It’s time to call LeBron James what he is: the NBA's greatest ever player

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors

The first time I saw LeBron James play basketball was during his final year at St Vincent-St Mary High School.

By then he was already a national sensation – Sports Illustrated had featured him on the cover months earlier under the headline “The Chosen One” – and his senior season was essentially a barnstorming tour that filled smaller arenas around the country and sated the intense curiosity of a pre-YouTube world. Several of his games were broadcast nationally on ESPN2, a rarity for high school basketball. Still more were available on pay-per-view, which is unheard of. When the circus came to my hometown of Philadelphia, a sellout crowd packed the Palestra to the corners. Allen Iverson watched from courtside. The multimillion-dollar industry that would be constructed around LeBron’s image was still years away from completion, but even then you could see the scaffolding in place. It was three days before Christmas 2002.

Watching him that day it wasn’t so much the size that belied his age – though to behold the 6ft 8in, 225lb teenager picking his teeth with high school defenders no doubt lent to the spectacle – but that he operated with the maturity and sophistication of a seasoned professional. Was he really only 17? The combination of skills he commanded was more than just rare: it defied categorization. Sure, he could score from anywhere on the court but plenty of players make their mark that way. LeBron devoured rebounds like each was his last. He whipped passes from outrageous angles with pace and uncanny precision, finding his team-mates in perfect position for easy baskets. He could play the one through the five and defend them just the same. Every action was exacted with economy of movement and effortless calm, the way a Formula One driver can navigate a car with the casual indifference of a channel surfer idly flicking the remote.

The funny thing is, the LeBron of today is not all that different. Even against the best competition in the world, he can still bend the game to his will and make grown men look no more capable of stopping him than a gaggle of high school kids. Fourteen years after that first look LeBron has somehow realized the impossible expectations heaped on those teenage shoulders, never more than Sunday night when he fulfilled a promise to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers by leading perhaps the most snake-bitten team in professional sports to their first NBA championship.

The tears he wept uncontrollably at center court after the final buzzer sounded on Sunday were proof positive that LeBron’s third title – after back-to-back wins with Miami in 2012 and 2013 – meant a little bit more. Surely it made him more likable to non-fans: it’s one thing to win with a cadre of superstars in a party city, it’s another to do it with grinders in your gritty, terminally unfashionable hometown. Few are more intimately familiar with the wounds of Northeast Ohio’s sports psyche than LeBron, a native of nearby Akron. To bring about the end of Cleveland’s mythical 52-year championship drought was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

Finally the boy who would be king has a victory worthy of his limitless promise.

When Golden State won Game 4 to move within one victory of a second straight title, the entire world outside the Cleveland locker room believed the NBA finals were done and dusted. And with good reason. Thirty-two times had a team faced a three-games-to-one deficit in the championship round and never once had one come back to win the series. And these were the Warriors: a dynasty apparent that not only ripped through the regular season with a scant nine losses in 82 games (to eclipse a record set, notably, by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls) but who represent something of a New World Order in basketball: a team that embodied how the three-point shot is changing the sport more completely than any other.

But that’s when LeBron took his game from a typically high level to a different place altogether. His stat lines in the decisive contests were preposterous: 41-16-7-3-3 in Game 5, 41-8-11-4-3 in Game 6, 27-11-11-2-3 in Sunday’s clincher – only the third triple-double ever in Game 7 of the finals.

His crucial block on Andre Iguodala on Sunday night with less than two minutes left and the scores tied might not go down as the signature moment of his career, but it deserves to. As the players on the floor traded missed baskets and fought through exhaustion – it was Cleveland’s 103rd game of the marathon season, the 106th for Golden State – it seemed the team that scored the next basket would win. But when Stephen Curry found Iguodala wide open on the block for an easy two, LeBron seemingly teleported 45 feet within two seconds to pin the ball against the backboard. It’s the kind of play, a marriage of breathtaking athleticism and hair-trigger instincts, that only he could make.

No one has ever closed an NBA finals like this, certainly not against a 73-win team. Given the caliber of opponent, magnitude of the deficit and what it required to reverse it, it’s not completely unreasonable to call it the greatest comeback in sports history.

There’s never been anyone with a wide-ranging a skill set as James, who became the first player ever to lead both teams in all five major statistical categories – points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots – over the course of an entire playoff series. But to many observers it will never be enough. A few years ago I asked the emcee J Cole where he stood on the LeBron or Jordan debate that’s persisted for years among basketball fans and his response has stuck with me: “The world won’t even allow LeBron James to be as great as Michael Jordan because at this point Michael Jordan is just an untouchable legend. He is a myth. He’s like a tall tale that only gets bigger with each passing year.”

What hope does LeBron have when he’s graded on that curve? How do you compete with a ghost?

The debate endures because it is compelling. Jordan was like a regular-shaped guy with superpowers. LeBron is a freak of nature. The dichotomy has bred a strange resentment of the latter, who is perceived as a genetic child of privilege.

LeBron was the can’t-miss prospect whose upside had agents and shoe companies salivating before he’d entered high school, while Jordan was the guy who didn’t even make the varsity team until his sophomore year, a slight that, as the narrative goes, forged the near-sociopathic competitive edge that pushed him to the top. Therein lies the downside of being the Chosen One: Jordan’s brilliance is perceived as hard-won, while LeBron’s is preordained.

The truth is few elite athletes have more misguided critics than LeBron, whose life story embodies the American Dream. He grew up with his single mom in a modest apartment in Akron, worked thousands of hours to cultivate his craft, found gainful employment after turning 18 and has been handsomely compensated for his skills. He’s come of age during a time when social media exploded in popularity – when if a celebrity so much as picks his nose it’s disseminated globally within minutes – yet he’s behaved impeccably on and off the court.

That conduct only amplifies the backlash to his rare missteps. When he became a free agent after his seventh season with the Cavaliers, he announced his move to Miami in a 75-minute television special branded The Decision. Was it tacky and insipid? Without question. But the public’s reaction, the way the critics have held it against him for year after year and still do today, was as if he’d gone on TV and clubbed baby seals for an hour.

Even Sunday’s universally lauded performance will only earn him a brief reprieve – six months, perhaps – before he’s cast into the fire again. But it’s already time to call LeBron what he is: the greatest to ever lace up a pair of basketball sneakers.

Cleveland Cavaliers welcomed home after NBA championship win

His career haul at 31 years-old (three NBA titles, four Most Valuable Player awards) compares favorably to Jordan’s at the same age (three titles, three MVPs). You could argue – and plenty do – that Jordan never lost in the finals, just as you could argue that LeBron has done more with less, carrying far inferior teams to the championship round.

Regardless, this is no longer a matter of the smell test: LeBron is on pace to surpass Jordan in silverware.

LeBron James was born from our collective and often unhealthy obsession with young people endowed with phenomenal gifts, a class of celebrity whose exponents range from Bobby Fischer to Charlotte Church to Freddy Adu. These seductive tales almost inevitably end in disappointment. But how often do these prodigies not only meet but surpass our expectations?

I know of at least one.

We are witnessing an all-time great at the peak of his powers. If we can’t appreciate what he’s done – and everything that’s to come – then why even watch?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Bryan Armen Graham, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th June 2016 19.27 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010