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Monday, June 13, 2011
Antidote to LeBron: V-E-R-Z-B-I-C-A-S

By Jeff MacGregor
ESPN.com

Overwhelmed by the joylessness of big-time sports, I got on a boat. For that joylessness, I blame LeBron James. For LeBron James, I blame myself.

LeBron James
LeBron James exits stage left without a title, again.

Turns out Mr. James doesn't exist. He is a construct of the hyena media. A hypothetical. A mystic figment. An incantation. He is an empty vessel into which Nike and the networks and sports writers high and low pour our nonsense and our curses and our syrup. And has been since middle school.

He is a scarecrow stuffed with sticks and feathers and money. He is a phantasm, a distraction, an undigested bit of corporate drama. He is an actor trapped in a long-running series of television commercials, like Mr. Whipple or Ronald Reagan. No more a heel than he is a hero, he is a storytelling device, a literary convenience, a kind of critical shorthand for everything wrong everywhere. He is a global projection map of the mercenary and the inauthentic.

LeBron James as we know him is the four-color quarterly report of our disappointments and therefore a very precise instrument for calibrating my own cynicism.*

Turns out the antidote to all of which is Lukas Verzbicas.

Lukas Verzbicas is a high school runner. Without knowing it, I got on an East River ferry Saturday morning to watch Lukas Verzbicas run his last high school mile in the rain. It was at the big, annual track meet on Randall's Island in New York, part of a 14-city, worldwide tour of name-above-the-title stars such as Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix and Blanka Vlašiƈ.

At 2:40 in the afternoon, with the Manhattan skyline behind him lost in a lowering mist, Lukas Verzbicas and 13 other high school boys from around the country take off running.

3:59.71 later, Lukas Verzbicas is done.

Lukas Verzbicas
Lukas Verzbicas is as close to legend as a high school runner can get: He can fly.

And for the first time in 10 years, and for only the fifth time in history, a high school kid in America breaks four minutes in the mile. At the end of it, the crowd rises and their noise washes over him like the ocean.

He is 6-feet tall and weighs 135 pounds. He is as pale as paper, except where his skin has reddened with exertion. His features are as sharp as the obverse on a new coin. He is led into a press corral and for the next half-hour answers politely the same questions again and again. How? When? Why?

"I wanted … [camera shutter] I needed … [camera shutter] I tried … [flash flash flash]. I did what I came here to do … [camera shutter] I did what I needed to do … [flash shutter flash] I did what I thought I could do. [shutter shutter shutter]

"It was a good day to run. [flash shutter flash flash shutter]

"I saw my chance. [shutter flash flash]

"I took it. " [flash shutter shutter flash]

His eyes sometimes stray to a point on the horizon just to the left of the camera lens. He holds his spikes in his right hand. His bare feet are still livid with the heat of their work. As he answers, his long toes grip at that cold grass again and again.

He cannot stop smiling.

And then they're done with him. Like someone has flipped a switch. He walks off alone. He's enrolled at Oregon this fall, so you'll hear a lot more about him. Or you'll never hear of him again. Which is how life works for us all.

But in the middle of a wet Saturday afternoon one June in New York in the early part of the 21st century, he was exactly who he hoped to be and did exactly what he set out to do.

He was actual. Emphatically so. Real and therefore undeniable.

Brunnhilde
In epics of gods and valkyries, well-intentioned plans and marriages often end in tragedy.

He was as he imagined himself to be.

And from these two young men, from LeBron James and Lukas Verzbicas, comes to us a message of some kind about America. About ourselves. About our future.

But I cannot discern it.

Still, I thank them both.

* Even the Mavericks' eventual victory seemed to me a grim thing hammered out of Teutonic ambition on a dark mountainside. As unsmiling as anything from Wagner, this was the championship Ring Cycle, with Dirk Nowitzki gripped in the irons of Fate, hollow-eyed and mad with fever, hauling Wotan and Brünnhilde and Dwyane Wade up and down the court for eternity.

One of the great Finals series in memory, it made plenty of people happy -- but seemed itself to be made entirely of ambitions born from unhappiness.

LeBron James was only a footnote in that larger epic. A cautionary aside. A stage direction. The vampire press will get that wrong, too.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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