It’s time for me to confront my feelings about LeBron James. Not LeBron James the man… I don’t know him personally and it’s extremely unlikely that I ever will. I’m referring to LeBron James the media curated entity. For some reason I’ve never been a big fan of the LeBron James we’ve come to know throughout his years playing professional basketball. Want to know which media crafted, transcendent NBA megastar I was a big fan of? Michael Jordan. Jordan, who I absolutely loved back in the day, was by all accounts a bit of an asshole. Again, I don’t know the man personally but much of what’s been written about him since his retirement paints a rather unflattering picture. So as time passes and I’ve watched James mature, it’s a lot harder to justify my dislike of James and love of Jordan. Why? Because for the most part, James has developed into a good model of positive masculinity both on and off-the-court while Jordan’s off-court record is a bit… lets just say… spotty.
Look, I’m not a fan of comparing current NBA players to Michael Jordan, but people love to do it and they of course love comparing James to MJ. Fine then, if we’re going to do it on-the-court let’s take a second and compare their off-the-court behaviors as well. Since Jordan’s retirement, we’ve learned about his supposed unhealthy hyper-competitiveness, gambling addictions, and propensity for infidelity (and his speech at his hall of fame induction didn’t help either). Jordan just happened to play in the pre-internet/pre-social media era so he had a bit more control over his public image than James and his peers do. As a result, most of Jordan’s bad habits were not widely known. We were free to love Jordan for his skills on the court without having to stress over his messy private life. James on the other hand has led a very public life. Many have called him the “first social media athlete” as a result. Despite the extra bright spotlight he lives under, James hasn’t been linked to any troubling behavior in his personal life. So far his biggest off-court blemish stems from one poorly advised television special.
My reasons for not liking James are pretty flimsy when I get to thinking about them. Certainly there’s an element of fan provincialism going on: he’s never played for any of “my team(s)” and he probably never will. Hmmm… that never stopped me from loving Jordan and a number of other NBA players that didn’t play for “my team(s).” Well.. my opinion did sour even more after “The Decision,” that ill-conceived ESPN special about James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and sign a contract with the Miami Heat. Making matters worse, after “the Decision” came that over the top introduction of Miami’s “big three” in which James infamously and rather cockily predicted “not one… not two… not three…” but eight championships for himself and the Heat. After all of this, like many sports fans outside of Miami, I willingly swallowed the media narrative about James hook, line and sinker. From then on, I viewed him as an entitled, cold-hearted heel interested only in creating a super team with his friends instead of caring about legacy, history or even Cleveland basketball fans.
But in the time since “The Decision” a number of things have slowly changed my mind about LeBron James. My first point of reconsideration came after watching the documentary More Than a Game, which follows James’ middle and high school years in Ohio and his eventual rise to fame. The film gave me a new appreciation for the man, his past, his challenges and his motivations. Since “The Decision” James has also expressed regret for the way he managed his Cavs departure. Add to this the racial and employer vs employee undertones of the backlash against him, which became clearer with every talking head and thought piece written in the aftermath (particularly from ESPN who’s investment in the NBA status quo and love of team owners is notable). But beyond all of this came the most important mind changers, for me at least; His responses to the Trayvon Martin murder and to Donald Sterling’s racist comments, his public commitment to family and finally, the “I’m Coming Home” letter he wrote for Sports Illustrated.
“Republicans Buy Sneakers Too”
The famously politically and socially agnostic Michael Jordan may or may not have said those words when asked why he failed to endorse Harvey Gantt’s 1990 challenge to outwardly racist North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Whether he said it or not, the point remains the same; Jordan didn’t do much standing up for causes or social issues. In fact, he’s long been credited with starting the trend of professional athletes thinking more about their bottom lines than social issues. Following this lead, James entered the NBA saying that he wanted to be the first billion dollar net worth athlete (a quote that rubbed me wrong and contributed to my initial dislike of James). So color me surprised when James (and his teammates) joined the millions demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Later, James not only publicly, but forcefully addressed Donald Sterling’s racist comments, demanding that the NBA sell Sterling’s team or he would boycott. Jordan, who is now a team owner himself, took the safe route and waited a bit before finally releasing his statement (and while I’m not in his head it’s easy to believe that he responded only because of media pressure to do so).
So James has quietly become a bit of an activist and I hope he continues to take public stands on important social issues. Jordan on the other hand remains silent on most things social and/or political.
Commitment To Family
I can’t think of a time in which Jordan publicly interacted with his kids. In fairness to Jordan, that was probably a result of the era he played in… fatherhood wasn’t as publicly open and loving as it (sometimes) is these days. As far as I remember, kids were rarely seen having fun with their athlete dads, so I’m not holding this against Jordan. Still, James’ kids are very visibly a part of his life and I think it’s great. They’re in some of his ads, in his YouTube videos, at press conferences, etc. He’s clearly proud to show off his love for them and his wife. Speaking of James’ wife, he’s been with her since age 16. The fact that they were high school sweethearts doesn’t make their relationship more special or sweeter than anyone else’s, but it demonstrates a level of familial commitment that is worth noting.
Finally there’s James’ return to Cleveland. James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers via a letter written on SI.com. This time around there was no tone-deaf TV special. There were no grudges held against the hometown fans who burned his jersey or the owner who wrote a completely idiotic letter (that was still online until last week) after he left four years ago. LeBron forgave, while also asking for forgiveness. I have a hard time imagining the hyper-competitive Jordan doing any of that. Years into his retirement he still hasn’t forgiven players he played and beat many times over. But the best part of James’ heartfelt letter were the motivations he listed for his return, including a desire to raise his kids in his hometown and a wish to bring a championship to the beleaguered Cleveland sports fans. He also spoke about leading and mentoring the young players he’ll be playing alongside. Then there was this… the most touching part of his letter;
My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile.
So move over Jordan, when it comes to transcendent NBA superstars there’s a new reference model in my head and his name is LeBron James. In the end, he may not win six championships or as many MVP trophies as Jordan, but when it comes to the type of man I’d rather root for, James has Jordan beat hands down. In all honesty, I’m still going to root against the Cavs when they play against my teams, but I will no longer throw shade at the man for irrational reasons. I have a new-found respect for James and I’ve decided its high time to retire my Jordan love and fully embrace the NBA’s megastar du jour.