LeBron James is setting an example and sending a powerful message we should all pay attention to: after you've made it, don't just give back, go back. Whether you're a basketball fan or not, this is an important lesson to take away from LeBron's decision to leave the Miami Heat and return his talents to Northeast Ohio and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In making his return to the place of his birth and the birth of his career, LeBron reveals that he's not simply concerned with winning championships but that he's also a family man, a leader in his community, and a positive example for millions of youth and adults.
Though much of the media and many people missed it before, LeBron was already a solid role model when he went to Miami four years ago. The failure to realize this after he left Cleveland in 2010 shows a collective misunderstanding of young African American men in the United States, which continues today.
The Decision (2014): "I'm Coming Home"
In his recent Sports Illustrated article done with Lee Jenkins, LeBron says:
I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I'm from. ... Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
While the decision in 2014 was certainly handled in a more mature manner than The Decision in 2010, LeBron does not need to be lauded for his supposedly newfound humility. We need to get rid of this idea that African American men, among others, need to constantly show deference to avoid vilification. This idea is deeply connected to the expectations held of African Americans both in slavery and the Jim Crow South.
What should be important is that LeBron has always been a giving and respectful person. The maturity he has shown with the decision in 2014 is that he better understands the media and is mastering the adage his former high school coach taught: "Use basketball. Don't let it use you."
Sports analysts will dissect all aspects of LeBron's second foray into free agency and his return to the Cavs for some time to come, but these discussions should expand beyond sports talk and delve into the social issues that surround LeBron's return home to Northeast Ohio.
"Just a kid from Akron, Ohio"
LeBron James grew up in the heart of the Rust Belt in Northeast Ohio, a region that has seen steady economic decline over the past several decades. Since the 1970s companies have routinely closed down factories in Ohio and surrounding states that were once at the center of U.S. industry. High unemployment in the area has increasingly led to poverty, crime and a slew of the other social ills that touch the lives of the area's residents.
LeBron intimately understands U.S. deindustrialization and its effects because he grew up dealing with them firsthand in his hometown of Akron, Ohio (he actually considers himself to be from Akron, which is Cleveland's neighbor 40 miles to the south). Beginning his professional career for the Cleveland Cavaliers was the closest thing to home for LeBron. He brought hope of championship success to a city that currently has the longest drought of any other having three-professional sport teams, as they haven't won a ring in 50 years.
After seven years in Cleveland, he ventured into free agency for the first time. Amidst great anticipation LeBron went along with a proposed plan to reveal his choice to join the Miami Heat exclusively on ESPN. The Decision (2010) television special was poorly organized from a PR perspective, and even by LeBron's own admission, he could have handled the announcement to leave Cleveland better.
Though LeBron is by no means perfect, his mistakes and shortcomings hardly seem worth mentioning next to the outright blunders of other athletes. Many people forget that The Decision (2010) raised several million dollars for charity, including $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. One wonders how much people were really upset about LeBron leaving Cleveland or irritated by a powerful African American man so boldly exerting his (free) agency. Certainly, LeBron wondered the same.
In comparison, U.S. corporate leaders are financially rewarded and sometimes applauded for making "sound business decisions" to lay off thousands while downsizing companies or moving factories overseas. These same decisions helped create the economically impoverished environment where LeBron was raised.
Ironically, these conditions helped LeBron cultivate a winner's mentality as he worked hard to succeed in basketball and in life; this is what compelled him to go to Miami four years ago. Growing up under the poverty line also fostered in him the humanitarian qualities that compel him to return to Cleveland now.
Sadly, when he decided to move to Miami to pursue his dream of a championship he was called a betrayer, selfish and narcissistic.
What will he be called now?
Where we're "supposed to be"
In 2010, many in Cleveland vilified LeBron James for leaving, which included journalists cursing him, fans burning his jerseys, and the infamous comic sans letter by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Four years later, LeBron found a way to forgive all of this by looking outside of himself, asking: "What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?"
Many people don't realize that LeBron never turned his back on Akron. He routinely returns to donate time and resources to his community. The LeBron James Family Foundation serves as an umbrella for other organizations primarily focused on youth and education in other areas. Also, his I Promise campaign encourages youth to do well in school, be respectful, and make smart choices in life. In return LeBron promises to be the best role model he can be.
Giving back to others should be just as much a part of the American Dream as becoming successful in this country -- something that many of us miss in this age of rugged individualism. When's the last time we visited a low-income area to get involved in the lives of youth? While many of us have family roots touching these places and we might donate money to charities that work in these areas, most of us rarely go back to give of our time. LeBron James does.
Certainly, LeBron is not the only athlete giving back. Kevin Durant, who LeBron could have easily shared MVP honors with this past 2013-2014 season, is doing important work as well with his foundation. Durant's MVP acceptance speech also shows that he and LeBron share similar perspectives. "Basketball is just a platform in order for me to inspire people," said Durant. Twice in the speech Durant stated that he "wasn't supposed to be here."
These words mirror those of LeBron after winning his second championship in 2013. As celebratory confetti fell in Miami's stadium in the minutes after the final game, LeBron confidently explained on national TV that he wasn't concerned about his critics: "I'm LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I'm not even supposed to be here."
African American men know exactly where they're "supposed to be" -- caught up in the so-called justice system (i.e. prison). This is simply one of the realities for many young men of color growing up in single-mother households on the terribly low-income side of the wealth divide.
It's no coincidence that James and Durant have such outstanding character: they were shaped by young, single mothers who struggled to provide their children with food, clothing, housing and security. The top two basketball players in the world today (sorry Kobe) have both risen out of poverty, which has motivated them to address social and economic inequality in their work off the court.
James, Durant, and others recognize that these issues continue to affect millions of U.S. families as they donate their money and time to various forms of community building. This is why Durant and James are not simply philanthropists, but also humanitarians.
If LeBron James is unable to help deliver a championship to Cleveland some may call him a failure or a fool for returning. If he does bring a ring to Northeast Ohio, LeBron will become legend.
Either way, we are watching one of the great U.S. stories in our lifetime unfold. Regardless of the outcome and how others spin LeBron's return to Northeast Ohio, the story is already a success, not because of what he has done or will do on the court, but because of who he is off of it.
Each time LeBron returns to Akron and Northeast Ohio he brings pride and self-respect to those who consider him their son. We can bring similar pride by following LeBron's example: returning to and contributing to our own communities, wherever they may be.
Follow A. B. Wilkinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrABWilkinson
The first time I saw LeBron James play basketball was during his final year at St Vincent-St Mary High School. By then he was already a national sensation – Sports Illustrated had featured him on the cover months earlier under the headline “The Chosen One” – and his senior season was essentially a barnstorming tour that filled smaller arenas around the country and sated the intense curiosity of a pre-YouTube world. Several of his games were broadcast nationally on ESPN2, a rarity for high school basketball. Still more were available on pay-per-view, which is unheard of. When the circus came to my hometown of Philadelphia, a sellout crowd packed the Palestra to the corners. Allen Iverson watched from courtside. The multimillion-dollar industry that would be constructed around LeBron’s image was still years away from completion, but even then you could see the scaffolding in place. It was three days before Christmas 2002.
Watching him that day it wasn’t so much the size that belied his age – though to behold the 6ft 8in, 225lb teenager picking his teeth with high school defenders no doubt lent to the spectacle – but that he operated with the maturity and sophistication of a seasoned professional. Was he really only 17? The combination of skills he commanded was more than just rare: it defied categorization. Sure, he could score from anywhere on the court but plenty of players make their mark that way. LeBron devoured rebounds like each was his last. He whipped passes from outrageous angles with pace and uncanny precision, finding his team-mates in perfect position for easy baskets. He could play the one through the five and defend them just the same. Every action was exacted with economy of movement and effortless calm, the way a Formula One driver can navigate a car with the casual indifference of a channel surfer idly flicking the remote.
The funny thing is, the LeBron of today is not all that different. Even against the best competition in the world, he can still bend the game to his will and make grown men look no more capable of stopping him than a gaggle of high school kids. Fourteen years after that first look LeBron has somehow realized the impossible expectations heaped on those teenage shoulders, never more than Sunday night when he fulfilled a promise to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers by leading perhaps the most snake-bitten team in professional sports to their first NBA championship.
LeBron James leads Cleveland Cavaliers to NBA title and ends 52-year drought
The tears he wept uncontrollably at center court after the final buzzer sounded on Sunday were proof positive that LeBron’s third title – after back-to-back wins with Miami in 2012 and 2013 – meant a little bit more. Surely it made him more likable to non-fans: it’s one thing to win with a cadre of superstars in a party city, it’s another to do it with grinders in your gritty, terminally unfashionable hometown. Few are more intimately familiar with the wounds of Northeast Ohio’s sports psyche than LeBron, a native of nearby Akron. To bring about the end of Cleveland’s mythical 52-year championship drought was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
Finally the boy who would be king has a victory worthy of his limitless promise.
When Golden State won Game 4 to move within one victory of a second straight title, the entire world outside the Cleveland locker room believed the NBA finals were done and dusted. And with good reason. Thirty-two times had a team faced a three-games-to-one deficit in the championship round and never once had one come back to win the series. And these were the Warriors: a dynasty apparent that not only ripped through the regular season with a scant nine losses in 82 games (to eclipse a record set, notably, by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls) but who represent something of a New World Order in basketball: a team that embodied how the three-point shot is changing the sport more completely than any other.
But that’s when LeBron took his game from a typically high level to a different place altogether. His stat lines in the decisive contests were preposterous: 41-16-7-3-3 in Game 5, 41-8-11-4-3 in Game 6, 27-11-11-2-3 in Sunday’s clincher – only the third triple-double ever in Game 7 of the finals.
His crucial block on Andre Iguodala on Sunday night with less than two minutes left and the scores tied might not go down as the signature moment of his career, but it deserves to. As the players on the floor traded missed baskets and fought through exhaustion – it was Cleveland’s 103rd game of the marathon season, the 106th for Golden State – it seemed the team that scored the next basket would win. But when Stephen Curry found Iguodala wide open on the block for an easy two, LeBron seemingly teleported 45 feet within two seconds to pin the ball against the backboard. It’s the kind of play, a marriage of breathtaking athleticism and hair-trigger instincts, that only he could make.
The Cavaliers' brilliant title turnaround shattered the NBA landscape
No one has ever closed an NBA finals like this, certainly not against a 73-win team. Given the caliber of opponent, magnitude of the deficit and what it required to reverse it, it’s not completely unreasonable to call it the greatest comeback in sports history.
There’s never been anyone with a wide-ranging a skill set as James, who became the first player ever to lead both teams in all five major statistical categories – points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots – over the course of an entire playoff series. But to many observers it will never be enough. A few years ago I asked the emcee J Cole where he stood on the LeBron or Jordan debate that’s persisted for years among basketball fans and his response has stuck with me: “The world won’t even allow LeBron James to be as great as Michael Jordan because at this point Michael Jordan is just an untouchable legend. He is a myth. He’s like a tall tale that only gets bigger with each passing year.”
What hope does LeBron have when he’s graded on that curve? How do you compete with a ghost?
The debate endures because it is compelling. Jordan was like a regular-shaped guy with superpowers. LeBron is a freak of nature. The dichotomy has bred a strange resentment of the latter, who is perceived as a genetic child of privilege.
LeBron was the can’t-miss prospect whose upside had agents and shoe companies salivating before he’d entered high school, while Jordan was the guy who didn’t even make the varsity team until his sophomore year, a slight that, as the narrative goes, forged the near-sociopathic competitive edge that pushed him to the top. Therein lies the downside of being the Chosen One: Jordan’s brilliance is perceived as hard-won, while LeBron’s is preordained.
The truth is few elite athletes have more misguided critics than LeBron, whose life story embodies the American Dream. He grew up with his single mom in a modest apartment in Akron, worked thousands of hours to cultivate his craft, found gainful employment after turning 18 and has been handsomely compensated for his skills. He’s come of age during a time when social media exploded in popularity – when if a celebrity so much as picks his nose it’s disseminated globally within minutes – yet he’s behaved impeccably on and off the court.
That conduct only amplifies the backlash to his rare missteps. When he became a free agent after his seventh season with the Cavaliers, he announced his move to Miami in a 75-minute television special branded The Decision. Was it tacky and insipid? Without question. But the public’s reaction, the way the critics have held it against him for year after year and still do today, was as if he’d gone on TV and clubbed baby seals for an hour.
Even Sunday’s universally lauded performance will only earn him a brief reprieve – six months, perhaps – before he’s cast into the fire again. But it’s already time to call LeBron what he is: the greatest to ever lace up a pair of basketball sneakers.
His career haul at 31 years-old (three NBA titles, four Most Valuable Player awards) compares favorably to Jordan’s at the same age (three titles, three MVPs). You could argue – and plenty do – that Jordan never lost in the finals, just as you could argue that LeBron has done more with less, carrying far inferior teams to the championship round.
Regardless, this is no longer a matter of the smell test: LeBron is on pace to surpass Jordan in silverware.
LeBron James was born from our collective and often unhealthy obsession with young people endowed with phenomenal gifts, a class of celebrity whose exponents range from Bobby Fischer to Charlotte Church to Freddy Adu. These seductive tales almost inevitably end in disappointment. But how often do these prodigies not only meet but surpass our expectations?
I know of at least one.
We are witnessing an all-time great at the peak of his powers. If we can’t appreciate what he’s done – and everything that’s to come – then why even watch?