More than anyone else, LeBron James was responsible for lifting the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors, bringing Cleveland its first-ever NBA championship last night (June 19) and its first major sports title since 1964. The unanimous MVP of the finals also grew up in Northeastern Ohio, making the win extra emotional. When it was all over and the Cavaliers had their victory, he broke down in tears—and the internet pounced.
James’s crying face was quickly turned into a meme and hashtagged #CryingLebron, playing off the ubiquitous #CryingJordan meme that has been a fixture on Instagram, Twitter, and every last corner of the internet this year. It was a moment ready-made for the internet and its love of mocking men displaying even the appearance of vulnerability (see sad Kanye and sad Keanu). But it’s also a testament to James’ stature in both the NBA and the culture more broadly.
Crying Jordan, if by some miracle you haven’t yet seen it, is a meme made from a photo taken of a tearful Jordan during his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech. Although it was a moment of gratitude and triumph for Jordan, who many still believe to be the greatest player in NBA history, the internet took the opportunity to start photoshopping his tear-stained face onto moments of failure and humiliation in sports, though it now turns up on just about everything.
But the internet is rarely content for long, and has been on the lookout for other men who might be able to take Jordan’s place. Athletes know they have to be on their guard, as Warriors’ power forward Draymond Green confessed in a television interview earlier this year, discussing how he felt about his selection to the NBA All Star team. “I almost started crying but I knew I was on TV and I ain’t want them to kill me on Instagram,” he said (paywall). “I think they would have them make me the crying face instead of Jordan.”
While James’s tears revealed the enormous sense of joy and relief James must have felt after finally capturing the title for his city, his face has already being used to mock failure, including that of his rival in the finals, Stephen Curry. Though really any cause of sadness is fair game.
The crying LeBron face isn’t exactly flattering, but it arguably wouldn’t work as well with a lesser figure. While the original mocks Jordan, it also memorializes him. Its longevity is based on the strength of his legacy. There are undoubtedly pictures available of other players on the Cavs crying after their victory, but there’s a reason James’s face is the one that’s being photoshopped everywhere.
It’s not certain that crying LeBron could actually replace crying Jordan. The Jordan meme has a life of its own now, and just like Jordan’s sneaker brand, there may never be another.
But if anything, crying LeBron is a testament to James’s position in NBA history and in culture more broadly, cemented more than ever with his triumphant performance in the finals.