Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Final Psychoanalysis of LeBron James

One week after LeBron James announced his intention to leave his home state of Ohio to sign a free-agent contract with the NBA's Miami Heat, the one finality we can be certain of is that the walking, talking triple double will never again earn his living in Cleveland. All the rest, it seems, continues to settle.

 [Photo via]

With the two best players of their generation--who double as top 20 (10?) talents in the history of the game--and an All-Star Stretch Four in the same starting lineup, professional basketball's elite now resides in Miami. Except, of course, for the fact that it doesn't. The Los Angeles Lakers are reigning two-time champions fresh from their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Superman still wears an Orlando Magic cape. And the Boston Celtics, no matter how many Philadelphians may wish otherwise, are not dead. Not yet anyway. (Lurking elsewhere around the periphery are Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Mark Cuban and eager franchises in Utah, Houston and Chicago.)

While the new truth may not be all the way true yet, there stand Dwayne Wade and LeBron James--with Chris Bosh clinging proudly to them as if to form the tallest boy band the world has ever seen. Clearly, three young, Black men have taken control of their own destinies simply because they have excelled at what they do. All three also possessed the business savvy to dictate the terms of their employment at the moment their services were in the highest demand. Before these men are anything else, they are capitalists. True blue (or perhaps Heat red) Americans. And they have likely launched a paradigm shift in professional sports--certainly in the NBA--such that players alone would become the ultimate arbiters of the viability of the business.

At the core of this story are two of those Americans: Wade and James. James and Wade. The most absurd and most terrifying one-two punch of current NBA players an opposing coach could dream of. It is there, in that dream, where the presumed greatness begins. As soon as the upcoming NBA season concludes, the Larry O'Brien trophy will wake up in South Florida. Where it is expected to make its permanent home. So we are told.

Along the way to the inevitable(?!?) coronation, there is a subtext in LeBron James' choice to migrate to South Beach that may undermine a cherished human institution. At the very least, his decision countervails certain situational failings of that institution.

During the week that has passed, James' decision has been dissected repeatedly by writers, podcasters, talk show callers, serious fans, casual fans and drunkards killing time on worn-out bar stools. All of them--and many more--have decided that the story of the contract signing heard 'round the world is about:
  • A) one self-absorbed brat-athlete taking his ball and choosing the path to greatness which offers the least possible resistance
  • B) one clever brand manager creating the stormiest opportunity for his brand to exploit the world's stage in a premeditated (and superfluous) quest for redemption
  • C) one mind-boggling experiment in the convergence of sport, celebrity, media, appetite and finance
  • D) all of the above
  • E) and so much more
The image of the three brand new teammates contains a not-so-subtle tell which reveals one significant component of the so much more that LeBron James' decision is about:

Brotherhood is equal to or greater than fatherhood.

We know that Wade and Bosh both had relationships with their biological fathers. Their relationships may have been like the age-old bonds sons typically share with their fathers. There is little evidence to suggest otherwise. And there is reason to believe classic parental norms informed their childhoods. James, on the other hand, was different from them. He, as various wikis tell us, was raised by a single, teenage mother. Her aptitude for parenting has rarely been called into question. Similarly, she has rarely been mistaken for an actual father. Women, no matter how butch, can't completely fulfill that role for their sons. Something invariably lacks. A boy can mature to become a man with none but his mother to guide him. But can he really know how to be a man with only her guidance? It's a question that generations of young men have wrestled with since the implosion of the nuclear family some decades ago. I submit that in LeBron James' decision to sign a free agent contract with the Miami Heat we have the potential for a definitive answer.

If an athlete of such prodigious gifts as LeBron James chooses to eschew the quest to become his own man of trophies in favor of a collaborative journey to basketball greatness alongside one of the few human beings on earth who stands as his sporting peer, how much sense does it make for any other fatherless man in any other situation to insist that he carve himself completely out of his own image? If there is no father to help a boy become a man, what is really wrong with the boy gathering with his brother(s) to decide together what will constitute manhood?

By no means does James' decision render fatherhood irrelevant. Instead, it provides an alternate model for defining manhood. Choosing to seek his own legacy in concert with Wade means James does not have to fumble alone like the fatherless child he found himself to be as a Cleveland Cavalier. The pairing provides an immediate beta standard to grow in tandem with and reduces the burden associated with the the individual pursuit of athletic glory. The reward for that risk could very well be an extended basketball transcendence we have not seen since Red Auerbach and Bill Russell bullied the NBA during the middle of the previous century.

Much has changed since that Celtic Dynasty dutifully accumulated championship banners to be hung in the Boston Garden. American social mores have wilted to accept (or at least acknowledge) that the structure of a family need not be limited to husband + wife + children. The mores have had no choice. Divorce has broken too many of those equations. Wars (both foreign and domestic) have subtracted one parent or the other (mostly the fathers). And wife + wife or husband + husband has proven the equal of any other structure.

Children, of course, are also possessed by a natural desire to act as their own bosses. That LeBron James, regardless of how much love or respect he may have for his mother, would elect to try to build a basketball dynasty with his brother(s) seems, in hindsight, to be quite inevitable. We may not know any more about the man who exists in addition to the athlete than James permits us to know of him. But his basketball decision is quite revelatory. On paper, the brotherhood model appears to be a fitting surrogate for the fatherhood model. And, with obligatory apologies to Pat Riley, it could replace it altogether.

In the event that it does, the legacy of LeBron James may ultimately be measured, not in championship rings, but in the cultural shift to accept as virtue the practice of a man creating himself with the help of his brothers. In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, celebrating the collaborative construction of masculine identity is something of a long shot. One that may be outside of even Mike Miller's considerable range.