The greatest athlete of this generation makes the biggest sports news of the summer and there are at least two major takeaways we shouldn’t miss.
One is specific to people in sports-crossed places such as Cleveland and Kansas City. The other is specific to those who appreciate all that modern technology does for the sports experience, but grow tired of the noise and narcissism and opportunism that go along with it.
Let’s begin with the most surprising part of this. LeBron James is leaving the beaches of Miami and taking his talents to the rust belt of Cleveland, and the shocker is that he was able to do this in his way, on his terms.
LeBron, somehow, cut off communication effectively enough or sent the right mixed signals that the Internet and basketball world clogged with speculation that fed on speculation that led to unintentional comedy. Nobody knew anything, other than LeBron, and at some point a few people at Sports Illustrated, where he broke the story.
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This is the first and biggest superstar athlete to come of age in the world of Twitter. He went straight from high school to NBA franchise savior, no time to properly grow up, his every flaw and success exposed in raw and real time.
He never had time to learn things the natural way. I’ll always remember covering one of his high school games. By then, he’d been The Chosen One on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He’d dunked and strutted his way across the country. His mother drove a Hummer on his credit at the bank. After this particular game, all media was forbidden from talking to LeBron. He did a question-and-answer with a local TV reporter that was so ridiculous I kept waiting for someone to acknowledge it as a joke.
At one point, after fawning over LeBron for a few hundred words, the reporter asked LeBron how he stays so humble. The teenager’s answer: “LeBron stays humble by being LeBron.”
I bring this up not to jab at LeBron, but to marvel at him. He’s come so far, from the dangers of a child star to the high stakes of one of the world’s most famous people. He’s made mistakes along the way, most notably “The Decision,” but he’s also carried himself with a remarkable amount of grace considering the circumstances.
He has always been a model teammate, even when his teammates have let him down. There has never been an arrest or a Thanksgiving scandal or a shady night in a Colorado hotel room. His greatest transgression has been not telling his old team he was choosing a new team. Either that or not being Michael Jordan.
But LeBron is smart, incredibly smart, which is easy to miss behind his muscle, speed and incredible talent. He has faced more potential disasters than any athlete in this generation. Tiger Woods benefited from a notoriously protective golf media. No major sport puts as much focus on individuals as basketball, and perhaps no player in NBA history has had as much put on him at such an early age.
So LeBron learned, because there was no other choice. He chose his best basketball situation in 2010, even if the execution was awkward, and spent the last four seasons winning championships, MVP trophies and a gold medal. He tried to be the villain at Miami in the beginning, but realized it wasn’t in him. He found a way to be comfortable as himself instead, a hard thing for all of us, but especially so with a world waiting for you to fall.
LeBron learned how to control the beast, instead of letting the beast control him. He took leadership of the Heat from Dwyane Wade, and then of the entire sport when the NBA needed a player’s voice strong enough to condemn Donald Sterling. Too often we want our mile markers in 140 characters or a five-second sound bite, but this is what it looks like when a boy grows into a man over more than a decade in the spotlight.
So if it’s true that no athlete of this generation has faced the specific scrutiny of LeBron, it is also true that no athlete has done a better job of controlling his own message. The entire sports world was after his story this week, and he was still able to tell it in his own words using one of the country’s biggest outlets.
He hasn’t said anything beyond his essay in SI, forcing media that spent the week publishing guesses to use his carefully thought-out and edited words. He was already the best basketball player in the world. Now he may be our most savvy athlete, too.
Few have news desired by so many. It’s hard to imagine anyone controlling that news as effectively as LeBron, all grown up in front of our eyes.
The second takeaway is closer to home. LeBron is ditching the glitter and beaches of Miami for the comfort and clouds in Cleveland, and there has to be a certain empathetic joy in Kansas City.
We tend to wallow in our mostly craptastic sports teams of the last generation. Any self-respecting fan here knows the Royals own the longest playoff drought in major North American sports and the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since January 1994, when Dontari Poe was 3 years old.
We can talk about Elvis Grbac’s nerves and Lin Elliott’s kicks and Mike Sweeney’s back and Buddy Bell’s line about never saying it can’t get worse. There is an odd comfort to be found in the struggle, a kinship with fellow sufferers that’s a much tighter bond than one borne from success.
Places like Kansas City and Cleveland don’t get many opportunities for this kind of joy. That’s why the playoff loss(es) to the Colts sting so hard. It’s why Royals fans were momentarily spellbound by the possibility of adding 37-year-old Carlos Beltran last winter, and why some in the front office thought Bubba Starling could be the franchise’s most important player if he ever reached his potential.
When people in places like Kansas City and Cleveland make room for sports in their lives, there is a complicit understanding that this is more about the heart than the brain. You are likely to put more in than you get back if you measure your pleasure with parades, so from a peer market’s perspective it’s nice to see something good happen to a devoted brother in sports misery. Many of us in Kansas City will toast those in Cleveland, hoping for a reciprocation soon.
Until then, at least we know the beer here is better.