Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On LeBron James, Heroes, Villains, and Literacy

I've gotten used to giggling at LeBron James. I love when he misses free throws in clutch moments *giggle*. I secretly enjoy that he wears glasses that don't seem to have any lenses *giggle*. I even giggled along with the rest of the haters when I heard he was reading HUNGER GAMES during the downtime before tip-off. There was something hilariously childlike about it, playing perfectly into the cartoony narrative his life has become.

LeBron has ridden the full roller coaster of a superstardom. He's been a beloved hero, one of the best basketball players in the world. He's been an almost universally reviled villain, both for announcing to Cleveland he was dumping them and taking his talents to South Beach on national television - and then making things even worse by stating how easy it would be for Miami to win championships (not one, not two, not three...).

Yes, LeBron stabbed his home state of Ohio in the back, humiliating them on national TV during "The Decision."
Yes, LeBron (and friends) put on a remarkable display of hubris during the Miami Heat welcome party.
Yes, the whole thing seems cloaked in a haze of collusion and smells of stinky fish.
(Note to self: Find a more Zusakian way to describe this smell; no one describes unpleasant smells better than Markus Zusak.)

But that's all in the past and by now kind of beside the point.
The greatest sin LeBron James has ever committed is not living up to his potential.

Sports is just another branch of the entertainment industry. We love to build up our heroes, watch them fall apart, and then build them up again. It's the way a sports story is supposed to go, your typical hero's narrative arc. Just look at what happened to Tiger Woods last weekend. Just watch what happens to Peyton Manning this fall.
(Ugh, please oh please oh please let this work out for Peyton. *clears throat*)

Cowardice disgusts us. Tentativeness is frustrating. Having the talent and potential to be the best and falling short is forgivable - but making a pedestrian attempt at realizing greatness is not. When someone is born with a gift, he/she is expected to do everything possible to use it to its fullest. Anything less is a tragic waste. Even 'meets expectations' kind of sounds like failure.

I read a fascinating article in Sports Illustrated about Kobe Bryant and his father "Jelly Bean Bryant." The article seems to be saying that it is impossible to be both happy and great, and those blessed with tremendous talents must at some point make a choice.

In the weeks leading up to The Decision (when LeBron dumped Cleveland and took his talents to South Beach), "Sports Guy" Bill Simmons said that LeBron should sign with the New York Knicks because if he won in New York he'd become immortal. Instead, LeBron went to Miami to be on a team with his friends.

Happiness over greatness.

We say "Michael Jordan never would have buddied up with his rival."
We say "Kobe would demand to take the clutch shot, and make or miss, it would be on him."

Perception creates reality. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have chosen to be great - but do we think either of them are happy? Does happiness negate the drive to be great? Does it mean that you're satisfied with 'good enough'? LeBron seems always to exist in the general neighborhood of great, but he never quite crosses the border. They say he lacks that 'killer instinct' that all the great ones have. Our perception tells us that it's a choice. Maybe it is.

If I had a child, and that young impressionable child were in the market for a role model, would LeBron be a bad choice? He's made mistakes, true. He's shown remarkable immaturity at times, true.

When I saw him on TV reading MOCKINGJAY during his pre-game warm-ups, I giggled... but my heart softened toward him just a bit.

To me that moment was real.
Unplanned and unplugged.
And I couldn't stop thinking about that picture.
I'm used to seeing athletes focus before games by blaring music through huge noise cancellation headphones.
I'm not used to seeing athletes shut out the world behind the pages of a paperback bestseller. Why his copy of MOCKINGJAY is paperback when the other two books were hardback I don't understand, but there you go. As far as I know, LeBron has the corner on the NBA reader market.
I say: Good for him.

It's not unusual for athletes to have hobbies that help expand their "brand" - they put out rap albums, appear in cameos in movies or in commercials, or put their names on fashion lines (like shoes). But it always revolves around their identities as athletes, as though they have no time or inclination toward developing further dimensions to their personalities.

It was cool to see one of the premier athletes in the world reading. Not for a photo-op, not with an agenda - but reading because he wanted to. I giggled, but I was also intrigued. The ESPN guys discussed how reading has become a part of his routine - they even gave us a list of what LeBron has been reading lately (my personal favorite: WHO MOVED MY CHEESE). There is something truly endearing about seeing him with a book in his hands with the cover clearly identifiable for everyone to see (as opposed to using some techy e-reader, on which for all we know he could be reading one of those Shades of Gray books).

Something about that image makes me want him to turn things around. Somehow it tells me that if I had a kid in the market for a hero, he might not be that bad.

Maybe he can (in time) be forgiven for whatever sketchy circumstances surrounded his leaving Cleveland. Maybe we can rally around him and Team USA in the Olympics and cheer together when/if he leads the team to gold. Maybe - just maybe - he could be the one guy to figure out how to balance greatness and happiness. Is it wrong to root for that, just a little? Is it wrong to want to see if it can be done, even if the guy who gets there upsets a lot of people along the way?

The narrative on LeBron James is starting to shift. However, the narrative on the Miami Heat is not.

In my perfect world, the Heat lose and the Celtics move on to the finals. LeBron has several weeks off to rest and regroup. And then he completely owns the 2012 Olympics. I feel like that would be the perfect way to claim his place of 'greatest' - that's what the Olympics are for. That's one time when we can all wrap ourselves in the stars and stripes and enjoy the ride together.

Then, in my perfect world, the powers that be would blow up the Heat (whose original construction was about as glorious as the Borg from Star Trek). LeBron would go somewhere else, ANYWHERE ELSE, and be reborn into what he was supposed to be all along. Then, when/if he does finally cross that line into greatness, we'll all be able to feel good about it. Any maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to prove false the idea that greatness and happiness have to be mutually exclusive.

I hope it's false.
Against all odds that little blue copy of MOCKINGJAY made me hope.