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2016 NBA Playoffs

Why LeBron James is the real MVP

Sure, Steph Curry’s little-guy story is a fan favorite, but James is a fairy tale come to life

”If you’re a black kid, it’s not good enough to shoot from outside. You like to break people down by taking it to the hole. Such moves come from anger and frustration, from competing and trying to be on top, from struggling all your life … In the ghetto, you often must take what you can before someone takes it away … Soaring over an opponent, driving in at him, then looking at him to say, ‘I crushed you’ – that’s control. Perhaps the only place a young black player can feel it.”

– Hall-of-Famer Chet Walker, from his 1995 book, Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete’s Coming-of-Age in America

LeBron James broke his first rim when he was 18. It was the first time I saw him play, during a scrimmage in an auxiliary gym at a suburban high school outside of Akron, Ohio. He took two hard dribbles from the right side, maliciously threw it down with two hands and – Pop! – the bolts came free and the metal came crashing down on the back of his neck.

Gloria James, his mother, who gave birth to him at 16 and was still fighting the demons that forced her to give up James for a few years, ranted that she would sue the school. Her husband at the time wanted it for the trophy case. Everyone was hysterical except James, who shrugged and calmed his mama down.

Two championships, four MVP awards, an estimated $267 million in net worth and 16 years later, it’s easy to forget now where the force and the flair came from. Over those many years, he gave Cleveland hope, then took it to South Beach, Florida, only to return again to that Lake-Erie-cold town whose heart has been burned too many times.

The immense stakes of being relied upon to bring Cleveland its first pro title since Jim Brown led the Browns to the NFL championship in 1964? Ha. That’s World-of-Sport pressure, not real life – not subsidized-apartment, head-of-the-household-at-8, West Akron pressure.

“I don’t really get involved into the whole pressure thing,” he said on Wednesday before Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Oakland, California. “I think I’ve exceeded expectations in my life as a professional. I’m a statistic that was supposed to go the other way, growing up in the inner city, having a single-parent household. It was just me and my mother. So everything I’ve done has been a success.”

We’ve entered this weird NBA paradigm, which basically espouses two opposing truths about the two best players on the two best teams in the game:

James is the scowling incarnation of the athlete Chet Walker spoke of, so strong, so determined to take it to the rack, so – if we’re being honest – less palatable to white America than his counterpart.

Steph Curry, America’s baby-faced, two-time MVP, who shoots from Jupiter and seems to have declared himself open once he left the womb, is remarkably still viewed as the Little Guard Who Could. His Golden State Warriors, the most joyful pro basketball team since Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, are favored to win their second straight title. Because of his relatively small-for-the-NBA stature at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds, and his All-Community Center, stop-and-pop game, he somehow retains an underdog status next to James, which his teammate Klay Thompson explained so well Wednesday.

“I think it might be easier for the common fan to relate to Steph because it’s hard to be 6-8, 260 [pounds] and have a 40-inch vert and be the fastest guy on the floor,” Thompson said. “So, I mean, the casual fan might relate better to Steph because he doesn’t have that athletic, just God-given ability. It’s tough to say. It’s just personal preference, honestly.”

In purely hoop terms, Curry was an underdog. Virginia Tech wouldn’t give him a scholarship. If even famed former Los Angeles Laker Jerry West told you six years ago that Curry would leapfrog retired Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant on his way to scaling James to become the most popular basketball player on the planet, you’d think Zeke from Cabin Creek had gone senile.

But the life underdog in this series is James. Hell, the life underdog in about every series he’s ever played in has always been James.

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers takes a selfie with his family after winning game four against the Atlanta Hawks at the Quicken Loans Arena During Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015 in Cleveland,Ohio

LeBron James, No. 23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers, takes a selfie with his family after winning Game 4 against the Atlanta Hawks at the Quicken Loans Arena During Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NBA playoffs on May 26 in Cleveland.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

How many young black males without a father in Akron made it in life, became good fathers, balanced their personal with their professional sides? If they had disposable income, did they use it to help others and not just themselves?

Despite all the phenoms who fail, he actually lived up to expectations, becoming The Chosen One, just like Sports Illustrated told us when it put him on the cover when he was 16. And his entire career has been lived in the age of social media, the white-hot scrutiny so much more intense than it was in Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s day.

With six straight trips to the finals, James is almost taken for granted. We forget that, beyond some family friends who helped out while his mother got her life together, he had to create his own support system from a bunch of high school teammates. When he told Rachel Nichols in 2013, “I’m not even supposed to be here,” it almost made you want to stop asking him inane basketball questions like, “Do you think Steph is the face of the league now?”

I asked James about that Wednesday. Do you care about being the face of the league? Does it mean anything to you at this point?

“First of all, I think what I care about is being fortunate to be part of this league. I have no sense of entitlement to be in this league … I also focus on being a role model for the youth that looks up to me and what I’m able to do not only on the court but off the court.

“So me having the power for our youth to see better light or whatever the case may be, that’s what I love more than anything. If that comes with my name or what I do on a day-to-day basis, that the youth get to see how it should be done or how to take advantage of any situation they’re in, I’m OK with that.”

James is far removed from being thought of as a fairy tale anymore. He’s LeBron James Inc. and what we think of him is focused on his basketball success and his personal brand. What gets lost in all the talk about his Finals record and whether Curry has eclipsed him as the best player in the game is where he came from and the very real fact that he miraculously didn’t become a statistic. It’s good that he still reminds us.

Mike Wise is a former senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.