The Meaning of LeBron James

There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama — has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.

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