|Photo by Keith Allison|
LeBron James is quite possibly the most naturally talented player to have ever stepped foot on a basketball court. He melds the scoring prowess of Michael Jordan, the court vision of Magic Johnson, the sixth sense and rebounding knack of Larry Bird, the graceful athleticism of Dr. J, the strength of Scottie Pippen.
He came into the NBA with unparalleled hype — ESPN televised some of his high school games — and he manged to exceed expectations. His career averages (27.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.0 assists), are astonishing. He’s already won two MVP awards, and he’s only 26.
And yet, especially after the conclusion of the recent 2011 Finals, he’s also one of the most enigmatic players in recent sports history.
Who is LeBron James?
Clutch or not?
In basketball and sports in general, it’s usually pretty easy to separate the clutch from the timid. You’re either one or the other. There are players who rise to the occasion and are their best when the stakes are highest (Michael Jordan, Robert Horry, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson), and there are the players who shrink from the glare and don’t rise up when the game is on the line (Chris Webber, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley).
But no player that I can think of has been both clutch and timid in such a short stretch in his career.
Who is LeBron James? Is he the guy who was responsible for one of the most astonishing postseason performances in NBA history, scoring 29 of his team’s last 30 points and single-handedly destroying the Detroit Pistons with a 48 point, 9 rebound, 7 assist game on his way to the finals?
Or is he the player who shrunk from the moment and seemed almost disinterested when it counted last year against the Celtics? Is he the dominant force who sent the Bulls packing this year or is he a 4th Quarter disappearing act as he was against Mavericks?
There are definitely clutch players who come up short – Michael Jordan missed his share of big shots, and Kobe Bryant pointedly quit in the 2006 playoffs, taking only three shots in the second half of a Game 7 blowout. But I can’t think of another player whose demeanor could be so wildly different between seasons and even within the same season.
How could the player who willed his team to victory so many times disappear when it mattered in two straight seasons? How could the most talented player on Earth, playing next to Dwyane Wade, arguably the second most talented player on Earth, lose to Dirk Nowitzki and a band of aging roleplayers?
Who is LeBron James?
A Product of Our Time
LeBron James has made no secret that he wants to be the world’s first billionaire athlete, and he has spent years cultivating his brand. In essence, he’s trying to out-Michael Jordan Michael Jordan. And the way he’s gone about it is such a product of this particular moment. But times have changed.
As we all know, Michael Jordan was the individual who took athlete-as-brand to new, uncharted heights. He became a global celebrity and made gobs amounts of money.
But he also had the luxury of playing in a time where he was completely insulated. Everything we knew about Michael Jordan was filtered through the breathless adulation of sportswriters, the carefully constructed unreality of commercials, his performances on the court, and his masterly postgame interviews.
What did we know about the real Michael Jordan? There was no unfiltered Jordan, no direct contact, no Internet dissecting his every move. He was completely buffered. Everything we saw of Michael Jordan we saw through a filter.
How would Michael Jordan, who publicly called Kwame Brown a “flaming f*****t,” have fared in the Twitter era? How would his gambling have played under the glare of the modern Internet tabloid world?
Athletes don’t get to live behind a carefully cultivated brand anymore. There is no more insulation. The Internet allows 24-hour access, 24-hour observation, 24-hour rumor mongering, and 24-hour dissection.
Who you are is as important as how you perform. There is no hiding.
LeBron James tried to embrace this new era. His Twitter account boasts over two million followers. He spent a lot of time hanging out with his old high school buddies. He cultivated an affable, humble image. He played for his hometown team. It all seemed completely genuine, and he was wildly popular.
And then he tried to capitalize on perhaps the iconic genre of our times: reality television.
Last summer, amid the most frenzied free agency season in NBA history, LeBron opted to announce where he would be playing the next season via a thirty minute special on ESPN called “The Decision.”
And? It was a trainwreck, one of the most narcissistic displays… pretty much ever, culminating with the now-iconic announcement, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
I’m going to take my talents….. to South Beach. Leaving behind his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, without so much as a thankyouverymuch. LeBron went from hero to villain in thirty minutes.
Unlike, well, pretty much everyone in America, I think LeBron made an honest mistake in how he handled “The Decision.” From a basketball standpoint, playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was a no-brainer. People say “Oh, Jordan wouldn’t have done that! Jordan wouldn’t have gone to play with his arch-rival!” Well, LeBron wasn’t gift-wrapped a Scottie Pippen. He wasn’t Magic Johnson playing alongside Kareem, or Bird with McHale and Parrish, or Shaq and Kobe.
The second best player on LeBron’s team was Mo freaking Williams. I mean, come on… That same team without LeBron finished 23-59 this year. You can either luck yourself into a superstar teammate or you can go find one your ownself.
I honestly believe that LeBron thought that people would understand his motivations. He thought that people liked him enough to see what he was doing and would forgive him for leaving Cleveland. He embraced the genre du jour and tried to connect with the world through the prism of reality television.
He miscalculated. And I think he knew it immediately. Look at his body language in the wildly ludicrous introductory rally in Miami. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh look like they’re in their element. LeBron just looks uncomfortable.
His reality didn’t survive the limelight.
Hero or Villain?
In another era, pre-Twitter, pre-24 hour access, pre-reality TV? No “The Decision?” In the Jordan era?
We’d know LeBron as the best player on the planet playing for an incredible team. He would be Shaq moving from Orlando to Los Angeles: just a superstar changing teams.
Only now LeBron is trapped in a world where everyone thinks he is a villain.
Add up all the external forces, the Internet chat rooms, the Trending Topics, the rumors, and now LeBron has a different kind of pressure — the world thinking he’s a villian when it’s not necessarily true, him wanting so badly to be liked but not having that perception survive reality. So now he’s in search of an identity that matches public perception.
This is the world of reality television, an intersection of fiction and nonfiction, of wearing different mantles and shedding your identity to see if a new version fits. This is the fiction and narcissism of the social networking era that Jonathan Franzen described in a recent New York Times Op-Ed:
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
LeBron went from trying desperately to be likeable to trying now to play the heel in the 2011 playoffs, mocking Dirk Nowitzki’s illness and being arrogant in his post-finals press conference.
Only, playing the villain feels no more natural than “The Decision.” It’s not who he is.
But who is LeBron James?
On the Court
Well, he’s a basketball player. And yet all these questions of identity are playing themselves out on the court as well. One minute he’s dominating, the next moment he’s deferring.
Is LeBron the greatest player of all time, someone even Scottie Pippen suggested could be better than Jordan? Is he the LeBron who destroys teams single-handedly and could be the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple double?
Or is LeBron the guy who deferred to Mario Chalmers and Juwan Howard in Game 6 of the 2011 Finals, who handed his team over to Dwyane Wade, and played as if he’s the greatest second-banana of all time? Someone willing to diminish his own abilities in order to enhance his teammates or maybe even someone who just shrinks from the moment?
Who is he?
The story of who LeBron is is yet to be written. He’s only 26. It’s worth remembering that Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six championships. There is plenty of time for LeBron to rattle off a similar string of championships and go down as the greatest of all time.
But will he find the sense of self he needs in order to be great?
The Scam Filter
I believe LeBron is a product of our time. There is no more hiding anymore, no more cultivating of brands and images and fictions. There is no more suspension of disbelief.
We modern humans spend our days sniffing out spam and deciding whether to click on suspicious links. We watch reality TV shows and try and sift out what’s real and fake. The Internet is a massive bull**** detection project, and we spend hours a day trying to sort out truth from fiction. We have all become masters at boring through the false and pinpointing what is real.
We can spot phoniness ten miles away. When the glare of the Internet is upon you, if there isn’t a truth that you can shine to the world the Internet will sniff out your weakness and expose your hollow innards.
I think the glare on LeBron is especially harsh right now because he doesn’t know who he is, and the world wants people to know their place. If you’re a villain, own your villainy, if you’re a hero, act like a hero. Just know who you are.
LeBron still has time. But in order to make things right on the court and with the public perception he’s going to dig deep and find a true identity. He’s got to decide if he’s the top dog or a supporting player, if he’s a villain or virtuous, if he’s a brand or a baller. The dithering in real life is playing itself on the court. The external reflects the internal, and there is some truth out there yet to be discovered.
LeBron has to be the one to find out who he really is.
Hollister Ann Grant says
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Bryan Russell (Ink) says
I certainly think LeBron's choices have led, to some extent, to the scrutiny, but I do think we can choose how we make the evaluation.
And I have seen very little praise of Dirk and Co., at least not in any central way. Most of the lead stories and commentary I've seen have been about LeBron (and the Big Three). Sometimes, in the middle, it's sort of like "Hey, Dirk and the Mavs were pretty good" and then it was back to the LeBron Saga.
Which we'll probably have to hear about all summer.
Maybe the Tour de France will distract me. Crazy guys riding bicycles up mountains is always entertaining.
Bryan Russell (Ink) says
(I mean, I'm a Raptors fan, of all things, and have no real reason to love Bosh and the Heat. But the illogic of the endless abuse almost makes me cheer for Miami — sort of an irrational attempt to even the scales)
Joe Romel says
Yes, if he had simply told the press that he was going to Miami via his agent, or some other innocuous means, the backlash would have been minimized. There's every chance the media would have still focused on Cleveland's reaction as a city, and that might have served to make him the villain to some degree no matter what, but forgoing the bold talk and the party and "The Decision" would have been better for PR.
Carmello asked out of Denver, KG asked out of Minnesota, Karl Malone asked out of Utah, and they were all celebrated for wanting to go somewhere they could win a title. In KG's case, he was roundly criticized for not asking out of Minnesota earlier, so this hatred for LeBron leaving for Miami is a double standard. But again, as we all know, the bad feelings are rooted in the media circus he created around it.
But for as bad as it is today, public opinion is fickle, and we've shunned personalities only to embrace them later. Kobe Bryant was the black sheep of the league for a couple of years–both for his ruination of the Lakers post-Shaq and, more appropriately, for the accusations of rape levied against him–and today he's once again a bankable brand.
We may very well take LeBron back into the fold. A couple more playoff exits without the title, and he could even become a sympathetic figure again. But it begins with him.
He needs to become LeBoring. No more soundbites, no more faux pontificating on the podium after a win, no more excuse-making after a loss, no more answering the baiting questions from the press. It has to begin there, or else I don't know what's going to help him.
Hektor Karl says
"the illogic of the endless abuse almost makes me cheer for Miami"
My dad rooted for the Heat for this very reason, so I have a lot of sympathy for that view.
"I have seen very little praise of Dirk and Co., at least not in any central way."
I thought the hero worship of Dirk (and even what's left of Jason Kidd) was fairly high, but I guess we just perceived things differently.
Also, the Heat were pretty clearly the better team. The Vegas odds for next season are out, and the Heat are again favored to win the title (5 to 2). (The Mavs are down at like 10 to 1.)
The Mavs wouldn't have been able to beat the Heat at their best, so I think that is shaping the narrative a bit. It was the Heat's series to lose.
"Which we'll probably have to hear about all summer."
I think you're right about this. Though the lockout will also get a lot of press. The Knicks, Lakers or Celtics might also grab attention if they make a major move. Poor Chris Bosh is going to be in every other trade rumor.
"Most of the lead stories and commentary I've seen have been about LeBron (and the Big Three)"
Perhaps Nathan's post tomorrow can be "Who is Rick Carlisle?" But I'm guessing that would get fewer hits :).
Lucinda Bilya says
The only encounter of the Lebron type was at the Waffle House. He came in with his lady-friend and her baby and I served them breakfast. Before he left, he bought some stranger their breakfast and gave them an authograph. He seemed very quiet and polite.
Opinions? Okay…I think that no matter how timid a person may be, given enough razzing and tazzing by the media, so-called "fans," and public exposure…a person usually changes, adapts, or breaks.
I don't follow sports, but people fascinate me.
Patrick Neylan says
Fascinatingly parochial, like reading about Indonesian volleyball.
I can't wait to hear your take on Samir Nasri joining Manchester United (if it happens).
Bryan Russell (Ink) says
I'm fond of your Dad already.
And it's funny, I thought Dallas was always the better team. The Miami Heat is three players and a gimpy, out of shape Udonis Haslem. It's by far the most flawed "great team" I've ever seen. They have no point guard, and their starting center is the worst offensive player in the league. And he's a fellow Canuck, so I feel bad saying that, but it's true.
Every player on Dallas came out and made plays, even guys who'd barely played in three months. I think the series was about whether a really good team could beat three great players. They could.
Miami was a crapshoot all season, and Vegas has always liked big names. There will probably be a Big Three Cabaret there this summer… roll the dice and win free tickets!
Funnily enough, the only real reason that Miami beat Boston and Chicago, outside solid defense, was that LeBron went crazy in the clutch. Play either of those teams again and it could easily come out the other way (and, frankly, a healthy Boston would have been a better team).
Bethany Robison says
The interesting thing to watch in the LeBron narrative will be if he makes the switch from hero to villain and back to sympathetic character again. This wouldn't surprise me at all.
The only thing Americans might like better than an underdog story is a redemption story. We want him to be better, in every respect.
I played basketball at the university of Akron when lebron was in high school and I played with him many times in an open gym format. I also know most of his good friends (dru Joyce, Romeo Travis, and cousin/manager maverick Carter). I knew lebron when he was 16 through 18 but I do not know him now.
In my opinion lebron was a very nice, polite, funny, and cool high school junior and senior. I saw him in Vegas a year after he went pro and he greeted me like an old friend. He was competitive and friendly at the same time, which is no easy feat. Most of all he was a freak of nature-bigger, stronger, and better than D-1 athletes when he was 16 years old.
I think he just simply had too much thrown at him too fast. He was given the opportunity to design his high school uniforms at st. Vincent st. Mary's and he was give. A loan on a hummer with the collateral being his athletic talent. He signed a contract with Nike for 100 million before he ever played a single game. He was called the chosen one and expected to save an entire region of the country from their misery. Could you handle all that as a high school senior?
Since he was 14 he he never knew if anyone really wanted to be his friend. He has been used for his money, his fame.
All that being said, he picked the wrong people to represent him. He surrounded himself with yes men. He didn't keep a single person in his inner circle who ever told him no.
I think Nathan is right. I think lebron has no idea who he is. Jordan and Kobe were a-holes who really didnt care about anything but winning. Kobe may or may not have raped a woman, yet he is forgiven because he's good in the fourth quarter? Has lebron broken the law? Did he ever lunch a teammate in practice?
Maybe he's not as good as we want him to be. Maybe he's missing something that Jordan had. Maybe he's still overwhelmed by south so fast. Can you honestly say you wouldn't be the same way?
I didn't start this post to defend lebron but I knew him when he was just a kid. And I liked him. So did everyone else I knew. It makes me sad that I don't anymore.
Sorry for the misprints above. I'm on my phone in the airport.
Matty McFatty says
Been reading the blog for a few years, although I rarely comment. Fantastic post on LeBron today; you could give Bill Simmons a run for his money.
I couldn't help comparing your account of LeBron to your post about how authors respond to critics a few months back. Both demonstrate the acute need for grace on the part of the critic and the critiqued alike (even if the critiqued is a billion dollar athlete or a broke self-published author).
Rebecca H says
Wow. I'm not a fan of the NBA, but this post was riveting – which is an indication of great writing.
I do think LeBron James is the best basketball player today — but as James Scott Bell said, he has no class.
Perhaps a healthy dose of humility would go a long way towards teaching him something that can't be learned on the basketball court. The question is, is he listening?
lb james is a dumb A## with a limited IQ. At 26 he looks OLDER than ANY of the Dallas MAVs.
The MAV's deserved this one for their hard work, devotion to one another and their LOVE for the GAME of basketball and not fame.
Teamwork was the key. And Pride.
I at least appreciated lbjame's subdued concession that Dallas played the better series. Let's hope that he matures and finds a way to be a great role model for the kids that adore him. He is an awesome BB player, no one can deny that. Let's hope his future choices are 'Enduringly Precise'.
It was a long road thru the finals and I confess I'm a lifelong Dallas fan – female at that.
Go Mav's! Texas is so proud YOU.
James Harden says
Hey Nathan, can you please start up another blog that's just about basketball. Thank you.
Also, I'm pretty sure there's a job for you over at NBA.com if you want one.
Jonathan Dalar says
I asked LeBron James for change for a dollar the other day. He only gave me 75 cents. He didn't have a fourth quarter.
It was LeBron James day in Dallas yesterday. Everyone was encouraged to take the last twelve minutes of the day off.
Why didn't LeBron James go to college? He couldn't show up for the finals.
Moses Siregar III says
Great post, Nathan. I really enjoyed reading it.
(Note: It seems the process for logging in here has become more convoluted – rather than fill out another internet form, I'll just post this as Anon)
1) LeBron's numbers are no better than Larry Bird's career averages
2) While he's possibly the best all-around player in the league atm, he barely qualifies as a great player in historical context.
3) Michael Jordan didn't get a gift-wrapped Scottie Pippen – like everyone he played with, Jordan ELEVATED Pippen to what he became.
4) I agree with Harden's sentiments above, you could write a great column for NBA.com or ESPN…but the last thing the world needs is more analysis of LeBron James. That being said, yours was the most insightful and unique piece I've read about him in the past few weeks.
and as for LeBron himself,
5) How vain it is to declare oneself king without ever coming close to the crown.
Phil Clements says
Nathan, your argument relies on a false premise: "We [modern humans] have all become masters at boring through the false and pinpointing what is real."
Modern Americans are hardly masters of critical thinking. The vast majority are masters of blind obedience.
The success of Fox News, "A Million Little Pieces", and Harold Camping demonstrate this fabulously.
As a general rule, I could care less about sports. That being said, I was intrigued by this- and actually read the whole thing. So much so, that I decided to de-lurk and leave a comment.
The quote by Franzen was great- needs to be on a wall somewhere.
By FAR one of the most INTELLIGENT, HONEST, and INSIGHTFUL blog posts I've read in about a year.
Nathan, you've always amazed with your ability to avoid group-think and the mob mentality.
But this might be the home run of your blogging career.
All the people who've dedicated themselves to hating a well-meaning 26 year old who makes some bad choices will ignore what you've said.
But to all those who know how to actually CONSIDER OTHER POINTS OF VIEW, your article demands respect.
And you have it from me.
Oh, and I hope LeBron and the Heat win 3 titles in a row just to for kicks.
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