The Curious Case of Lebron James

Sometime in the last few weeks between shopping and Thanksgiving and swim practice and competitions and my day job I found an NBA game featuring the Miami Heat and some other NBA team (there are really only 5 teams in the NBA: Heat, Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Everybody Else).

I need to make one thing clear before moving on: I’m not an NBA fan. Sure I’ll tune in from time to time, but it’s only if I think there might be some adversity like players fighting fans or a fight on the court. That’s because adversity and drama are all the NBA is good for. Well, I also like to tune in to see how former Kentucky players are doing, but I call that research in the event I’m called on to make a recruiting pitch to a potential Wildcat some day. But the world of professional sports—especially professional basketball— has done a brilliant job of training me to look to it for a source of entertainment as opposed to finding some sort of inspiration in the true spirit of competition—the best-of-the-best matching their hearts, training, physical giftedness, and wit on a would-be field of battle.

Whereas in the silliness of my younger years I might have had a favorite team comprised of favorite players I grew to know, love, and respect, now I’m only looking for the story line. Since I don’t really care who wins or loses anymore, but how funny the commercials are or how compelling the story lines are, I no longer feel terrible after a loss (or feel the euphoria of a win, for that matter, but it’s a decent trade-off. But that’s for a future post.).

Given the pomp and circumstance of the new Miami Heat, the way Lebron James handled (or mishandled) his departure from Cleveland, The Decision, “I’ve decided to take my skills to South Beach,” and their early struggles, I actually thought there was a good chance to find adversity and drama for a few minutes … and I was right. Every time LBJ touched the ball. I mean every. single. time. The crowd booed him. And this wasn’t a Boston, Orlando, or LA. That is, this wasn’t a city that cares. Rather, it was a group of people that most likely just paid the admission to come out and boo Lebron. Gotta love that. It was as close to NBA-style magic as you’re going to get on a Tuesday night!

I can’t remember anything that comes close to the curious case that has become Lebron James. Just a year ago he was the toast of the NBA, enjoying popularity, fame, and a future as bright as anyone that has come into the league. He had done a outstanding job of staying out of jail, a difficult task for NBA players, but also to his credit he had done a magnificent job managing his image, or “brand” if you will. The powder ceremony before tip-off was really cool. The sideline shows he and his Cavalier teammates would put on, well, that was just good stuff. Lebron was the coolest kid at Cool High.

But that’s exactly what makes the present reality so interesting. To go from such a “can’t miss” position to being booed—not for a flagrant foul or for being the spoiler of a team’s opportunity to win, but more the role of perma-villain akin to Lex Luther—transcends the basketball court and moves into the realm of sociology. On the one hand, who can blame Lebron for taking the easy path. He’s made millions already and stands to make millions more. When you’re not even 30 years old yet and you’ve already pretty much solved life, at least on some levels, the idea of “going to work” probably loses a lot of appeal. So why not take the part-time job, share the load with two capable peers like Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosch, enjoy the fruits of your labor, and just spend your time honing your John Madden skills and hanging with friends in South Beach, right. I mean, who can blame him. “Magic, Bird, Michael were stupid,” Lebron et al must have thought. “Why not combine forces, make it easier, and add a wing on to my house for all the championship hardware soon to come.” So why, then, the boos. Do we really care that much?

Of course not. So it’s got to be something else. (But what, Agonistes! Please tell us!)  Only if you insist. The boos and the collective outcry at the curious case of Lebron James is about betrayal. Maybe not the same cut-clear-to-the-heart betrayal as Robert the Bruce, but maybe closer than you’d think. We don’t mind it so much that athletes make more money in a year than many of us will make in a lifetime. We don’t mind it so much when they make dumb mistakes, squander opportunities, or make the occasional, yet very public, faux pas. I’d say many of us are only marginally bothered by that kind of stuff. But when it appears that you’re ducking the responsibility, accountability, and (most of all) the trial-by-fire fight required to enter a champion’s realm—that’s where, culturally speaking, we might have a problem.

Regardless of the accuracy of the sentiment, the reality is that in the world that we live in these larger than life individuals like Lebron James function as symbols of the indomitable human spirit. Most of us can’t dunk like Lebron or shoot like Lebron or run through obstacles like Lebron, but deep down maybe just maybe we realize that what he is able to do on the basketball court serves as a metaphor for how we must confront life every day—with an unstoppable spirit. What he offers, whether he wins or loses or wins the game or misses the last shot, is a physical and palpable manifestation of what it takes to remain in the proverbial game against overwhelming odds and where the stakes are off-the-charts high. So how do you feel when Maverick bugs out or when Superman makes the decision to become something less? It’s a betrayal because we expect more. It’s a betrayal because we deserve more. It’s a betrayal because the hero offers more.

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