LeBron and Narrative
LeBron James encompasses so many of society’s heroic narratives that his story can’t help but be compelling.
He is very aware of this. It will help make him a billionaire.
LeBron James has announced his move to the LA Lakers, accepting a longer term deal and squarely committing the last years of his prime to the storied franchise.
This is not an unexpected move - LA ticks a lot of boxes for James, many to do with his family. His eldest son can commit to a high school where he will begin his own basketball journey in earnest while the city allows him and his wife to pursue their own business interests in one of the large markets. James also has Hollywood interests and will now work in close proximity with Magic Johnson, a man with a post-basketball trajectory that James would like to emulate.
James is coming off the back of one of his best ever seasons, dragging a relatively poor Cavaliers team to the finals, playing all regular season games for the first time and putting up historic numbers personally. Everyone knows that he is a special player and an all-time great.
James does have something that really sets him apart from any player, historic or active. Sports Illustrated says:
James is widely regarded to have changed the game when it comes to player agency having signed a series of short term deals giving him maximum clout and agency during contract negotiations. He has also become an activist, expressing his opinions on league, social and political issues freely and without a veneer of mitigation.
This propensity for speaking his mind stands in obvious comparison to Michael Jordan's possibly apocryphal quote ‘Republicans buy shoes too’. The implication is that Jordan prioritised commerce over personal freedom, over the ability to say what he thought about an issue. James has managed to do both, becoming one of the preeminent athletes of all time while speaking out on causes that interest him. Speaking his mind no longer seems to hurt James. It burnishes his legacy.
James is aware of his place in the pantheon. With his 3 rings, 8 NBA Finals appearances and a stack of individual awards and records he has stated what his real goal is. What it’s all for.
The only question is his relative greatness when compared to Jordan. He is chasing Jordan’s championship total but what he is really after is the title of Greatest of All Time.
How he shapes the narrative around his career is fascinating.
Why do sports stars capture our imagination? For one thing they fulfil our expectations and demands around storytelling. The story hungry sports media fuel and fan the flames around the athlete’s career, satisfying our lust for content and creation myths in one swoop.
To provide some storytelling context, below is a video description of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell tracked the mythology of a variety of civilisations and noted similarities between their mythologies, despite the fact that many of these civilisations had never had nay contact with each other. Their mythologies were characterised by a 17 step process known as ‘the Hero’s Journey’, a process that we will all know and recognise from our own popular fictions. Star Wars is one of the more prominent examples and it was written to correspond with an adapted 12 step version of the Hero’s Journey to make it as compelling as possible to an audience. Here’s a video explanation of the Hero’s Journey:
This is not to say that James has exactly followed the Hero’s Journey but that there are certainly corresponding stages of his career. This helps to inform us as to why he is so appealing and why he takes such care of his image.
The ordinary world and call to adventure are covered by LeBron's early life in Akron. His refusal to heed the call could be his attempt to win with Cleveland as a young player before realising that this was impossible with the then makeup of the team. The next stages, finding a mentor, crossing the threshold and being tested can be seen in his 'Decision', partnership with Dwyane Wade, Finals loss and eventual title wins with Miami. There he found Allies, made Enemies and sustained a loss before later triumphing and ascending to true heroic apotheosis. He's then returned to his homeland, transformed and subsequently changed his home forever by leading them to a Championship. Even if life doesn't exactly imitate art, LeBron's journey hits a lot of narrative beats that we expect from heroic plots. This is why he is so compelling.
At different stages of his career, James has also fulfilled the requirements for 5 of the 7 basic plots identified by Christopher Booker in 7 Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories:
- Rags to Riches
- His Origin Story
- The Quest
- Winning his first Championship
- Winning Cleveland’s first ever NBA Championship
- Chasing the ghost of Jordan to be the best ever
- Voyage and Return
- Going to Miami and becoming a champion before returning to lead Cleveland
- Overcoming the Monster
- Beating Golden State to win the Championship in their 73 win season
- Trying to beat Golden State since the addition of Kevin Durant
- Becoming a winner and team player in Miami
- Becoming a late career underdog against the Warriors
- New mission to revitalise one of the biggest franchises in the sport in the Lakers.
James’s story fulfils so many of these touchstones that it’s easy to see why he appeals to us. He embodies the classic rags to riches, American Dream type narrative, as many professional athletes do, but he aims higher at true exceptionalism by setting himself on the path to become the best player of all time.
I would posit that James literally sees himself as a hero, The Chosen One, King James, Basketball Man.
In the playoffs his social media goes ‘Zero Dark Thirty-23 mode’, invoking the idea of a mission to slay a bad guy, him being the forces of good off to destroy a threat to wellbeing and peace.
Others see him as heroic too. He didn’t choose the nickname ‘The Chosen One’ with all its associations with, amongst others, Jesus, Anakin Skywalker and Neo from the Matrix. Sports Illustrated bestowed it upon him. It’s remarkable that he has lived up to expectations when it’s pretty easy to reel off lists of sporting prodigies who didn’t.
It seems like James was initially anointed The Chosen One by others but has taken on this challenge, renamed it to claim ownership of it and set about it in his own way, shaping how it goes himself. When Black Panther was being widely heralded as a breakthrough moment for the black community, giving them something that depicted black excellence and celebrated African culture, Gregg Popovich pointed out that a real life black superhero already existed in the form of James:
What is his origin story? When did he answer the call to adventure and head out on his quest?
James was famously brought up in the pretty obscure environs of Akron, Ohio by his single mother Gloria, his bedroom plastered with NBA posters. His talent was apparent from an early age and he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated aged 15 with the line 'The Chosen One'. From then on he became nationally famous, celebrities and professional players started attending his high school games and the subject of unbelievable media and fan attention.
James originates from one of the poorest and most deprived demographics in the USA and has used his talent to transfer into the rarefied world of the NBA. He came in as a prodigy and learned his trade before making ‘The Decision’ to ‘take his talents to South Beach’ and sign for the Miami Heat.
This was James’s initial attempt at shaping his story and it backfired dramatically. His jerseys were burned, his statement and accompanying tv special were regarded as egotistical and misjudged and his eventual loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals was widely celebrated.
The next 2 seasons of success saw a change where his evident status as the preeminent player in the game was unquestioned. Even 'The Decision' seems less ill-advised these days. It's a clumsy and insensitive way to announce his departure from Cleveland but it is a clear example of LeBron controlling the narrative around his own future, not ceding to an in-house publicity team or kowtowing to cable networks. You can see its influence on future megastar publicity announcements like Kanye West's various album debut events that take in building high video projection, a Madison Square Garden takeover and a listening party in Wyoming. Big name but hardly megastar players like Paul George have followed suit with some recent ESPN shorts detailing why he's sticking with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's another example of James showing the way to the next generation of players.
What seems under-drawn is a parallel from his high school days, immortalised in the film ‘More Than A Game’, a film produced by James back in 2009.
Oddly for such a public figure and fortuitously for us, much of James’s early life was captured on home video including basketball games and weekends away from the age of around 11. He had an unusually close bond with his high school friends to the point where they collectively decided to change schools and go to the ‘white’ high school in order that their diminutive friend Drew Joyce could play basketball for the team there. The ‘black’ school coach had made it relatively clear to Joyce that his size would preclude him from featuring.
This is already an unusual decision for a 13 year old to take, showing collective responsibility, problem solving and independent thought as well as a capacity for making what seems like an unpopular decision. The first hints of his later ‘traitorous’ behaviour are apparent here.
The boys sophomore season ended with defeat in the final to an unfancied ‘white’ school and the run-up to the game is marked by displays of hubris from the teenagers, all captured in the film. This film has been commissioned and produced by James, marking an ability to display his teenage self as lacking self awareness and humility, the same qualities that were manifest in his adult self at the time of ‘The Decision’.
James has always been writing his own story, happy to take the moniker ‘The Chosen One’ before rebranding as ‘King James’. This would seem to indicate arrogance but they are relatively undisputed by other players and members of the media. He was ‘chosen’ by the press aged 15 and has consistently performed like the best player in the league. In elite sport, self confidence is required for high performance yet James has always seemed to know that he needs to represent across his whole career. His legacy is up for debate nightly.
There has never been a whiff of impropriety attached to LeBron. When criticised by Charles Barkley, he responded with:
Despite unceasing media attention and the unceasing presence of cameras and social media throughout his life and career there has never been a hint of scandal at all. I can’t think of another major US sports person, particularly a black one, who has a cleaner rap sheet. Perhaps he’s just a great person who has never been tempted by the various nefarious opportunities that can present themselves to the uberfamous, wealthy athlete but it’s clear from what he says that his behaviour is part of his ‘legacy’. He knows full well that whatever he does will last forever.
James has received racially charged criticism, notably from Phil Jackson who referred to LeBron and his ‘posse’, and responded in an articulate and discursive manner. He’s made several stands on race related issues, notably at the ESPYs and wearing an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ t-shirt during warm up in tribute to Eric Garner. His behaviour in the latter half of his career has shown younger stars how they can hold leverage in contract negotiations, how to exploit various commercial opportunities around basketball and provided them with a role model for being a role model. How to wear their status lightly and with responsibility. He has become the sagely figure, instructing the next generation of sporting heroes on how to comport themselves.
His latest and potentially last contract has taken him to the Lakers where he will take on the task of reinvigorating one of the most famous franchises in the sport, one that has been awful for the past few seasons. With the Lakers there is apparently a ‘baseline of competence and talent’ that would make them attractive to any player in the league. This baseline is evidently one that they have not been able to reach for quite some time.
LeBron carried a mediocre team on his shoulders last year, his feats regarded as Sisyphean and heroic by the media. He has never played for one of the ‘great’ franchises; the Miami Heat are a relatively new team and the Cavaliers are historically not a good one. He has given himself a mammoth task in revitalising the Lakers, but also one that he knows he can do and where he can’t really fail.
The difference with this announcement was in its brevity and simplicity.
Everyone knows how big a deal this is and will hype it for him. By saying nothing, LeBron lets the narrative swirl around him, everyone waiting for him to say something. The whole sports media machinery is in thrall to him, not the other way around. We are addicted to his story and he knows it, writing new chapters as he goes along.
The last arc of his career would be to play with his son in the NBA. Apparently his eldest son LeBron James Jr could actually have the talent required to play in the league and this is part of the reason for choosing LA; the basketball scene there is more competitive than in Cleveland and he will also not stand out so much as a child of someone famous. If his son can make it to the NBA, the draft will allow high schoolers to declare for the league again in the next couple of seasons, then LeBron could make this the final act of his playing career. Mentoring and passing the torch to his eldest son who is literally named after him. The James legacy and story would continue while LeBron moves into playing retirement, business and entertainment success and the self stated goal of becoming a team owner. Whether this would be at the Lakers or not we can’t be sure and the cost involved would certainly be initially prohibitive, even with his billion dollar Nike deal to lean on.
James is shaping his life as he goes along, the creation myth of his underprivileged childhood, the plucking from obscurity through talent and hard work, the need to leave his hometown to realise his ambitions and abilities, the return to save his people from mediocrity and finally leaving to make the fallen kingdom great again. This is carefully managed and played out through his behaviour, social media utterances, nightly press conferences and backed up by his on court performance. Despite the stage management, the industry and machinery around him to shape this superhero narrative, it would all fall to pieces without James’s preternatural ability, athleticism and dedication to his craft.
Without that, his story wouldn’t be worth the edit.