Every pro basketball career is either on its way up or on its way out. Each day is either a step towards improvement and reinvention, or a stumble towards decay. LeBron James has spent the bulk of his career enjoying that first stage, rabidly discovering new ways to stretch his domination longer than anyone before him ever has.
In so many ways LeBron molded the NBA to his liking, from one stylistic era to the next. But now at the age of 35, LeBron’s authority will soon be a folk tale. Irreversible decline comes for every athlete, and so much about LeBron’s future — particularly how he embraces it — is unknown.
When will LeBron’s undoing occur? Will he face it with iron-willed stubbornness in an attempt to delay the inevitable as long as he possibly can? How will it diminish his magnetism in an NBA that’s less prestigious and appealing without him? Endings are always messy, so what will it be like for perhaps the greatest player ever?
This isn’t a crisis, yet, even though the passage of time can sometimes feel that way. Last year was deflating, but LeBron maintained his numbers while surrounded by a suboptimal supporting cast, all without being selfish. Before Christmas he was an MVP candidate, as eerily consistent as ever, and there are reasons to believe he can still be the best player in the world — especially coming off the longest vacation of his career with Anthony Davis as a teammate.
His game, based on intellectual excellence, was built for old age. But fading gracefully isn’t easy. When a strained groin cast doubt on his legendary physical fitness, he responded by cradling a glass of wine and insecurely reflecting on the GOAT debate. His move to Hollywood was catnip for cynics and critics, who were eager to portray him as someone more satisfied than humbled. To their credit, it’s hard not to feel like LeBron is betraying his younger, more insatiable self when he retweets Space Jam 2 casting news and Blaze Pizza promotions.
When David Griffin, LeBron’s former general manager, said “I don’t think he’s the same animal anymore about winning,” it amplified what so many are thinking. That desire to spread his wings and be “more than an athlete” is, of course, his right and totally OK! Priorities change as we grow old, and LeBron deserves the praise he’ll receive for the rest of his life. But if perception is reality, this pill is tough to swallow for those who spent the past 15 years watching him fulfill his destiny. Nobody wants to see a lion take a nap during hunting season.