The weekend before he made the defining play of his career, LeBron James was watching Muhammad Ali. Down 3-1 in the finals against the Golden State Warriors, he was studying The Greatest’s body language. Lynn Merritt, an old friend and executive at Nike, had suggested James study the fights. He told him to note how Ali wore down overeager challengers in 12, 15 round brawls, how he taunted them, took punches, and never once thought he could be knocked down. Ali would wait for just the right moment and then, before his opponent even knew what was happening, he’d be crowned the champion once again.

The Block was LeBron’s rope-a-dope. It was the most dominant athletic feat I have ever witnessed, a blur of power, speed, and will. When I told a friend that I was writing this essay, he said, “I still get goosebumps every time I watch it.” That’s as fair a reaction as any, because to watch the play now is to marvel at James and remember the fairy tale story that got him there—the hometown kid done good. But with James, like Ali, there’s always a little more than meets the eye, and every move has effects that ripple. It seems like hyperbole to say that the one block altered the course of the NBA for the next decade, but the more I read, watch, and think about it, the more I find that that’s exactly what happened.

Before he started watching Ali, James’ season seemed to be coming to a close. His Cavaliers were down three games to one against the Golden State Warriors, who finished the season with an all-time best 73-9 record. They had already been anointed the best team of all time, and then the Cavs took one game and then another. Draymond Green got himself suspended for punching LeBron in the nuts. In Game 5, James unleashed 41 points and 16 assists. In Game 6, it was 41 and 11. But even though he and the Cavs were one Warriors run away from losing the series, not once did James show any sign that he was in trouble. According to Sports Illustrated, James would celebrate each victory by sipping a Napa cab in the locker room while listening to jazz.

With a little more than a minute and a half left, Game 7 was tied 89-89—which meant that the entire series was tied, if you combined all the scores of all the games. That’s how close it was. Andre Iguodala grabbed a rebound and started down the floor on a fast break. He dished it to Steph Curry, who gave it right back. Iguodala went up for a rebound and then…boom. James had come from behind, out of nowhere, to pin the ball against the backboard. He had both hands up, prepared in case Iguodala tried a reverse layup. When he took the ball back up the court, LeBron was so drained of energy that his 5-foot sky hook came up short.

Three things happened in that explosion of a play: The first is that anyone watching knew that the Cavs were going to win the game. The second is that it became clear that LeBron’s only peer in history was Michael Jordan (“I watched Beethoven tonight,” said Kyrie Irving postgame.). The third was more subtle, but it was there too. Here was the greatest player in the world dominating basketball’s greatest team—the individual besting the group. That’s the insight of the play, and looking back on it now, you can pause the ball midair and draw a line at that moment, LeBron suspended above the rim. On its way up, there’s one NBA; once it hits the backboard, it inhabits another league.  The Warriors were the blueprint before The Block, a team-focused, chemistry-fueled behemoth built on culture and comradery, champions constructed in the mold of the Bill Russell Celtics and Michael Jordan Bulls. But ever since? Just look at what happened to the archetype. A few weeks later, the Warriors joined the arms race and signed Kevin Durant, the NBA’s second-best player. To fight fire, they had no choice but to get some fire of their own. Every team has had too.

Of course, most people will point to The Decision as the smoking gun of the player empowerment era, but teambuilding still existed long after LeBron took his talents to South Beach. After all, LeBron wasn’t going to Miami to put himself in the spotlight; he was going to join the best team he could. Others built the old school way. The Oklahoma City Thunder grew alongside Durant, Russell Westbrook, and for a little bit, James Harden. There were those unstoppable Warriors. The Philadelphia 76ers’ identity was “Trust the process,” as they assembled a championship roster draft-by-draft, but a couple of months after The Block, they fired their GM Sam Hinkie and angled for star free agents (including James).

After Game 7, Cavs GM David Griffin told reporters, “When you have LeBron James, you’re never afraid. You’re never David against Goliath because you have Goliath. So fear does not really exist. Every circumstance we put ourselves in, we expect to get out of, because we have him. He makes you believe you can do anything because he is present, and we all get to succeed because we’re in his sphere. I imagine that’s how it was with the Yankees and Babe Ruth, but I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The rest of the league seemed to get the message. With the one play, James seemed to say, “You can build a perfect team, and it doesn’t matter.” So in the years since, you’ve seen more NBA players than ever changing teams, and they’re doing so not just to satisfy their ego (although it does happen, and you can check out James Harden for an example of that approach). They’re swapping jerseys because in order to compete in the league today, a star player needs to have space to shine. That’s the new blueprint. That’s what The Block announced. In 2019, Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors proved it once again: a great team can’t stop a great player. So the NBA has adjusted, recalibrated, and like it or not, teams like the Tim Duncan Spurs won’t be coming back any time soon.

Celebrating the championship that night, LeBron handed his 11-year-old son Bronny the trophy. He posed for pictures, lifted it over his head, and then handed it back to his father. His arms were tired, the kid said. So at center court, LeBron told Bronny to do five pushups. He needed to be strong enough to carry the trophy all on his own one day.

To win one, you can’t rely on a team to help you hoist it.

The 10th Annual Joey Awards

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