|Photo by Keith Allison|
He came into the NBA with unparalleled hype -- ESPN televised some of his high school games -- and he manged to exceed expectations. His career averages (27.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.0 assists), are astonishing. He's already won two MVP awards, and he's only 26.
And yet, especially after the conclusion of the recent 2011 Finals, he's also one of the most enigmatic players in recent sports history.
Who is LeBron James?
Clutch or not?
In basketball and sports in general, it's usually pretty easy to separate the clutch from the timid. You're either one or the other. There are players who rise to the occasion and are their best when the stakes are highest (Michael Jordan, Robert Horry, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson), and there are the players who shrink from the glare and don't rise up when the game is on the line (Chris Webber, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley).
But no player that I can think of has been both clutch and timid in such a short stretch in his career.
Who is LeBron James? Is he the guy who was responsible for one of the most astonishing postseason performances in NBA history, scoring 29 of his team's last 30 points and single-handedly destroying the Detroit Pistons with a 48 point, 9 rebound, 7 assist game on his way to the finals?
Or is he the player who shrunk from the moment and seemed almost disinterested when it counted last year against the Celtics? Is he the dominant force who sent the Bulls packing this year or is he a 4th Quarter disappearing act as he was against Mavericks?
There are definitely clutch players who come up short - Michael Jordan missed his share of big shots, and Kobe Bryant pointedly quit in the 2006 playoffs, taking only three shots in the second half of a Game 7 blowout. But I can't think of another player whose demeanor could be so wildly different between seasons and even within the same season.
How could the player who willed his team to victory so many times disappear when it mattered in two straight seasons? How could the most talented player on Earth, playing next to Dwyane Wade, arguably the second most talented player on Earth, lose to Dirk Nowitzki and a band of aging roleplayers?
Who is LeBron James?
A Product of Our Time
LeBron James has made no secret that he wants to be the world's first billionaire athlete, and he has spent years cultivating his brand. In essence, he's trying to out-Michael Jordan Michael Jordan. And the way he's gone about it is such a product of this particular moment. But times have changed.
As we all know, Michael Jordan was the individual who took athlete-as-brand to new, uncharted heights. He became a global celebrity and made gobs amounts of money.
But he also had the luxury of playing in a time where he was completely insulated. Everything we knew about Michael Jordan was filtered through the breathless adulation of sportswriters, the carefully constructed unreality of commercials, his performances on the court, and his masterly postgame interviews.
What did we know about the real Michael Jordan? There was no unfiltered Jordan, no direct contact, no Internet dissecting his every move. He was completely buffered. Everything we saw of Michael Jordan we saw through a filter.
How would Michael Jordan, who publicly called Kwame Brown a "flaming f*****t," have fared in the Twitter era? How would his gambling have played under the glare of the modern Internet tabloid world?
Athletes don't get to live behind a carefully cultivated brand anymore. There is no more insulation. The Internet allows 24-hour access, 24-hour observation, 24-hour rumor mongering, and 24-hour dissection.
Who you are is as important as how you perform. There is no hiding.
LeBron James tried to embrace this new era. His Twitter account boasts over two million followers. He spent a lot of time hanging out with his old high school buddies. He cultivated an affable, humble image. He played for his hometown team. It all seemed completely genuine, and he was wildly popular.
And then he tried to capitalize on perhaps the iconic genre of our times: reality television.
Last summer, amid the most frenzied free agency season in NBA history, LeBron opted to announce where he would be playing the next season via a thirty minute special on ESPN called "The Decision."
And? It was a trainwreck, one of the most narcissistic displays... pretty much ever, culminating with the now-iconic announcement, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."
I'm going to take my talents..... to South Beach. Leaving behind his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, without so much as a thankyouverymuch. LeBron went from hero to villain in thirty minutes.
Unlike, well, pretty much everyone in America, I think LeBron made an honest mistake in how he handled "The Decision." From a basketball standpoint, playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was a no-brainer. People say "Oh, Jordan wouldn't have done that! Jordan wouldn't have gone to play with his arch-rival!" Well, LeBron wasn't gift-wrapped a Scottie Pippen. He wasn't Magic Johnson playing alongside Kareem, or Bird with McHale and Parrish, or Shaq and Kobe.
The second best player on LeBron's team was Mo freaking Williams. I mean, come on... That same team without LeBron finished 23-59 this year. You can either luck yourself into a superstar teammate or you can go find one your ownself.
I honestly believe that LeBron thought that people would understand his motivations. He thought that people liked him enough to see what he was doing and would forgive him for leaving Cleveland. He embraced the genre du jour and tried to connect with the world through the prism of reality television.
He miscalculated. And I think he knew it immediately. Look at his body language in the wildly ludicrous introductory rally in Miami. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh look like they're in their element. LeBron just looks uncomfortable.
His reality didn't survive the limelight.
Hero or Villain?
In another era, pre-Twitter, pre-24 hour access, pre-reality TV? No "The Decision?" In the Jordan era?
We'd know LeBron as the best player on the planet playing for an incredible team. He would be Shaq moving from Orlando to Los Angeles: just a superstar changing teams.
Only now LeBron is trapped in a world where everyone thinks he is a villain.
Add up all the external forces, the Internet chat rooms, the Trending Topics, the rumors, and now LeBron has a different kind of pressure -- the world thinking he's a villian when it's not necessarily true, him wanting so badly to be liked but not having that perception survive reality. So now he's in search of an identity that matches public perception.
This is the world of reality television, an intersection of fiction and nonfiction, of wearing different mantles and shedding your identity to see if a new version fits. This is the fiction and narcissism of the social networking era that Jonathan Franzen described in a recent New York Times Op-Ed:
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
LeBron went from trying desperately to be likeable to trying now to play the heel in the 2011 playoffs, mocking Dirk Nowitzki's illness and being arrogant in his post-finals press conference.
Only, playing the villain feels no more natural than "The Decision." It's not who he is.
But who is LeBron James?
On the Court
Well, he's a basketball player. And yet all these questions of identity are playing themselves out on the court as well. One minute he's dominating, the next moment he's deferring.
Is LeBron the greatest player of all time, someone even Scottie Pippen suggested could be better than Jordan? Is he the LeBron who destroys teams single-handedly and could be the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple double?
Or is LeBron the guy who deferred to Mario Chalmers and Juwan Howard in Game 6 of the 2011 Finals, who handed his team over to Dwyane Wade, and played as if he's the greatest second-banana of all time? Someone willing to diminish his own abilities in order to enhance his teammates or maybe even someone who just shrinks from the moment?
Who is he?
The story of who LeBron is is yet to be written. He's only 26. It's worth remembering that Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six championships. There is plenty of time for LeBron to rattle off a similar string of championships and go down as the greatest of all time.
But will he find the sense of self he needs in order to be great?
The Scam Filter
I believe LeBron is a product of our time. There is no more hiding anymore, no more cultivating of brands and images and fictions. There is no more suspension of disbelief.
We modern humans spend our days sniffing out spam and deciding whether to click on suspicious links. We watch reality TV shows and try and sift out what's real and fake. The Internet is a massive bull**** detection project, and we spend hours a day trying to sort out truth from fiction. We have all become masters at boring through the false and pinpointing what is real.
We can spot phoniness ten miles away. When the glare of the Internet is upon you, if there isn't a truth that you can shine to the world the Internet will sniff out your weakness and expose your hollow innards.
I think the glare on LeBron is especially harsh right now because he doesn't know who he is, and the world wants people to know their place. If you're a villain, own your villainy, if you're a hero, act like a hero. Just know who you are.
LeBron still has time. But in order to make things right on the court and with the public perception he's going to dig deep and find a true identity. He's got to decide if he's the top dog or a supporting player, if he's a villain or virtuous, if he's a brand or a baller. The dithering in real life is playing itself on the court. The external reflects the internal, and there is some truth out there yet to be discovered.
LeBron has to be the one to find out who he really is.