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Can we wait to discuss LeBron's legacy in 15 years?

by | CBSSports.com Columnist

We did it again Thursday night and Friday morning, because we're stupid, because we have no imagination or patience, because we don't know what words mean and don't much care, either.

We talked about LeBron James' legacy after Game 5 of the NBA Finals, just like we did after Game 4, and just like we did before the Finals began. We love legacy questions, and we love to prattle endlessly over the answers.

LeBron James doesn't have a legacy; he's just halfway through his career. (Getty Images)  
LeBron James doesn't have a legacy; he's just halfway through his career. (Getty Images)  
Well, here's the answer to the James legacy question: He doesn't have one. He's not close to having one either, unless one of three things happens after this series:

  1. He retires.
  2. He gets Erik Spoelstra fired and is hired by the Heat as its new head coach.
  3. He wanders into the woods and is eaten by a bear.

Since none of these things seem likely to happen, with all due respect to South Beach's ursine population, there is no legacy for him to have, and certainly none for him to worry about. Certainly not unless he spends all his time looking at himself in the rear-view mirror, which is a level of narcissism as self-defeating as it is bad on the neck.

Simply put, you don't have a legacy when you're halfway through a career that ends halfway through your life span. Nobody does. Nobody ever has.

He has had a bad Finals, to be sure. A decent Finals in a vacuum, a bad one when you toss in the expectations of the nation, and a gruesome one when you throw in those who can't let go of the gaucheness of his departure from Cleveland and arrival in Miami.

But that's not a legacy. That's a moment in a career. A crummy moment, we grant you, and one in which he hopefully learned how hard it is to be disparaged by so many people at the same time. If this series ends with Dallas holding a trophy and Miami holding its shame, what we have here is a chapter at most.

And that's only after he has completed his basketball career and embarked on the rest of his life, presumably with time to reflect on what he has done and hasn't done as a player.

But we keep asking legacy questions because we need the future to happen before the present, because we have the attention spans of hummingbirds and the patience of a coke fiend.

And when I say "we," I go down the list from television producers who need to fill the time between the beer ad and the muffler ad, to the talking heads who want only to talk about the same five names every day, to the writers who think a series is about the stars rather than the events, and the guys and gals in the taverns who don't really have the time or interest to spend any of it on J.J. Barea or Udonis Haslem.

This is a series, and a fascinating one at that, in which the Dallas Mavericks have proven many people don't know as much basketball as they think they do. The games have been taut, have had plenty of drama, narrow margins and singular moments for the ages.

But there are still two games to play, so this series doesn't have a legacy either. You kind of need a finish for that.

If there is anything to be said about LeBron James at this point, it is that he has just learned how extraordinarily hard it actually is to do what Bill Russell and Michael Jordan did -- to become the true and central focus of a season, let alone an era.

In the history of the game, there have been very few players who defined and redefined the game itself for an extended period of time. In the '50s, there was George Mikan. In the '60s, Russell. In the '80s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird exchanged the spotlight. In the '90s, Jordan.

And that's it. Five, out of thousands. There were many magnificent players, but only those five transcendent figures. They have legacies with a side of fries.

There are others. Wilt Chamberlain, the most dominant physical presence ever. Oscar Robertson, the first true point guard who was too big for anyone around him. Julius Erving, the first consistently airbound star. Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West ... we can go on, but frankly, you kids hate history, and many of you wandered off at Oscar Robertson. Your loss.

But LeBron? I'm sorry, James? He isn't even a first name-only yet, not without doing more than he has done.

But he's not done, not by a long shot. The chances of him being the game's next transcendent figure are slim, even though he's the one who has received the most attention in a world that often confuses notoriety with achievement. But he has more to do, and more time to do it.

If he stopped right now, his legacy would barely reach that of Walt Bellamy, another player you children never heard of, but a Hall of Famer nonetheless. And if that seems absurd to you, that's only because it is. When Michael Jordan was 26, he had won as many titles as Walt Bellamy, too, and looked like he was on the Elgin Baylor track.

That's the tricky part about legacies -- they move with time, and if they move, they're not really legacies. This is a crummy time for James, and how he eats it, digests it and finds nourishment from it will help create that legacy.

Now Dirk Nowitzki, on the other hand ... well, let's just say that he already has a legacy as the greatest German-born player ever. But he has bigger plans.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.


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