To those who have seen him smiling with a bag of McDonalds fries or giving interviews with a library of Vitamin Water in the background, LeBron James seems like your everyday super-athlete corporate shill.
But last week’s “recruiting tweets” to Steve Nash and Jamal Crawford, communication that the NBA would construe as tampering were the lockout not persisting, should remind us that LeBron James is the most subversive force in American professional sports. In his curious, captivating play on the court and his aggressive maneuvers off the court, LeBron has come to challenge our notions of who our mythologized athletes are, and how we expect them to behave.
We may fail to see or acknowledge this because NBA Basketball is, as much as any other sport, a spectacle of the physical. What it lacks in brute collisions, it more than makes up for with the intimacy of the players’ on-court dress and exposed muscles and facial expressions.
NBA fans are obsessed with bodies. (Just listen to the way an unknown player is always described: first an account of size, weight, and strength or speed. Details then emerge about the type of speed [quick or fast?], leaping ability or the impossible length of the player’s reach.)
We are not just obsessed with bodies but the body as one unlike our own, as a discrete other. And when James plays basketball, it’s impossible to mistake the physical aspect of his dominance. This leads to lots of insipid statements like “well if I had LeBron James’s size and athleticism”… (you’d be a soft Kevin Willis). Even the way he plays, both crudely and cleverly, often without the pristine fundamentals of a Kobe Bryant, evokes the undeniably racist trope of the unpracticed savage.
Though each of his coaches rave about his intelligence and acumen, that LeBron seems to dominate by simply being stronger and faster is what defines him. His otherness, from a physical standpoint, is complete.
However this exterior tragic-heroic otherness is confounded by glaring examples of James’s interior complexity. The bizarre manner in which his game fell of a cliff during the 2011 NBA Finals can only be explained by a mental or emotional breakdown of some sort.
When Kobe Bryant fails, he does it the right way: guns ‘ablazing, ever confident as he falls headlong off a cliff to prove he can fly. LeBron failed in the way most people fail in every walk of life: by not doing enough. This violently collapsed the distance between his greatness and our meager lives, stunning his fans.
LeBron’s strange and awful play forces us to seek answers from a complicated interior that, most of the time, fans would prefer not to acknowledge. To understand his (lack of) actions, we are forced to refocus our attention away from his excess of physical ability and the comforting and affirming narratives of success and failure. We must go beyond the comfortable and oft-repeated tropes and narratives, though we have no real insight into his soul.
On a macro scale, LeBron challenges the larger Basketball Entertainment System in a way few other athletes ever have. At every turn, even while outwardly projecting the corporate veneer of modern super-stardom, LeBron has forged a new, bold path for young NBA players. At 26, LeBron not only has two Finals appearances, two MVP trophies and is the consensus best player on the planet, he’s also helped manufacture the most earthshaking free-agent move in league history and built his own talent agency
The second half of that sentence is far more crucial, historically, than the first. It represents a dramatic and total shift in a relationship that always smacked of the plantation—not so much in terms of the troubling racial dynamic between the laborer and the owner, but in terms of power.
From the start, it is apparent that LeBron James viewed the NBA not as some hallowed forum in which he would pay tribute to the stars of the past while striving for the ultimate prize: a championship. No. As every traded, discarded and discounted player will tell you, the NBA is a business. And basketball is only the most obvious part of the LeBron James’s big business.
Basketball has afforded James real power, and unlike many before him he has exercised it to do only and exactly what he wants. His nickname, The King, thrusts that reality into our faces. Unlike the Black Mamba, which is a symbol simultaneously sub and super-human, the King is just a far more powerful version of a man.
In his young reign, James has consistently used his power to depose those who would have influence over him. No owner controls where he would play, no team’s general manager can pull off a stunning swap to land him and no remote mega-agency profits from his basketball contacts or endorsement deals. He owns a stake in a top team in the world’s most lucrative soccer league. Just 26, He has replaced The Agent, The Owner and The GM with The King.
The website of his talent marketing agency, LRMR, explains its (and James’s) philosophy, “LRMR is about partnerships, not sponsorships” and elsewhere, “we seek partners, not clients.”
The message: you, the athlete, won’t be treated like a commodity here. You’ll be a full-grown man capable of making and maintaining business relationships. You’ll be empowered.
That’s the real message of LeBron’s career thus far: he doesn’t want or need anyone telling him what to do.
He wants his coach and his owner to be his partners, not his bosses. Whether you agree that his philosophy will net him the rings he seemed destined for when he entered the league, it’s impossible to deny that his off-court strategies have signaled an important paradigm shift.