James was the Chosen One. He was signing autographs by eighth grade, on the cover of SLAM magazine by 10th grade, and on national TV by 11th. He had a local Akron cable station televise every one of his games and drove to school in a brand new Hummer. His star was so bright, and so many fans and media outlets wanted a piece of him, the school hired extra security and banned news outlets from the campus parking lots. AAU Tournament directors paid thousands of dollars to coaches and team directors, including travel expenses, to lure LeBron’s summer team to participate in their tournaments.

My first memory when I saw LeBron holding court with a handful of reporters that day in the Toyota Center seats remains vivid:

How is this kid going to survive?

It just seemed like it would all be too much to endure. I’d seen dozens of phenoms and purported superstars rocket to fame, only to buckle under so much pressure, so many demands, and so many of life’s temptations and pitfalls.

The lives of living legends too often end that way. In disgrace. In controversy, shame, and ignominy.

The thirst to always stay on top also tugs at those who have seen the top of the mountain. Too often, it ends in drug scandals, personal failures, and embarrassing falls from grace. The temptations of never being “off,” having millions of eyes on your every move, and raw gluttony also have led to personal abuse, broken marriages, addiction, and scandal.

Just in the past 20 seasons that LeBron has been in the NBA, we’ve seen so many seemingly perfect sports ascensions end in disgrace. Shocking disappointments and failures, even from those with the most carefully crafted images and protective entourages, litter the sportscape.

All those impeccable people we wanted our kids to idolize? All those perfect reputations and people of honor?

Say hello to Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova, Deshaun Watson, Phil Mickelson, Alex Rodriguez, Marion Jones, and so many others. Tainted stars, all. Victims of the life.

That’s not to say it’s not understandable on many levels. For most of us, it would take a team of lawyers, National Guardsmen, and people of the cloth to keep our lives from unraveling in one night, much less an entire lifetime under scrutiny.

Yet here we are, applauding LeBron James for becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, arguing about the greatest-ever, and ignoring the real reason James is the greatest of all time.

He’s never faltered.

Perhaps the most likely phenom-turned-megastar in sports history likely to fail or fall, LeBron has been nothing but an upstanding citizen, loyal husband, philanthropist, and unquestioned captain of industry. Sure, those who want to parse and pick nits can talk about something he said that rubbed the wrong way or maybe disagree with some choices. But controversy? Scandal? All those tempting things that surely stare him in the face on a daily basis? LeBron has walked the other way. He’s stayed on top. He’s raised a family. He’s never been implicated in any scurrilous event.

Some 19 years after that first visit, I still remember the first question I asked LeBron as he sat in front of television cameras and a handful of reporters. Even then, such a scene was a daily occurrence, in city after city after city. It could have grated and frayed nerves after just one season, much less 20.

I asked: What’s your favorite Bubblicious flavor?

James had just signed a $5 million endorsement deal with the chewing gum company, and I thought asking something different might lead to something other than stock answers.

With a combination of casual smile and gleam in his eye, James answered, “Green apple. And my favorite soda is Sprite, of course.”

Of course. Always looking out for the right endorsements. Always saying and doing the right thing – then, and now. He looked reporters in the eye and was polished and professional in every way. And he still is.

The debate on the greatest ever no doubt will rage on, scoring record or no scoring record. Who cares? Pick a side. LeBron, Michael.

But while there always will be something, anything, critics will find and pounce upon, as if saying things like, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” are offensive, one thing is as indisputable now as it was decades ago.

In the most important way, setting an example for chosen athletes to follow, LeBron James was, is, and always will be the best there’s ever been.

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