We live in a broken world with fallen heroes. Stark reminders of the latter have been smacking us in our face as Tiger Woods continued his descent with a recent DUI,1 the Bill Cosby trial began, and the Penn State trials concluded with sentencing.2 Each central character was, at one time, considered an impeccable man of outstanding moral fiber, the types of leaders in whom our society could pin the hopes of a better future upon.3 Each man had a hidden secret, a fatal flaw. They had given into the desires of the world rather than protecting the sanctity of humanity.
LeBron James does not have nor ever procured the untattered image of pre-scandal Woods, Paterno, or Cosby. He has had every personality flaw dissected throughout his career with the same veracity—or more—of those who break down his film. The daily beat for nine months of the year over the past 14 seasons has allowed earnest moments of frustration and anger to seep into quotes that now ruminate over the course of any discussion about who James, the man, is.
James entered the NBA with the label of being an entitled youth star complete with custom Hummer, a $100 million shoe contract, and more hype than any prospect of his generation had ever received. Having “The Chosen One” inked upon his upper back demonstrated he was not one to show humility in the face of those wishing to extol his virtues.
After exceeding said hype on the court over the first seven years of his career in Cleveland, James made his first true power move when he formed the Big Three in Miami. Cast as the villain, he jumped into the deep end of the black hats whether or not it was on purpose. James took part in throwing a celebration declaring multiple championships that had not yet been won. He reminded us that he will continue being LeBron James, while we will have to go back to our lives after the Finals end. James went on the defensive by noting he is an easy target. He said “If you go to the grocery store and they don’t have the milk that you like, you just say, ‘It’s LeBron’s fault.'”
Winning a championship plasters over a bunch of holes. Winning two in a row was enough for the majority of the sports world to vindicate James for his decision to take his talents to South Beach, while forgiving (or forgetting) the missteps along the way.
Losing a championship was enough for James to make a drastic pivot in his career, and, once again, alter the public perception about his legacy. Despite the Heat having won the Eastern Conference four consecutive years, James decided to cast his lot with a corps of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and the possibility of another star by utilizing the asset of the No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins. If anyone had a doubt about that last point, it was removed when James did not even mention Wiggins (despite calling out several of the other members of the Cavs) in his letter to announce his return.
The cold shoulder to Wiggins was just the first reminder to fans of the Cavaliers that a byproduct of having the best player on the planet play for your team was that there would be untold drama that is manufactured from his actions and words. James would spend two weeks in Miami during the middle of the season for healing, he would subtweet Kevin Love to “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special! Just my thoughts.”
Despite winning the Eastern Conference, yet again, tension between James and head coach David Blatt would result in a rare first-place coach being fired in mid-season of his second year back. Only coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to overcome the 73-win Golden State Warriors with the first-ever unanimous MVP was enough plaster to cover up that particular hole. In fact, wearing an Ultimate Warrior T-shirt upon arrival back in Ohio, a Kermit tea sipping hat, and hosting a Halloween party with gravestones for his rivals4 were seen on the North coast as whimsical rather than petty.
Yet, there is another side to James that he doesn’t hide from the public so much as he doesn’t flaunt it. The LeBron James Family Foundation is much more than the standard athlete donation group. While the foundation has helped out numerous schools in the United States and Canada with athletic supplies, books, and other necessities, the true impact of the James-led effort is through the individualized campaign to provide children the tools and confidence needed to grow into the best adult versions of themselves.
From the foundation’s About page:
In 2011, recognizing that real change would require a lifelong commitment rooted in research and executed with care, LeBron began to tackle the high school dropout rate in Akron and launched the I PROMISE Initiative. It’s more than a program, it’s a long-term commitment to the youth in this community.
Each year, Akron Public Schools identifies a new class of students that by third grade, have already fallen behind their peers. With research showing this is a critical time to intervene, LJFF wraps its arms around these kids and supports them with the resources, mentorship, and encouragement they need to stay on track to graduation.
The initiative is a partnership between the kids, the foundation, and James himself. The focus is on graduating with the lure of college scholarships awaiting them, but the path for this mentorship program is much in the “teach a child to fish” style. There are activities designed to excite the students at each grade level, while instilling a sense of responsibility and discipline.
Many events revolve around the kids serving their community in philanthropic events. Some such as Rise and Work For What You Have require early mornings on Saturdays. Other events team up with local initiatives such as Capes for Courage to provide the necessary workforce to make a bigger impact.
The children are also reward for their efforts with trips to the Akron Symphony Orchestra, having SpringHill Entertainment host a Movie Magic Event, and engineering days complete with fire-fueled bull-riding and giant pinball machines. Great care is taken to ensure there is something for all interests and ages.
James is not the absentee athlete in his foundation. He attends several of the events each year, provides supportive voicemails and postings on the team’s social media pages, and even uses his national influence to setup amazing events such as when First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a private Townhall-style event for the children, which was hosted by a score of other celebrities.5
Since 2012, James has become more outspoken as a social activist on topics—particularly race-fueled ones—that he has felt needed to have more awareness drawn to them. Through social media and the media, James has posed in hoodies with his Heat teammates for Trayvon Martin, spoken out against Clippers owner Donald Sterling, wore an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt for Eric Garner, and showed support for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s families. When the “N” word was spray painted in the gate of his Los Angeles area home before the 2017 NBA Finals, he used his interview to remind everyone of Emmit Till.
Many disagree with his politics though he does not often wade past the issues detailed above. He announced his endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. Given the drama and not-so-subtle messages James is known to throw about, the timing of the endorsement appeared staged as it came directly after reports of a Donald Trump event at a building in Detroit owned by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.6 Despite helping convince the 2016 Republican National Convention to host their event in Cleveland and being one of the biggest supporters of the party in Michigan, Gilbert remained silent on the political front throughout the campaign.
James also organized a powerful speech with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade about a recent string of black men who were killed from police fire while being arrested. But, even those on the opposite end of the political spectrum from James should be able to appreciate his messaging. He does not call for violence to beget more violence but to renounce it. He calls to action on everyone helping fix the communities to avoid these tragedies from happening as said here.
LeBron James went last. Noting that the night would include a tribute to Ali, he said, “to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence.”
“And most importantly,” he continued, “go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”
In an age where athletes and other manufactured heroes are hoisted upon pedestals and expected to be without blemish, James has eschewed the norm. He might be the model of perfection on the basketball court, exhibiting otherworldly skills against his opponents, but James is a flawed man. The empathetic person who wants to help society has also shown the same pettiness and frustration that is in each of us. These small character defects have been worn on his sleeve for all to witness, which is far better than withholding some horrifying secret. James appears to be savvy enough to navigate optics, but intelligent enough to understand people would prefer him to be genuine. Regardless of our views, we should all be able to appreciate it.
- Allegedly for a bad reaction to prescription pain medication. [↩]
- Reminder: Joe Paterno would be going to jail had he not died following his forced retirement due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. [↩]
- Note: there were some inklings for those who followed Woods closely that he was not the person who his public persona was molded to be. However, as someone who did not follow golf closely, his fall caught me off guard. [↩]
- And plenty of reminders of the blown 3-1 lead. [↩]
- It is hard to do the foundation enough justice in this space. There is the Hardwork Club, 23 Acts, Hometown Hall, Experience Outings, and many more areas where an incredible amount of detailed planning has been done to ensure the best possible experience for all. [↩]
- Later reports clarified the RNC paid for the space and there was never confirmation that Gilbert had anything to do with it. [↩]