The NBA is notorious for being a two things-
First, it’s a big, dysfunctional family.
Second, nothing about the NBA is as consistent as one generation hating on the next. It’s almost a right of passage.
That tradition of being a hater is what made LeBron James’ comments about the up-and-coming #1 overall pick, 7-foot-4 Giannis and Luka hybrid Vic Wembanyama, so refreshing.
LeBron James said Wembanyama was well beyond unicorn status, calling him an “alien,” and saying that he’d never seen somebody combine that much height with fluidity and grace, and finished by calling Wemby a “generational talent.”
Now, that term “generational talent” gets thrown around a lot, but LeBron should know better than anyone what it actually means. It’s a player, whether at a certain position, or that can play multiple positions, that only comes around once every 20-25 years.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a generational talent at center. It can be argued that we didn’t see another center change the game like Kareem did until 23 years later when Shaquille O’Neal was drafted.
Magic Johnson redefined what an NBA point guard could be when he came into the league in 1979, and Steph Curry found a way to completely change the entire way basketball is played as a point guard when he came into the league 30 years later.
Michael Jordan was thought to be beyond generational, with players in his mold springing up all over the country, and even some like Kobe Bryant achieving similar heights of greatness, but 19 years after Michael Jordan was drafted, a young man from Akron, Ohio came into the league with the makeup it would take to forge his own legacy as a generational great, worthy of NBA Mount Rushmore status.
And in the years since LeBron James has been in the league, there has been a lot of discussion as to the next player we’d see that would not only redefine basketball on this court, but also the way we talk about basketball. Europe has given us several contenders- the last four MVP’s have gone to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, with Luka Doncic’s scoring ability simultaneously taking the league by storm.
There were whispers that Zion Williamson, a Charles Barkley-Shawn Kemp hybrid, could be the one. And enough people believe that the real post-LeBron generational talent has been amongst us all along, moving from city to city, getting into five Twitter battles between every 35-point offensive outburst. And maybe it is Kevin Durant, that’s another debate for another time.
For LeBron James to bestow that crown on Vic Wembanyama a full year before he ever sets foot on an NBA court means something. That’s more than hype. That’s real recognizing real.
But let’s zero in on another thing LeBron James said that illustrates his place in basketball as not only a generational talent, but a generational person.
As I said before, a common thread in NBA circles is the elevation of the era you played in, and cherry-picking examples from that era to explain how the up-and-coming generation might not have experienced the same success they did.
When asked how all this hype surrounding Vic Wembanyama reminded LeBron of his own time as “The Chosen One,” as he was dubbed by Sports Illustrated at 17-years old, LeBron James reflected on how much more difficult and chaotic things are today than they were in 2003.
LeBron’s exact words were “Thank God I didn’t have social media. I can’t imagine how my life would have been different or what would have transpired… I’m happy I didn’t have social media, and I’m happy I was from a small town like Akron, Ohio.”
LeBron James knows better than anyone what these young stars are facing because he’s the only NBA player in the GOAT debate that lived as much time outside of the Social Media and Embrace Debate era as he has lived inside it. He knows that Vic Wembanyama doesn’t have that luxury, and that hundreds of thousands of people, including me, are already talking about whether he’ll live up to the hype, a full year before he even has the chance to start the multi-decade process of proving himself.
LeBron is the first superstar to be able to pay proper respect to the up and coming generation, while also expressing gratitude for not having to carry the same burdens at the same age. Maybe it’s because he has sons that are already experiencing this, or maybe he’s just uniquely empathetic and appreciative of his era.
Whatever it is, if LeBron James is willing to break NBA tradition to give a young “alien” a King’s blessing, Vic Wembanyama must be really special.