Defining LeBron: Sports Media Narratives and the Complicated Work of Humanizing Athletes in the Digital Age

The trouble with reading obsessively about a sport, writing obsessively about a sport, and watching a sport obsessively is that it becomes almost impossible not to develop tunnel vision and see the obvious trends. Like a horse with blinders on, seeing the wider landscape becomes difficult. When I read about the NBA, the writers who provide real wisdom into the broader sporting landscape are adept at zooming out, placing a moment in continuum of moments, while not getting caught up in the numbers of rings, or the rankings. Getting lost in the numbers is also akin to wearing blinders.

How does one avoid getting lost in the hype? Getting lost in the orbits of Twitter or the commentary of television’s talking heads? An echo-chamber emerges out of the money. Sport as business. Contract talks and efficiency ratings. Needless debates about a player’s worth. All of these aspects of professional sports. None of them humanizing or real.

What is real are the games themselves. The unscripted moments are why we watch. The impossible artistry of the world’s greatest athletes improvising.

Colin McGowan is one of thousands of sports writers. He has a sardonic sense of humor, which I’ve enjoyed in the past. This brief post is not intended as mere criticism, but a way of highlighting that so much writing misses the broader context. The urge to define LeBron. Since he was a junior in high school, landing on the vaunted cover of Sports Illustrated, the controversial title, “The Chosen One.” The cover story was the first of 25 SI covers LeBron found himself adorning. Twenty-five covers in fourteen years. LeBron sells magazines. LeBron sells cars. LeBron sells all kinds of things. And you would probably would, too, given the opportunity. Here’s the problem with all of that selling, starting at such a young age. When you have to sell things, you have to think twice before saying or doing anything. When anything you say or do will be used against you, in a court of constantly swarming public opinion, you don’t say or do much that will create waves. “The Decision” was an avalanche. Since then, LeBron has stopped searching for everyone’s love. He found it in his teammates. He found it by maturing, both as a person and as a professional celebrity/athlete/brand. He found it by acknowledging he has to be this watered down version of himself, hiding emotions deep underneath the surface. The tears of joy were real because they came from that childhood version of self, before the first cover story. They came from Akron. In LeBron’s own words, he describes his mission from “the man above.” He has always performed in service of something greater. The irony is that he’s been labeled selfish, arrogant, and whatever adjectives that apply to the label of “Me-first!” athlete.

We are automatically stifled. Our sporting culture doesn’t want to know the real version of a superstar athlete’s divided self. We want to project our hopes and fears, our adoration and anger, all on a myth. A version of a king in our royal celebrity culture.

LeBron James as a high school junior in 2002. The first of 25 SI Covers. (via Sports Illustrated)

McGowan, writing for Vice Sports, characterizes LeBron as someone who is constantly redefining himself, which makes him so tricky for writers to define.

James entered the league as a messiah — one of his first Nike ads literally posited him as something like a balling incarnation of The Holy Ghost — and made us wonder, in the way not-yet-formed generational talents do, what he would do that we had never seen before. And while he’s tried on different personae in the years since, he hasn’t ever been particularly legible. His interviews are some inscrutable blend of what he really means and what he wants us to think he thinks; he’s had as many image reboots as he has deep playoff runs. Again, the work is visible near the surface: we do not have to imagine how strange it would be to grow up in public as an extraordinary person, because we’re watching James do it.

This process is visible in the strange and variable way James has led the Cavaliers. He swings abruptly from grouchy passive-aggression to jocular back-slapping and gleefully intricate secret handshake choreography. James gives off the air of someone who is difficult to figure out because he is still figuring himself out from moment to moment. This is true of all people, but our ideas of great athletes are usually not so fraught — Michael Jordan is a killer, Magic Johnson is sunshine, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a monk. James is not as simple as that.

I agree with some of McGowan’s analysis here. I’m not sure “image reboots” is an accurate way of describing it. More like sports media has been making and remaking that image since that first cover story, and LeBron’s PR team has to come up with a presentation every few months to keep their salaries.

Why? Because remaking an image of the NBA’s most dominant player is a narrative that can be milked for an entire season. LeBron as hero. LeBron as savior. LeBron as choker. LeBron as enemy. LeBron’s coming home narrative. LeBron’s redemption.

What McGowan misses is the difference in the lens through which he compares our view of LeBron to the filtered lens of sporting mythology we projected on to previous basketball greats. We always have and always will create cartoons out of our sporting heroes. But now that we have access to so much information, we dumb down our consumption to hot takes and sound bites. Intelligence and nuance tend to get lost.

Three basketball legends given one word descriptions. “Michael Jordan is a killer, Magic Johnson is sunshine, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a monk.”

Jordan Ain’t No Killer, Even if His Jumper was Cold-Blooded

Jordan’s clutch shooting and cut-throat demeanor may have given rise to the feeling he was cold-blooded. Calling him a killer seems to fit because the images of his game-winning shots and his ability to shut-down the competition was so fierce. On the other hand, it reinforces fear of black males in such an obvious way you don’t have to be politically aware to realize it sounds bad. Here are some other words we might ascribe to Jordan, which wouldn’t fit the neatly categorized identity box:

  • Isolation (both in terms of style of play and psychological)
  • Baseball (probably the most unexpected sports career move we will ever see: the game’s best player was 29 years old, coming off three straight championship seasons and decided he had no motivation left so chose to play minor league baseball for a year)
  • Money/competition obsessed (“Republicans buy sneakers, too.”; gambling; baseball; golf)

This aspect of Jordan always troubled me. As such a formative and influential athlete, I wanted to see a sense of justice and progress channeled through Jordan. Of course, my teenage self didn’t want athletes to be real people, full of complex characteristics, both negative and positive.

  • Late-bloomer (amazingly, Jordan didn’t make varsity team as 10th grader; though, to be fair, he was 5'10" at the time).

The fact that Michael Jordan was picked 3rd in the NBA draft remains mind-boggling….until you realize Curry went 7th, Paul George was 10th, Kawhi was 15th, and Draymond was 35th.

Magic Ain’t All Sunshine

Sunshine would be a simple way to see Magic. Always wearing that huge smile for the cameras. Always seeming calm and positive.

  • To call him sunshine is to ignore the ruthless competitor that drove the Lakers engine.
  • Sunshine doesn’t run a conglomerate of corporations. Sunshine is not a shrewd businessman. Sunshine and money don’t mingle.
  • Sunshine might be switched out for religiously-centered. Magic’s mom was a 7th Day Adventist and Christian faith has always been at the center of Earvin’s life.
  • Sunshine doesn’t become the first athlete to help educate the world about HIV. Wait, maybe sunshine does do that.

Kareem Ain’t No Monk

Kareem was born Lew. Lew chose the name Kareem. And the names Abdul-Jabbar. The first mistake in calling Kareem a monk is that there are no Muslim monks. Calling Kareem a monk fits because the monastic image exists in such striking contrast to other superstar athletes of his era and today. Now that he’s retired, he tries to write three hours each morning. His politically-aware cultural criticism has become especially relevant to our modern social movements as he exists as a thru-line. From 60’s social protest to Ferguson, Kareem sees the broader landscape and is a moral force to those who listen. Not only political in the obvious sense, but politically aware of how culture works and perpetuates itself, Kareem wrote a scathing review of Lena Dunham’s Girls at the Huffington Post. I loved the points he made about privilege, race and tokenism.

Lew Alcindor was always enormous, having to duck his head everywhere he went as a child. Kareem’s paternal grandfather was Trinidadian and his mother was part-Cherokee. His dad was a Julliard-trained trombonist, but worked as a police transit officer in New York City. He grew up in New York City in the 1950’s surrounded by white children at school. His parents then sent him to an all-black boarding school in Pennsylvania. Yes, I learned all of those things by using Google just now. I will admit, I am not a Kareem historian. I just felt compelled to give people a fuller image than a simple one-word mental picture of a monk.

According to teammates, he was always reading. He displayed a personality that exists in opposition to today’s brand-building athlete-as-mini-corporation. Of course, that dichotomy implies we can be certain that today’s athlete is always social-media obsessed, image-obsessed and brand-building. The reality is that many are. Some pay other people to do that and have no interest in it. And others would rather read than hit a night club. But it isn’t often you see a headline like, “Carmelo Spends Evening Reading Tolstoy.” Instead, we learn one detail about an athlete’s quirks “Rondo Is a Connect Four Wizard” and then 1,000 sports media folk think they’re clever by mentioning this tidbit.

Kareem exists in contrast to the perception of star athletes. He is downright confusing to most. Like Bill Russell, he was a powerful black athlete in a tumultuous time of social progress. Like Ali and Russell, Kareem gave us a broader perspective. Guess what? Russell and Kareem had to deal with an uninformed, white-male dominated media that didn’t know what to do with them. Russell had to do it in a city fighting it’s own racially-hostile identity. Kareem had the luxury (in Los Angeles, at least) of dealing with LA’s media.

After retiring from the game, Kareem has done a great deal of writing and reflecting, and remained political. The only brand he built was of an introspective, thoughtful, well-read, genuine human. Read this excellent profile from Jay Caspian Kang about the least understood basketball star of all time.

So yes, call Kareem a monk and move quickly on to your larger point, Colin. But consider that none of the athletes we write about should be summed up in a word. If it feels too easy, it’s because it is. If I’m being completely honest, my desire to complicate the narrative infiltrates everything. Humans are complicated. Words help explain them. We write in order to make sense of it all and put things into perspective. What if we allow for the fact that people contain multitudes, and simply appreciate the artistry on the court?

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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