The Cult of a Personality


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In some kind of doomed fairy tale, Lebron James has been worshiped as a god, or at least a titan, since he was a child. I think this might have really done him some harm.

I don’t want to vilify him. People I know who enjoy NBA basketball say he’s really a good player. He’s talented. But he’s been dealt a terrible hand in life. Yes, a terrible hand. He happens to be quite gifted at a game that generates vast oceans of money and acclaim so from an early age he has been groomed into the role of NBA Superstar. He spent enough time in grinding poverty to send him running into the open arms of fame and fortune as soon as adolescence started to uncover his basketball prowess. Materially, the story couldn’t be more beautiful. But spiritually, it couldn’t be more dangerous. Fortune and glory have sharp teeth.

James’ story is one of the visible and the invisible. As a boy—fatherless, hungry, and flirting with homelessness—the ways the world can attempt to crush a child were on full display in his life. Size and coordination allowed him to rise above those obstacles, but they did not grant him escape from a world that tries to crush people. There is no path through life that doesn’t have obstacles from beginning to end. Present-day Lebron James would probably readily admit he has obstacles. You know, haters. Losing games. But I wonder if he can see the almost immeasurable obstacles between him and the kind of quiet humility that marks the rich, balanced life of a soul. The threat of faceless poverty is obvious; the threats of wealth and adoration are practically invisible.

Wealth and its trappings insulate you from all kinds of adversity, whether with the ability to buy your way out of any material want or by the ease with which you can surround yourself with a protective wall of affirmation. Wealth insulates you from No, from the only word that builds character. When do we grow as people? In the verdant, sweet-smelling times or in the gloomy stink of hardship? We don’t read books about the deep life lessons learned on smooth seas, we read about storms and harrow. While wealth may not calm the storm, it does help you feel happy in the middle of it. It just takes a moment of ephemeral pleasure to rob us of the wisdom gained during a clear-headed trip through disappointment.

Truly, Lebron James suffered as a boy. He suffers still. I would be willing to bet, though, that when he suffers now, someone is easily on hand with an anesthetic—reminders of wealth, an ego stroke, what have you. While the allure of money only lasts so long—likewise with platitudes and adulation—surround yourself with enough of that stuff and you can simply draw from whichever well makes you happy in the moment. But, happiness is a buddy. Hardship is the teacher. I look at Lebron James in the middle of the media circus, especially the one that pitches its big-top tent whenever there’s a question of where he’ll play basketball, and I see a guy who probably needed a few more clear-headed trips through disappointment.

What now? Should the man give all his money away, send his entourage packing, and go back to grinding poverty in order to save his soul? The myth of the noble pauper rides again? No. Wealth isn’t the problem. The problem is that the man was worshiped from an early age. All the money did was help him shield his ego from the kinds of people and experiences we all need to teach us we’re not really built to be objects of worship. Now I look at Lebron James and I see a tarnished god ever searching for his next hallelujah, his next high, his next bump of adoration from millions of strangers.

Consider the past few very visible years of his career. Clearly, nobody had told 26-year-old Lebron James that making a nationally-televised cuckold of your hometown is beyond tasteless. Or, if someone tried, their voice was drowned out by the chorus of voices preaching about ratings, about how he’s bigger than Cleveland, he’s an icon, he needs to build the Lebron brand, soak up as much spotlight as he can get. Nobody who’s navigated a sea of rejection makes an hour-long television event of rejecting people who love them. Still, for every bit of derision he received from the people he so publicly wounded, he got ten times the praise from all the other sycophantic, cynical people who cheered his ‘win at all costs, gotta get mine’ mentality. Then he famously struggled in his first finals appearance and he got a taste of the backlash that eagerly awaits the faults of gods. But, he rebounded and won two championships. The decision worked. Talk of legacy began to rise. But, he lost the next championship in decisive fashion and the press smelled blood in the Miami water. The shine had worn off in paradise.

Notably, the most recent championship defeat came at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs and their flagship player, Tim Duncan. The anti-Lebron. The story of that final game was Tim Duncan’s long commitment to San Antonio and a fickle titan had to watch as a mortal man who could actually commit to a team and a city received the lavish praise James had openly sought for himself. I have to wonder if Lebron James saw the kind of respect Tim Duncan received for winning (and losing) with the same team for his whole career. I have to wonder if that respect seeded the idea that James’ next hit of worship, his next allelu, could come from ‘returning home’. And so came the second decision—the decision to return to Cleveland. It’s difficult to see this as a genuine, heartfelt return instead of a calculated a ploy for more worship. He left Cleveland to build the Lebron brand, he’s coming back to build the Lebron brand.

The latest decision did come much toned down, but still 100% of the same essence as the first. Lebron’s letter was a precision-crafted PR piece, but saying what? Precisely how great Lebron James is —how he’s going to come in and take all those other professional athletes to the next level, about how he did such great things for the Cleveland. James is clearly the hero in his story. Notice the difference in how he addresses his behavior versus that of the people of Cleveland. He explicitly lists the offenses of the Ohioans against him (man, you burned my jerseys in the streets, that’s cold *sniff*), yet he never actually takes responsibility for his own arrogance save for a vague allusion. He never says ‘I shouldn’t have made such a self-aggrandizing public spectacle of leaving,’ just ‘I made mistakes, too. Who am I to hold a grudge?’ He spends all of a sentence on his own fault before immediately returning to his earned-but-spurned grudge. It’s a poor apology that makes more of the other person’s faults than their own and Lebron James definitely puts all the weight on Cleveland.

Yet the public laps it right up. A sidebar about the city of Cleveland. It’s hard not to think of battered wife syndrome in this scenario. Maybe I’m cynical, but the whole tone of Lebron’s essay sounds like a cheating husband saying it was really his wife’s fault for not keeping him faithful. Of course, a wife could forgive someone who didn’t ask for forgiveness, but she’d probably need a lot of counseling.

So Lebron wrote his letter. A letter over-inflated with ‘I’ and ‘me’ culminating in the big reveal: ‘I’m coming home.’ It reeks of ‘Aren’t you lucky to have me back?’ Who knows, maybe Cleveland is lucky. People are hungry to live vicariously through the feats of their vanquishing tribute, their noble champion riding out to face down giants and bring victory and riches to the people. Just like the jilted wife who just needs her man, people seem ready to accept any disgrace as long as the money and victory return.

I said at the top that I didn’t want to vilify Lebron James, and I honestly don’t. It really is a sad story wrapped in unimaginable success. In those formative teenage and twenty-something years, when we become who we’ll be in character, he was a golden calf, a golden Cav. I can’t imagine the psychological impact of that. In the end, my grievance isn’t with James acting from within his character. My grievance is with the folks who paper over the structural cracks in the Lebron empire, with the press that covers this story like a blessed reunion and casts James as the homecoming hero. It’s an image divorced from substance and that does nobody any lasting favors.

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