In the spring of 2013, Kobe Bryant took the nickname of “Vino” for himself. The meaning was clear, if a little heavy-handed: “Vino” represented Bryant’s elite playing status even at the ripe age of 34. Like wine, Kobe got better with age.
Unfortunately for Kobe, the nickname didn’t quite pan out. Kobe tore his Achilles tendon soon afterwards, ending his season prematurely with an injury proved to be a death sentence for the self-deemed “Vino.” Save for small bursts, he never again found the magic on the court which had dominated the league for much of the past decade.
While “Vino” wasn’t quite appropriate for the Mamba, it is quickly becoming appropriate for another superstar. LeBron James celebrated his 32nd birthday last year in December. Yet, despite being on the wrong side of 30, James is playing some of the best basketball of his career. This past season, James averaged career highs in both rebounds and assists while also shooting the second highest three-point percentage of his career. With the ongoing playoffs, James has somehow stepped it up a gear, to the tune of 34 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while leading the league in steals. And James’s individual performances have certainly translated to team success, as the King seems on course to easily making his seventh straight NBA Finals.
This late-stage renaissance is surprising, to say the least. James has logged a titanic number of minutes over the course of the career, entering the NBA straight out of high school playing over a decade of grinding 82-game seasons, and dealing with grueling and physical playoff runs every season except his rookie season. James’s game isn’t particularly easy on the body either; the crown jewel of his offensive repertoire is driving to the basket, crashing with the league’s biggest and strongest athletes at full speed. During his first season back with the Cavaliers, it appeared that James’s superhuman body was finally feeling the effects of his playing style when he was forced to take a two week break in the middle of the season to treat a bad back. Yet, two years later, James appears fresh and sprightly again, like a newborn fawn.
Indeed, his renewed performances have held even his opponents in awe. Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry recently claimed that “nobody’s closing the gap on [LeBron]”, while his backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan told reporters that “[LeBron] seems a lot quicker and faster this year from last year… it’s incredible for somebody with that amount of mileage on him, to come back seeming faster and quicker.” And these acknowledgements are just truly a testament to LeBron’s dominance as an athlete.
Should this current Cavaliers squad reach the Finals for the third straight year, they will undoubtedly be the underdogs against the Golden State Warriors, who boast a concentration of all-star talent that hasn’t been seen since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams in the late nineties. For James himself, however, this has greater implications than one season. Jordan embarked on his second three-peat at the age of 32: the same age James is now. Coincidentally, Jordan also had three rings at this age, just like LeBron does now. LeBron’s late resurgence, then, is coming at exactly the right time. He has now put himself in the position of challenging Jordan’s legacy as the greatest player of all time. With the stage set, it’s time to witness how the greatest player of his generation will close out his career.