Why debate James' legacy now?

At 28, LeBron James might be only halfway through his NBA career, so it's too soon to pin down his legacy.
At 28, LeBron James might be only halfway through his NBA career, so it's too soon to pin down his legacy. (MIKE EHRMANN / Getty)
Posted: June 21, 2013

You wouldn't write a review of a movie after the first reel. You certainly wouldn't care to read one.

So it's pointless to define an athlete's legacy while the athlete is still typing the first draft. And yet - in print and on the airwaves and in the vast echo chamber of the Web and social media - there is almost constant chatter about the "L" word.

That's L for legacy. That's L for LeBron.

The debate about LeBron James' legacy has been ongoing since he walked into the NBA as an 18-year-old in 2003. It has reached critical mass any number of times: when he was unable to win a title in Cleveland, when he staged one of the worst TV moments of all time with The Decision, when the Heat fell short in 2011, and when James finally earned a ring in 2012.

And now. With Game 7 of the NBA Finals looming, two full weeks' worth of cross fire about James and his legacy has reached its deafening crescendo. Depending on the outcome, James will have either cemented his place among the NBA's greatest players or confirmed his status among the NBA's biggest disappointments.

This is all noise, of course. But then, noise has replaced oxygen as the element that fuels all human endeavor. On the bright side, all that talking and tweeting and shouting about James is energy not being wasted talking and tweeting and shouting about the Kardashian baby. LeBron's Legacy is practically highbrow by comparison.

Sports fans have always debated the relative merits of players: Mays or Mantle? Russell or Chamberlain? Gretzky or Gretzky? That was always part of the conversation.

But this compulsion to define the legacy of an active player is a symptom of our accelerated, impatient culture, along with the knee-jerk calls to trade every player who has a bad week or fire every coach who loses two games in a row. It has more to do with the hours of empty airtime and limitless bandwidth than with anything real.

James is 28. He has maybe half a career left. You can talk about his game, about his strengths, about his occasional lapses, about his potential, about his personality. That all makes sense. But trying to nail down his legacy? Now? What's the point?

There's no exact equation, but this is close: L = P(D+T). Legacy equals Perspective multiplied by Deeds plus Time. Trying to do the math without the perspective or even knowing the full list of deeds is like reviewing The Godfather before Sonny gets to the tollbooth.

For a parallel, try to catch the NBA Network documentary The Doctor. Julius Erving is rightly portrayed as a game-changing force, a phenomenon who transcended his sport and had one of the great careers of all time.

Erving won exactly one NBA title. While that was a topic of discussion during his playing days, there wasn't this constant obsession with assessing and reassessing and re-reassessing his legacy. Now, with the passage of time and a clue about his impact, we can fairly discuss Erving's legacy.

Primitive as life was then, with rotary phones and vinyl records and such, people actually were able to enjoy watching an athlete perform and see what he or she was able to do before making sweeping declarations about legacies.

James is not alone in this, although he is in the crosshairs at the moment. Tiger Woods' spontaneous combustion in the U.S. Open last week rekindled debate about whether he ever will win the four majors needed to tie Jack Nicklaus. Will he? Won't he? We're all going to find that out together, no matter what side of the debate we take today.

On Tuesday, in an elimination game, James scored 32 points and had 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He's the greatest.

On Tuesday, in an elimination game, James passively let the Spurs build a big lead, committed some bad turnovers, missed some key shots, and needed Ray Allen to save his bacon. He's a fraud.

You get the point. James is the best basketball player on Earth right now, clearly the best of his generation. Is he better than Jordan? Better than Kobe? Better than anyone ever?

The movie is half over. Let's see what happens and talk about it afterward.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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