For nearly half of the 26-year life of King James, he’s glowed atop a furnace of hype.
James is no ordinary great player. He’s a city-swallowing tractor beam of acclaim. Before he had his driver’s license, he became the youngest player ever named Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball”, and was the first sophomore ever selected to the USA Today all-USA first team. SI covers. Sold-out professional arenas for high school games. LeBron didn’t sneak up on anyone, didn’t “pay his dues”, didn’t elevate to stardom. He was shout-it-out-loud transcendent from his career’s antepartum.
He won back-to-back MVPs with Cleveland, compiling a holistic stat line that blended Magic with Michael. So when LeBron decided to “take his talents to South Beach” and join super-friends Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, it appalled many who wished he’d become the greatest basketball player in NBA history, and most transcendent figure in Ohio history. LeBron’s decision was mimicked, mocked and ridiculed. He was labeled a coward and a quitter. I see it differently. LeBron just wanted to fit in.
Michael Jordan was famously omitted from his JV basketball team, and turned that slight (and a series of perceived slights thereafter) into fuel to propel his performance beyond measurable heights. Jordan didn’t want to be ordinary. Been there. Done that. Jordan quit early … twice … to ensure he’d go out on top; to etch his own face onto the side of basketball’s Mt. Rushmore. And when he came back, twice, it was because he couldn’t bear to see others overtake him, overshadow him, overrun him. Slights sickened Jordan. Ordinary was an illness of character.
LeBron can’t help his greatness. It defines him. It drives us to write hyperbole about him, to re-create definitive “Best of” lists and allows us to say we “We Are All Witnesses.” Critics and fans of LeBron measure him not against other players of his era, but against their very own idealized LeBron. We revise his legacy hourly; not his image, not his reputation, his legacy – something that should evolve organically long after he’s hung up his sneakers – because he’s gifted, different. LeBron doesn’t want to be different. Different sickens him.
Remember the gifted kids in school? Sometimes they got bored. Sometimes they zoned out and messed around, concentrating more on making peers and teachers laugh than on completing their assignments. The normal kids got away with it. Why shouldn’t they?
When you have one transcendent talent, if you’re not careful, it consumes you. You become slave to it. People begin to value you only for that which makes you valuable. Your sense of self becomes incomplete, disproportionate and inharmonious.
Studies have shown some gifted children, when they knew they were held accountable or on display, actually purposely give wrong answers to test questions, or incorrect responses when called upon in class. They weren’t choking. They weren’t shrinking from the moment. They were humanizing themselves, trying to relate to and endear themselves to their classmates. Perfection is not only burdensome, but inherently lonely since it’s hard to hide behind it.
LeBron joined the Heat seeking relative anonymity as much as titles. He wanted to mesh as part of a group of perceived equals. He wanted, for the first time in his life, his greatness to blend in with the greatness of others. LeBron could score 40 points every night if he wanted, but that’s not why he came to Miami. He came to share his success.
This has happened before. Eric Clapton once formed a band, Derek and the Dominos, with other gifted musicians to not only attempt to create a masterpiece blues-rock album (which he did, with Layla and Other Love Songs) but to seek relative anonymity, weary that his stature had grown too big. He even left his homeland of England to come across the pond to do so.
No surprise, anonymity never came.
Additionally, Clapton’s often praised for letting the music ‘breathe’ and not simply shredding like crazy (even though he could). For Clapton, creating great music was as much about texture, tone and space as it was about chops and ingenuity. The interplay between Clapton’s guitar and his bandmates helped to enrich the sound as a whole, and Clapton’s instrument doesn’t dominate the mix like you’d think a guitar god’s should. Sound familiar?
When James defers to Wade, he thinks he’s being part of the team, making himself seem human, and selflessly ceding the spotlight. He wants us to value his character. The irony: We want him to be the flawless basketball robot, since that’s what makes him valuable to us, and we view his deference and disappearance as deleterious to the very character he wishes us to value.
LeBron wants no witnesses. No spotlight. He just wants to win. When ESPN nudged him into taping “The Decision” and donating ad proceeds to charity, they probably sold him on, “This night will be all about the kids.”
But it’s never been about the kids. Or Dwayne Wade. Or the Miami Heat. Or even about him. It’s always been about his talent. And the more he deflects the light from himself, the brighter it’ll shine on him.