A King at Night: Lebron Steals Away

Benjamin Polk —  July 10, 2010 — 7 Comments

Photo by NatalieHG

As much as possible, I’ve tried to stay away from covering the Lebron spectacle. The deluge of speculation, self-aggrandizement and misinformation was just a little too hot and gooey to hold onto, especially for a venue as concerned with semi-forgotten former number 2 draft picks as we seem to be.

But as I indicated below, I was sort of taken aback at the ickiness of the announcement’s forum, as well as with my own supreme disappointment at its content. So I have two, hopefully brief observations.

First, there is no doubt that holding an hour-long national television event to announce your choice of employers (in the process slowly torturing your most loyal supporters) is an act of cruel hubris.  This has been widely remarked upon and is not exactly a revelation. Still, as our friend David Roth has pointed out at Can’t Stop the Bleeding some of the more vituperative scolding LBJ (or more accurately, “his ego”) has received from the Innernet pundicrats (this one and this one are prime examples) strike one as more than a little disingenuous. Says Mr. Roth:

Obviously this whole thing was going to get dumb, and obviously it has gotten dumb. Obviously LeBron was going to sign a huge contract and leverage his brand (barf, by the way) for maximum revenue, because he has always done that, and obviously he is doing that. Getting Hulk-smash angry at the fact that these totally predictable things are happening strikes me as kind of a waste of energy and virtual ink.

These things aren’t just predictable. More than that, they’ve been expected of Lebron ever since he was, like, 10 years old. How can we possibly scrutinize his every comment and action, endlessly pontificate on his desires and motivations (there’s that ego again) and then self-righteously attack him for his outsized sense of his own world-historical importance? Seems a little hypocritical to me.

I’ve always been struck by the degree to which Lebron believes in the hagiography (the “King James” thing, the “we are all witnesses” thing, the “having a legacy” thing); as a result, it seems to me, he is disarmingly businesslike and matter-of-fact about his own magnificence. He’s got none of Terrell Owens’s pulsating narcissism or even someone like J.R. Smith’s transparent insecurity. He just takes his own status as an extraordinarily important person–which status is constantly reinforced by the media and the fans and his business associates and own teammates–as a given. So it isn’t exactly arrogant (it’s a lot of gross things, but not arrogance) for him to assume that we would want to watch an hour-long TV show about his latest act of self-marketing. We did want to watch it; it’s exactly what we had been asking for.

Here’s the second thing. As I mentioned before, my main emotion at hearing that Lebron was heading to South Beach wasn’t anger or disgust; it was disappointment. Disappointment, not so much at his disloyalty to the hometown team–as we well know, the loyalty of fans and players to their pro sports organizations has never been a two-way street–but because he would have looked so great next to Boozer and Rose and Noah in Chicago. His staggering talents would have been beautifully complemented and enhanced. Best of all, he would have seeded the possibility of an eye-popping rivalry with Wade’s and Bosh’s Heat. It would have been so much fun.

Commenter Mac put it really well (go here and scroll down for the whole thing):

But to me, Lebron will always be a guy who put winning ahead of actually competing, who wanted a ring more than he wanted to win a ring, who wanted the championship belt more than he wanted to be the baddest man on the planet. I am told he is a big fan of the movie “Gladiator.” He fancies himself Maximus no doubt, but to me he proved this summer he is a lot more like Commodus — he wants the throne and the adulation and the symbolic victory in front of the masses, but what doesn’t care about as much is beating anybody in a fair fight. And to me, that makes him a less interesting player and a less admirable champion, even if he wins a title or two or three. Your mileage may vary.

Ultimately, I don’t really care that the Lakers won the Finals this year. What was meaningful to me was the heart-exploding, ferociously competitive seven games (plus two compelling series against OKC and Phoenix, plus their whole curious regular season) that got them there. I care that they played feverish defense and managed to overcome a poor offensive game by their best player and barely squeaked by a Celtics team almost exactly as tenacious and synchronized as they were. We’ve come to so fetishize the spoils of victory–especially that iconic ring–that we’ve almost forgotten the game itself. But the beautiful struggle, the intense harmony of ten bodies in motion, that’s the interesting part. The results are just words on a page; the ring is just a piece of metal.  Winning is important, but the process, the effort, is what really compels. The fact that Lebron seems to want to circumvent that process–that he seems, as Mac says, to care more about winning than competing–this is what really bums me out.


Benjamin Polk

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7 responses to A King at Night: Lebron Steals Away

  1. My last comment on this – the Dan Patrick Show referred to the Dan Gilbert letter as the “Lebronabomber Manifesto.” Best line of the summer.

  2. I actually disagree that LeBron “cares more about winning than competing”, or that he was motivated by the “fetishized desire” to *own* a ring instead of the “gladitorial” desire to *win* one from his staunchest competitors. I actually don’t think that winning was LeBron’s primary goal at all.

    Ultimately, I think what LeBron wanted most was to have fun. In Miami, he chose the destination that would allow him to have the most fun. Now that he’s with the Heat, he gets to live in South Beach with two of his closest friends, he gets a lot of that intense pressure removed from his own shoulders, and he (presumably) gets to win a bunch of basketball games. In that sense, it’s hard to argue with the logic of his decision.

    This much is certainly true: LeBron does not possess the same pathological competitiveness that Michael Jordan had. But I get a little disgusted with all the vitriolic disappointment that people are hurling LeBron’s way. We act like he owes it to us to have that same sort of greatness. We’re angry that LeBron doesn’t value greatness above all else, that he’s not actually a gladiator who would rather die (for our entertainment) than lose.

    But you know what? Michael Jordan is an unpleasant son-of-a-bitch who has never looked happy in his entire life. A part of me is glad that LeBron isn’t really like him. What LeBron really revealed last week is that he wants to be happy more than he wants to be great (and, along the way, he also revealed himself to be a tremendously arrogant and out-of-touch caricature of a celebrity athlete). But as someone who values happiness, I am willing to celebrate LeBron’s non-greatness.

  3. Well put. I think a lot of attention went to other aspects of this whole spectacle, but ultimately what it boils down to is a mistaken (or just different from my own, I suppose) understanding of the point of sports. Some people think winning is the point. I think winning is the goal, and competing is the point. It may be semantics, but it’s an important difference.

  4. This is a great point. I absolutely agree that using Michael Jordan’s psychotic competitiveness as a barometer for greatness is a huge mistake, and one that many observers seem to be making, especially in relation to Lebron.

    And I do also agree that the simple enjoyment–palm trees, good buddies who happen to be your peers among the elite players in the game, lots of wins–seems to be a motivating factor for Lebron. Certainly can’t fault a guy for wanting to be happy.

    But LBJ also can’t stop talking about championships and rings (and in this regard he seems to be unfortunately borrowing from the Jordan vocabulary). He does it to such a degree that he does seem to be ignoring what is, for me, the best part, that is the competition, the game itself.

    My point is just that, from this fan’s perspective, it would have been considerably more fun–the teams more balanced, the playoffs more competitive, the rivalries more heated–if Lebron had joined the Bulls or even the Knicks. Of course, I can’t expect Lebron James to make decisions based on my idea of what would be cool, but it seems to me (and maybe this is totally unfair) that Lebron is missing something really important if he doesn’t understand that. Thanks for the great comment.

  5. AWESOME POST. I come here for takes on the Wolves, but this was just too good to not comment on. Well done, Ben.

    /late to the party

  6. Hi Ben,

    I agree that LeBron is missing something important; we fans are definitely losing out by his decision. With LeBron at the Heat, we lose great rivalries, we lose the fanbases of entire cities, and we miss out on watching a lot of great performances that would have happened if those three were independently captaining great teams. I just dispute the notion that LeBron somehow “owed” that outcome to us as fans. If he doesn’t want to be a ruthless competitor, then I’m happy for him, even if the NBA becomes slightly less inspiring as a result.

    As for LeBron’s vocabulary… it is a little unfortunate. Perhaps he truly does think in those terms (“winning rings is all that matters”). But it also might just be taboo for him to publicly admit that his value system has anything other than winning a championship in the #1 spot.

  7. Brian, I agree you make many salient points. Just to be clear, I am disappointed in Lebron because I think he owes it to himself to challenge himself more, he doesn’t owe me. But I also don’t owe him any particular opinion of him. Living in a free society is a double-edged sword like that.

    I do want to raise a point that people don’t seem to bring up that much, in defense of Lebron. I’m old enough that I’ve been following sports since the late 1970s and I did actually live through the Magic-Bird-Jordan era as a fan. And it’s just different now. Back then, sports was much more regional. Well into the 1990′s you didn’t have a national sports network, and people basically followed their own team. Think about it, Sports Illustrated, a weekly magazine of some 64 pages, was the only source of national sports news basically. It was a different world, and we judged our heroes differently.

    People don’t understand how much ESPN and marketing has shaped the way they think about sports during the past 20 years. Before then, winning championships was less of a big deal — sure, you wanted to win, but fans didn’t judge somebody a failure because they didn’t win titles. Your guys were your guys, if they won great, if not oh well, wait till next year. ESPN changed that because they couldn’t have entire cities and regions say “who cares, our guys are done” so they changed the narrative to you have to win titles or it’s all worthless. That way, all fans in all markets take interest to the end.

    So to an extent Lebron is a victim of the modern “win a ring or you’re nothing” narrative in a way that Magic, Bird, Jordan etc. simply were not because that narrative didn’t exist back then because nobody was making money off it. When this narrative became too powerful, it was inevitable that players tried to win rings regardless of what was fair or admirable. Why should they care about being competitors when everybody says your career is meaningless unless you have the hardware?

    So the Lebron/Bosh/Wade triad was inevitable in a way, the NBA, ESPN, and to an extent, the fans who bought into the marketed values brought it upon themselves. It is probably more surprising it wasn’t engineered earlier. To blame Lebron is pointless, he is simply a human embodiment of the zeitgeist, he is just doing what people say is what success means. Which is not to say I like it, but that is not Lebron’s fault. Although it may seem the opposite sometimes, it’s not Lebron’s world, he just lives in it.

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