When we were Witnesses

Poster child When you open my apartment door, the first thing you see when you walk in is a poster of the “We Are All Witnesses” billboard that stood as a beacon of pride in Cleveland.

I loved that campaign. It encapsulated everything I wanted LeBron James to be.

From the time I sat under the basket in Trenton to watch him score 52 points in a high school game, I was giddy about the possibilities. I was slightly too young to fully enjoy and appreciate Michael Jordan from the very beginning, and I viewed the ascendance of LeBron James as a golden second opportunity.

My friends back then would poke fun at me for the stock I put in an 18-year-old kid, but I knew he was something special. And I knew it was a matter of time before everyone knew it.

Every time I walk in and see that poster — which I got at a Nike/LeBron popup shop in SoHo a week after I ran the NYC Marathon — I think back to the halcyon days of the 2007 playoffs.

I watched at work as LeBron scored the Cavs’ final 25 points against a superior Pistons team — a flawless, timeless, peerless performance. I beamed like a proud father as the congratulatory texts rolled in from coworkers and friends.

The following Saturday, I was a groomsman in my friend’s wedding at the Jersey shore. After the reception, a few of us took a drive down to Atlantic City, where I ate seafood and watched LeBron, ahead of schedule, will his team to the NBA Finals.

We agreed at dinner: You simply couldn’t miss a LeBron game, since there was a very good chance you might see something you’ve never seen before.

It didn’t even matter that the Cavs lost in the Finals to the Spurs, overwhelmed by their size and talent the way the Knicks had been eight years prior.

I just figured LeBron’s time had come, and that it was just the beginning.

*****

Obviously, at this point, we are no longer all Witnesses.

I tried for a while to embrace LeBron’s newfound villainy as a fascinating twist, the NBA version of Shawn Michaels superkicking Marty Jannetty to turn heel.

But I found that my heart just wasn’t in it. Not when I thought about how things used to be.

I probably should have seen the whole thing coming. That night in Trenton, the assembled media was dead set on building him up just to break him down.

LeBron was a phenomenon, something we’ll probably never see again at that age, and all I heard around me on press row were vultures attempting to pick apart his defense, his jump shot or whatever they imagined his character to be, akin to what you’d hear from the least informed barroom or sports radio conversation.

None of what happens now is shocking. We were fascinated by LeBron as an indomitable positive force, dragging along his team of relative nobodies. But we love so much more to relish in his imperfections, take solace in his failures. If we can’t be perfect, damn it, neither can he.

This isn’t to say LeBron and his handlers haven’t fed into it. I have to admit, I actually liked the idea of him doing something like The Decision — something above the norm to befit the most significant and vital athlete in American sports — but the execution was of course absurd.

A brief press conference, or even a five-minute live spot during SportsCenter, and maybe his Q Rating isn’t that of a terrorist.

*****

The Decision aside, though I yearned to have him come to the Knicks, I didn’t begrudge him his desire to join Bosh and Wade on the Heat.

SVSM I wonder how many people are aware of just how difficult LeBron’s upbringing was, his deep-rooting fear of alienation and loneliness. How he never knew his father, lost his grandmother at an early age and had to deal with his mother’s financial hardships by constantly moving.

And The Decision itself was merely an NBA facsimile of what he and his friends did in high school — continuing their AAU partnership by sticking together to win a national championship.

From a chapter in Shooting Stars aptly named “The Decision”…

As early as the middle of eighth grade, we had already begun to consider the idea of going to the same high school so we could still play basketball together. It was the only way we felt we could always keep our dream alive.

As Little Dru [Joyce] put it, “Let’s go do something big; let’s go do something special.”

It’s what he knows. It’s who he is. He can’t be alone.

*****

As Harvey Dent said in The Dark Knight, you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain. When it came down to it, my ideal of LeBron was just not sustainable.

As magnificent as he was, he didn’t want the highwire act and drain on his soul of attempting to be a singular hero among a group far less talented than he was. When he wouldn’t go along with our plan, it was time to tear him down with his Witness billboard. And this is treatment more harsh than he has deserved.

LeBron hasn’t dealt well with the slings and arrows of a vindictive American public. He’s wilted in the spotlight of the NBA Finals, while feeding into the hatred with his infamous — and actually sort-of understandable — scorched earth response that his detractors “have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.”

Make no mistake, this would have happened with Jordan too, had he played in this era. The game has changed. Those vague stories we heard about Jordan’s gambling and such would become Twitpics or cell phone video or Arash Markazi stories. We all knew Jordan was shady, and we didn’t really care.

I’m not even sure that sort of hero worship is possible in this environment, people don’t want that anymore. And it all just makes me miss a time when they did.

When I watched LeBron conquer the Pistons back in 2007, I never dreamed that would be as good as it would get — that the greatest athlete of our generation would someday be widely despised for no true tangible reason.

But maybe that’s how things should be. It only makes me appreciate more a truly special, likely impossible to duplicate moment in time.

The LeBron on my poster is forever scoring the last 25 points against the Pistons, validating everything I always thought he’d be, two days before my friend got married on the beach.

And though we’ll never have that again, nothing will ever take away that it happened.

Esoteric

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