LeBron James and the Infinite Melancholy

Stephen Markley
LeBron James in 2009.
LeBron James in 2009. Photograph by Keith Allison on Wikimedia Commons

For much of my youth, I grew up across the street from a basketball court on an elementary school playground where, if no one was around, I’d often play alone until the light gave out. I learned to shoot in the dark, when your eyes can’t properly adjust and make the calculation between ball, rim, backboard, and murk. I’d end up chasing the ball into the weeds that rimmed the playground lot, sometimes all the way into the yards of the low-rent apartments across the street. Not long after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the all-time stunning upset of the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, I was back home in Ohio cleaning out my childhood room. One night, I grabbed my old basketball and took it across the street as dusk fell. Beginning with reverse layups, moving out to the elbow, finally the top of the key, I went through a shooting routine I’ve been doing since I was probably nine—the movements automatic, pure muscle memory, even if the shots didn’t fall as frequently as they used to.

Earlier that summer, I’d driven twelve hours from Iowa City to Cleveland to take part in the 1.3 million–strong victory parade. Before a sweaty, sunburned crowd undulating with paroxysms of adoration, LeBron James said, “For some crazy-ass reason, I believe I’m gonna wake up, and it’s gonna be like game four, and I’m gonna be like, ‘Shit, we down 2–1 still.’” I stood in the throng thinking, You and me both, dude, and recalled the way it felt when the buzzer sounded, and Kevin Love leapt into James’s arms, and I was so completely stunned, it was like death reversed—like someone you’d loved and lost showed up at your door with a six-pack of beer, saying, Let’s do this.

There was this idea that had been bothering me, aggregated over a lifetime of obsessing on this sport, tingling in my core the way a tight game, tied late in the fourth quarter, manifests in your nerve endings like a subepidermal electricity. It had something to do with how a silly game premised around a fickle relationship between ball and rim fits into the larger story of the universe and how the love of that game is a joy about as dark and dangerous as any and all love should be.

How does such love begin? My basketball obsession started not in Ohio but Portland, Oregon. I was eight years old in 1992 when the Trail Blazers met the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. Portland gets basketball fever every time the Blazers are over .500, and that year, the city’s temperature rose to the point of immolating the populace, including all second-grade boys within a fifty-mile radius. My dad and I regularly journeyed to a nearby playground where I would attempt to impersonate Clyde Drexler, my first basketball hero, by feverishly hurling the ball at a rusting backboard. I wholly presumed that the Blazers would triumph. It all seemed inevitable, fated.

Except there was this guy you may have heard of: Michael Jordan.

In the opening game, he scored thirty-five points in the first half, a finals record. This was the game of the iconic “I wanna be like Mike” shrug, poor Sixth Man of the Year Cliff Robinson looking bewildered in the background, Jordan humping his shoulders, hands splayed out as if to say, “Yeah, I don’t get it either, but hey...” The Blazers were cattle beneath the bolt gun. The Bulls won by thirty-three points.

“The first one felt so good, I had to take more,” said Jordan. “I couldn’t miss. The threes were like free throws.”

When the confetti fell for the Bulls in game six, I went to my room and cried, suffering that first childhood bereavement when life fails to turn out how you think it should, when you first understand that the chaos of the universe will allow unfavorable results. And how absurdly lucky is it for a kid to ease into this revelation when his preferred sports team loses?

Thereafter, Michael Jordan became the focus of my contempt.

I never for a second bought his baseball retirement, which felt like nothing more than the monster’s first faux death near the climax of the horror movie. It didn’t help that my family had since moved to Ohio, an afternoon’s drive down the highway from Cleveland, and over time I became the dumbest carpetbagger Cavaliers fan. Dumb, because at that point, the Cavs entire history as a franchise was basically about losing in spectacular fashion to Michael Jordan. Time after time, he was there with daggers and that indefatigable single pump of his fist (which I unconsciously mimicked on the court in elementary school YMCA leagues). When he hit that jumper over Bryon Russell in game six of the 1998 finals, I shrieked that he had pushed off, that it should have been an offensive foul, but no one cared. It was Jordan’s last shot as a Bull, supposedly of his career, a grace note that rings out over the basketball universe still; his eyes were unrippled water, the shot was that of a sniper pulling the trigger just as he exhales and his heart and lungs pause.

Despite how much I prayed for Jordan to fail, it never happened. Even after the stranger parts of his career—his comeback stunt with the Washington Wizards, his struggles as that team’s GM and later with the Charlotte Hornets (née Bobcats), the revelation of his extramarital affair, the payoff to his mistress and the payout to his ex-wife in the divorce—none of it’s consequential, none of it forms even the most remote asterisk. All any fan wonders is if the Bulls would have won eight straight titles if he hadn’t run off to play baseball.

Hundreds of “the next Jordans” have come and gone over the years, from Harold Miner to Vince Carter, and for the most part, they have all vanished into obscurity, relics left in the memories of those of us who inhaled the petroleum fumes from the gloss of too many basketball cards in our youths. When LeBron came along six months after Jordan retired for good, there was this eerie continuity, demanding from the marketing gurus at Nike its own religious iconography. I still have my “Witness” shirt, purchased before LeBron had won a game, let alone an MVP or a title. Because LeBron has never really been chasing championship rings or MVPs or All-NBA teams per se—he’s of course chasing Jordan’s living ghost. A prickly, hyper-competitive, grudge-holding ghost.

It was eight years to the day after the national tragedy of 9/11 when Michael Jordan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and perhaps the only cruel thing not said about his speech was to point out the date and use the obvious “this was the 9/11 of” reference.

His induction might have been one of the most obvious accolades in the history of athletics. Perhaps there was an ancient Athenian discus hurler or medieval French jouster who somehow reached a higher pinnacle in his competitive, mass-entertainment profession, but if so, history has forgotten it, and no scouring of Google has unearthed it. Inducted alongside fellow Dream Teamers David Robinson and John Stockton, as well as coach Jerry Sloan, it had to be a letdown for these otherwise accomplished figures of the game. Sort of like being second in your physics class behind Richard Feynman.

Jordan took to the podium with a deserved standing ovation and hand-bruising applause. The next twenty-three minutes would more or less melt the sports world’s corner of the internet.

Rick Reilly, sports’ don of dad humor, exemplified the reaction when he called it the “Exxon Valdez of speeches. It was, by turns, rude, vindictive, and flammable. And that was just when he was trying to be funny. It was tactless, egotistical, and unbecoming. When it was done, nobody wanted to be like Mike.”

Even David Brooks of the New York Times would cite the speech as an example of America’s cultural decay: “Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising...there is Michael Jordan’s egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech.”

Hell, I was ready to hate on Jordan, to indulge all the antipathy of my childhood, until I actually watched the speech. Then I couldn’t help but find the criticism weirdly petulant and shallow. Jordan did call out everyone who’d ever stood in his way. He even took potshots at his high school coach, who famously gave a guy named Leroy Smith a spot on the varsity team over him. He looked at Leroy, who was in the audience that night, and said, “When he made the team and I didn’t, I wanted to prove not just to Leroy Smith, not just to myself, but to the coach that picked Leroy over me, I wanted to make sure you understood—you made a mistake, dude.”

Pat Riley, Isaiah Thomas, Jeff Van Gundy, Magic Johnson, John Starks, Larry Bird, Jerry Krause—anyone who’d frozen him out in a rookie-year all-star game or sent “Jordan-stoppers” at him in the playoffs or warred with him from management’s perch, they all got name-checked, some more uncomfortably than others.

But what the hell did everyone think Michael Jordan was like?

It struck me that people read arrogance in Jordan’s speech, where there was only explanation. He wasn’t saying he was still mad about this or that slight but that these were the moments that fueled a preternaturally competitive spirit.

So I kind of love that speech. Because ultimately, it was crassly honest about the human condition, Jordan being one of the purest expressions of that condition: he found purpose in the void, he found passion, and he pursued that passion with boundless energy. We want our athletes, as sportswriter Michael Wilbon put it, “safe and syrupy.” They are to genuflect. They are to be grateful that old, white billionaires pluck them up and put a jersey on their backs and a check in their pockets.

Or, as Rick Reilly opined, “He only thanked six people.”

Most telling of all on the short list of thank-yous that so offended Reilly was the absence of the one thank-you to which athletes seem universally beholden, the one that’s so de rigueur that when a superstar begins effusively spouting off about it, sideline reporters just stand dull-eyed, waiting for their interviewee to get it out of the way, so they can get on to their innocuous sideline questioning.

Obviously, I have no idea about Michael Jordan’s spiritual mind, nor do I think it’s particularly relevant. Yet the most glaring oversight on his short list of thank-yous was the one individual athletes spend the most time thanking: God.

Michael Jordan gave the speech of his career and never once brought Him up.

Golden State Warriors phenom and two-time MVP Steph Curry is simply the latest incarnation of the part-time evangelizing athlete. Curry, more fervent than most, once wrote a column for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ website explaining how he loves proselytizing for “the Man who died for our sins on the cross. I know I have a place in Heaven waiting for me because of Him.”

In no way is Curry new or unique. Quarterback Tim Tebow had people believing he was an expression of Jesus Christ’s will because he had passing stats that aligned numerically with Bible verses; the difference between Tebow and Curry is only a sliver in ball-to-target accuracy.

“I want to thank God,” Curry began his MVP speech.

“The Man Above never puts you in situations you can’t handle,” said LeBron, following the Cavs game seven upset.

“I owe my talents to God,” said every athlete ever.

We’re so used to these platitudes that our ears barely pick them up anymore. We excuse or gloss over the petty narcissism required to believe that the grand cosmic design is about you scoring a touchdown, while this other kid wastes away from malnutrition in Somalia, and our economic, social, and political structures remain blameless in the glory of His light. We accept this reasoning, and some of us even demand it. Which is why I love it that Michael Jordan got in front of the entire world and admitted—whether he understood it or not—that his grudge against Leroy Smith, among others, was more important to his life than the Lord Above.

When I was in the sixth grade, gearing up to try out for the basketball team the next year, practicing elbow jumpers at the playground across the street deep into the frigid Ohio winter, a devout Christian in my class told me she did not “believe” in evolution. I’d never heard of such a thing, even though polls frequently show a large, vocal minority of Americans agree with her. I’d read Jurassic Park roughly eleven times at that point and had a pretty clear understanding of why, obviously, humans did not just come from apes but before that fish and before that tiny little squibs of protein. It fascinated me that this girl, among the brightest in our class, could believe something so weird. Likely prodded by an unidentified boyhood crush, I grew obsessed with reading about evolution and debating the finer points with her between math and language arts.

Years later I would read Daniel Dennett’s classic Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which articulated what happened to my thinking as a sixth grader. Dennett calls Darwinism a “universal acid,” in that it eats through every last supernatural notion. It’s one of the greatest leaps forward in human understanding, yet most of us still refuse to acknowledge its implications. Darwin’s dangerous idea is not “evolution” but the nature of how evolution works: it is an unthinking, unfeeling algorithmic process that cultivates all life, all thought, all emotion completely and absolutely without intervention from any outside force. Ever since Darwin, every manner of believer has tried to find in nature an example where evolution can’t explain this or that or the other, and all this ever does is help push forward the inevitable march of evolutionary theory in explaining more or less everything. Similarly, we thought the Earth unique, an Eden, until we understood planet and galaxy formation, which is akin to Darwinian evolution in its mindless, unreflective form—space debris randomly cohering into larger bodies around stars in an aimless, purposeless algorithm based off forces of gravity. Now one of the last vestiges for the faithful who pay lip service to science is “fine-tuning”—the idea that the laws of physics and the properties of the universe appear meticulously, improbably fine-tuned for the specific purpose of creating life. This is, of course, the exact same line of fallacious thinking that had people explaining how God put webbing in a spider’s butt, so it could spin its trap and catch food. How miraculous! But it turns out, the spider’s ancestors, through the inexorable forces of natural selection, inadvertently put silk in their own butts.

To this day, we are still in the growing pains of this revolution. Because the beauty (or the problem, depending on how you see it) of the universal acid is that it means this one existence is nothing more than the end result of an algorithm run when the first macros got wrapped up in some formula of primordial proteins or carbon-based self-replicating crystals and started selecting out the ones that couldn’t collect enough resources. Our lives, our loves, our culture, our gods: it’s all nothing more than the extrapolation of this purposeless algorithm doing its mindless, accidental work.

All this knowledge is out there. You’re supposed to learn most of it before you graduate from high school. One of the great challenges for contemporary religion is that all the evidence one needs to debunk its central mystical tenants is embedded in the curriculum of a ninth-grade science class.

Then there was the final floor the universal acid sent me crashing through: maybe there remains the most remote possibility that after death we’re all transported to some other plane of existence, maybe the Buddhists are right, and we all await reincarnation in our next life, but the greatest likelihood, based on the evidence, is that there is nothing after this. Our atoms return to the palm of the cosmos, and our consciousness evaporates like so much dust in a hard wind. Yet this most likely of possibilities is the one people are least willing to entertain.

And the reason people hate the universal acid is pretty obvious.

There’s no creator, no architect, no magical netherworld we all beam to when we die. No reunion with the ones we’ve loved and lost. No reason why bad things happen to good people. No meaning other than whatever random meaning any given person ascribes to anything. We all, on some level, understand this: that the insect crushed underfoot has no insect soul escaping to insect heaven to meet the insect Jesus and that the same fate of the insect awaits us all.

Because this conclusion is so totally obvious, is it any wonder we have such a complex, difficult time processing it? Is it any wonder we will invent just about any omnipotent sky tyrant, dream up every incredible post-corporeal fairy-tale playground in order to stave off the very basic conclusion that lies at the heart of human understanding? We have a deranged relationship with our mortality because of what we sense: the infinite melancholy alive in our hearts, ever present and everlasting, from the moment we let out our first scream to be returned to the warmth of the womb, to the day our vision explodes into the DMT-dream that takes us out. And there is no comfort, because it sucks.

It sucks, and that’s it.

At this point, one is tempted to argue, “Yeah, and that’s why people believe—because of what you just said? That’s awful. That’s depressing.”

The conclusion so many draw is that nonbelief must lead to nihilism, because nonbelief is also nonprescriptive. It doesn’t tell you how to live a fuller, happier life. It doesn’t offer you comfort in times of your most extreme sorrow. It doesn’t even give you a way to connect with other like-minded people. It’s just reality, which is why most people prefer some version of an absurd story.

It can lead to conclusions like those of depressive buzzkill Alexander Rosenberg, who in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality writes that people need not bother to look for “a good reason to go on living, because there isn’t any.” (Bet that guy is the unreconstructed life of the party!)

Yet for me, this reasoning has always missed the point and grants way too much joyful ground to people who believe in magic wine water and candle oil that lasts a few days longer than it should. Because goddamn are there some good reasons that—like the Boss said—“it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” In other words, regardless of whether it’s in the void of a cold, uncaring, pointlessly finite universe, I still watch the NBA playoffs, because the NBA playoffs are fucking awesome.

Stephen Markley is the author of the memoirs Publish This Book and Tales of Iceland. His forthcoming novel, Ohio, will debut in summer 2018.