Like a great many NBA fans, I find joy in making fun of LeBron James. It’s nothing personal, it’s simply part of the game. Whether it’s his “crab dribble” that’s better known as “traveling,” his blatant and exaggerated flops, his traditional disappearance in the fourth quarter of high stakes games, or even his increasingly receding hairline and ever moving headband, he’s an easy target. It’s one of the side effects of fame.
But I’m far from joking when I say LeBron needs to win a championship. LeBron James needs to win a championship. Soon. Very soon.
I don’t say it from the standpoint of a long-time James fan who has had to suffer through six post-seasons of disappointment and sports punditry deriding their favorite player as mentally weak. I’m honestly not a fan and am personally indifferent to his successes and/or failures. I’m more interested in what James represents. With an NBA championship under his belt, he would officially become the most important athlete of his generation. Without one, he’ll go down in history as one of the more talented individuals we had the pleasure of watching play basketball. And there’s a huge difference between those two.
We can start with the obvious: LeBron James is one of the best basketball players to ever lace up sneakers and sign an NBA contract. He’s incredible. But being one of the best, or even the best, doesn’t necessarily make you one of the most important. What makes the distinction is what you do with the status afforded you to change either the game or society at large. Magic Johnson not only brought “showtime” to the Los Angeles Lakers and the league, but due to unfortunate circumstances, emerged as a much needed HIV/AIDS spokesman. Michael Jordan is widely credited as being the best basketball player ever, but he’s important because he set the template for parlaying sports iconography into a business model.
James has not just become the prototype player for future general managers to seek, combining strength/speed/court vision/athleticism into a package that’s able to dismantle defenses and make players around him better, but he’s helped change the relationship players have to ownership. As much flack as he caught for “The Decision,” his biggest mistake there was the self-indulgent grandiosity of an hour-long ESPN special to announce what required little more than an email. What he, along with teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, accomplished was setting the terms and conditions under which they would play for the team of their choosing. It’s nearly as important a develop in professional sports as baseball’s Curt Flood fighting for free agency, as it alters the dynamic where owners and team officials are left to dictate the futures of athletes who are expected to consider it a privilege (as opposed to a job they have put in long hours to prepare for) to be able to play. Going forward, this could be huge.
Also, James has shown a willingness to wade into social and political issues of the day that some of his contemporaries are reluctant to engage. I’m not arguing that he’s Muhammad Ali and protesting an unjust war, but when pit against the apolitical Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Derek Jeters of the world, James rocking an “Obama ‘08” t-shirt during the campaign four years ago looks downright revolutionary. He truly separated himself from the pack when, in the wake of the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, he gathered his teammates for a photo in which they all sported hoodies to show their solidarity the Martin’s family and supporters who sought (and continue to seek) justice in his slaying.
He has the credentials. His athletic record is impeccable. He perfectly encapsulates the somewhat contradictory nature of Black male Millennials. He is a worldwide superstar. Now he just needs a ring.
That component can’t be overlooked because our society only respects winners. Not just winners, but champions. If he can’t prove that he belongs in the pantheon of greats by the standards set in his profession, The Decision will be looked upon as no more than spoiled athletes pouting until they get to play with their friends, as opposed to a radical subverting of the owner/player relationship. His public comments on Trayvon Martin or the way race has played into coverage of him will be mostly forgotten. They’ll sneak their way into a future book about the history of sports and politics, but they’ll largely escape the public consciousness.
We remember Ali, and Bill Russell, and Jim Brown, and John Carlos, and Tommie Smith, and others because of their contributions to the fight to deepen our democracy, but their efforts probably would not have meant as much if they didn’t also win. LeBron has the potential, if not to join their ranks, to transform the way athletes are looked upon, as overpaid, entitled and aloof instruments of entertainment, but as global citizens deeply impacted by the world that watches them. All he has to do is win a piece of jewelry.
It’s not easy, of course, or else he would have done so already. But I truly hope he is one day able to hoist that prized trophy over head. After that, nothing but Kevin Durant vs. Derrick Rose finals.