Of the many nicknames endowed to LeBron James, “The King” best reflects his Shakespearean hubris and the irony of his narrative; LeBron, expected to have already achieved a dynasty of NBA championships, has yet to win a single one. The King may not equal Henry V’s heroism, but he certainly maintains a royal ego.
Leggo My Ego
LeBron’s inflated sense of self-importance originated in high school, when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, becoming an instant cult icon and media spectacle. The King progressed from teenage man-child with awe-inspiring athleticism to global icon of flawless ability; however, the former number-one-overall pick has failed to live up to his lofty expectations, earning no championship rings in seven seasons. When the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2010 playoffs, LeBron became a free agent, inaugurating a national news beat to follow his daily pondering: “To leave, or not to leave?”
LeBron publicly wavered on whether to flee his home state of Ohio—and his mediocre supporting cast there—and transplant his high-flying act elsewhere. After bathing in whirling speculation, in early July 2010 he gave the people “The Decision,” a one-hour special—and triumph of self-glorification—on ESPN where he announced he would sidestep the Cavaliers’ $20 million/year-offer to take a humble salary of $14.5 million with the Miami Heat. Ten million people watched The King’s declaration, solidifying LeBron as the NBA’s most fashionable figure; he remains nothing more than a tease, but his audience can’t turn away. LeBron has become the NBA’s very own Hamlet, a protagonist that fails to fulfill his ambition but steals the spotlight anyway.
The Race Card
Last week, LeBron’s Shakespearean self-absorption was on full display when he set off a media eruption with comments during an interview with Soledad O’Brien of CNN. While discussing his free-agent signing with the Heat and reactionary disgust of commentators and fans over “The Decision”—including a public burning of LeBron jerseys and memorabilia in Cleveland—O’Brien asked whether race factored into accusations of being selfish and spoiled. “I think so at times…It’s always, you know, a race factor,” James said. The statement was insightful less for its content—it was vague and un-provocative on the subject of race—and more for its context, coming amidst a storm of negative publicity targeted at LeBron; The King cried for attention, praise, and sympathy. In one of the innumerable reactions to LeBron’s statement, J.A. Adande, an ESPN basketball columnist wrote: “Trying to avoid writing about the Miami Heat this season will be as difficult as trying to avoid writing about race and the NBA.” The King was well aware of his egotistical formula—Race + LeBron = an explosion of attention—and used this concoction to place himself back on center stage of the sports world, returning to the limelight from a momentary hiatus during a late-summer lull.
Although they lack the breadth of Hamlet’s verbose soliloquies, LeBron’s comments similarly try to frame himself as a victimized hero, rather than an egoist and a disappointment. O’Brien’s interview was the first moment of LeBron’s career when he decisively injected race into his own narrative; previously, he avoided devisive issues altogether to preserve his marketability, sticking to Michael Jordan’s famous phrase: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” LeBron’s past refusals to dive into the murky waters of race are all the more evidence that last week’s comments were first and foremost publicity-seeking and self-promotional. He confirmed these assumptions the following day: when given a chance to clarify his words during training camp practice, he said: “I think people are looking too far into it. I’ve said what I had to say….” Had LeBron’s original message been misinterpreted, he was given plenty opportunity to revisit it, but the reality is that the media’s blow-up was precisely his objective—a successful strike to reclaim headlines.
On the court, LeBron displays exceptional self-confidence, alley-ooping with ease and a showman’s swagger. Yet while his nicknamesThe Chosen One and The King being the most prominentare flattering, they also function as permanent brands, burdening LeBron with marks that bear Herculean expectations. As his career continues to elapse without titles, it becomes more and more difficult to justify the labels he’s received; meanwhile, LeBron invites more and more pressure through his superficial attempts to stay in the foreground. When criticized as an “under-achiever,” LeBron’s defense is to appear invincible, merely upping his bravado—epitomized by “The Decision”—which creates more dissenting voices. LeBron’s front-and-center station popularizes his name, but simultaneously magnifies his shortcomings. Each TV segment—ESPN is currently following the Miami Heat throughout their inevitably uneventful pre-season—intensifies the awareness that his ego exceeds his resume, and without success soon, The King will tumble from his artificial throne.
Along with Hamlet’s self-obsession and calls for pity, LeBron parallels the Prince’s feelings of neglect from the man he tries to succeed. Like the displaced Dane who wants to satisfy his father’s ghost, LeBron bids for Michael Jordan’s approval, the last undisputed supreme ruler of basketball. Jordan lurks about the NBA like an apparition, reminding LeBron of the hegemony he has failed to achieve: his cologne lingers in department stores, his clothing line advertises with trophy-raising videos, and he silently surveys the game from courtside seats, now as majority-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. In an attempt to get an affirmative “You truly are the next great one” nod from Jordan, LeBron changed his jersey number from 23—Jordan’s—to 6, and even suggested that nobody in the league should wear those digits, like Jackie Robinson’s 42 is retired across baseball. Prior to professing to “take his talents to South Beach,” and join the Miami Heat, many thought The King would sign with the Chicago Bulls and make hay in the city where Jordan secured his titles. Jordan, though, remains stoic and silent to LeBron’s pleas for validation, leaving The King to wallow in self-doubt.
Like Hamlet, LeBron exhibits an alluring mix of arrogance and insecurity. On the Shakespearean stage, this same blend of characteristics blurs the line between tragedy and comedy, allowing a character like Hamlet to be both laughable and lamentable. Perhaps his tenure in Miami will bring championship success, but until results come, LeBron will unwillingly straddle these two genres, producing sound bites while lacking satisfaction.
Malcolm Burnley B’12 is “taking his talents” to South Kingstown.