LeBron James is one of a select few persons, like Cher, Prince, Kobe, Shaq or Magic, who can be identified by one name. Mention “LeBron,” and most people, even non-basketball fans, will know to whom you are referring. He is generally considered by fans, the media, and, most significantly, other players to be the best active player in the NBA and the face of the sport. Furthermore, he is on the “short list” of the greatest basketball players ever with Michael (Jordan), Magic (Johnson), Wilt (Chamberlain) and Oscar (Robertson), among others. However, the purpose of this blog is not to opine on where James ranks among these all-time greats but, rather, to explore why he has been the subject of so much undue criticism and controversy during his career.
LeBron Raymone James was born on December 30, 1984 in Akron, Ohio. His mother was just 16. He grew up in abject poverty without a father, not exactly a formula for success. Fortunately, he had a talent for basketball and was guided by a local coach who served as male role model and mentor. He became famous in high school where he led his team to three state championships in four years. In addition, he won various individual awards, such as “Ohio’s Mr. Basketball” and “Gatorade National Player of the Year.” Oh, and in his spare time he was a first team all-state tight end on the football team. Probably, he could have succeeded in the NFL if the basketball thing hadn’t worked out. Following high school he went directly to the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him with the first pick of the 2003 draft.
LeBron is different from most other superstars both personally and professionally. For example:
- He has led a clean personal life, devoid of any criminal or civil problems. He has not been linked to drug or alcohol abuse, gotten into any fights at clubs, attacked women, nor abused animals. He is still married to his high school sweetheart and has three children. By all accounts, he has been a fine family man.
- On the court he is very unselfish. Unlike many other superstars, he actually passes the ball. If you are open, he will get you the ball and in a position to score. He makes both other players and his team better. This is critical in basketball, where the most successful teams are normally better than the sum of their parts. (See the NY Knicks of the late 1960s/early 1970s and the recent San Antonio Spurs teams.) Most players want to play with him. His teams overachieve. In 2007 he took an otherwise nondescript Cavs team to the finals where they lost to a superior Spurs team with three likely future Hall of Famers. This year he has carried an undermanned Cavs team, which missed the playoffs last year without him and whose next two best players have been injured, to The Finals again. In Miami he sublimated his skills to blend in with his teammates for the benefit of the team and won two championships.
- He is always working to improve his game. For example, early in his career he was not a great defensive player. Now, he is one of the best and most versatile. He can, and has, guarded every position on the court well. No other player has ever been able to do that. He has improved his outside shooting and his post play, which were once weaknesses.
So, why the criticism and controversy? In my opinion, it all stems from “The Decision.” After the 2009-10 season, LeBron became a free agent. Obviously, many teams wanted to sign him. In July he held a press conference televised on ESPN to announce he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” He was widely and bitterly criticized on all fronts.
- The entire city of Cleveland, it seemed, led by the owner, was irate. The owner criticized him vehemently in an open letter to the fans. Some fans publicly burned their LeBron jerseys.
- Much of the media and many players criticized him for leaving the Cavs, even though he had given them seven seasons and was entitled to do so under the rules of free agency.
- The other teams that had courted him were very unhappy he didn’t sign with them.
- Most of all, it seemed everyone was denouncing the announcement, itself. “Unprofessional” was one of the more benign descriptions. Later, LeBron admitted he didn’t handle it well, but we all make mistakes. Lost in the furor was the fact that the telecast raised $6 million for various charities.
At this point, LeBron has rehabilitated himself in the eyes of most of his detractors. However, there are still those that criticize him for any or all of the things mentioned above. Some critics have even turned his unselfish play against him saying that he prefers to pass the ball rather than take the clutch shot with the game on the line. They add that his track record for hitting the clutch shot is poor. Personally, I don’t agree, and according to Henry Abbott, NBA analyst for TruHoop and ESPN, his shooting percentage with the game on the line exceeds that of such renowned clutch shooters as Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant. (Many of those same people criticize other superstars for “forcing” shots through double-teams when teammates are wide open.)
Another common criticism is that LeBron has only won two titles, compared to Jordan’s six. This has more validity in basketball, a sport in which one player can have a strong influence on the outcome of a game, than in other sports, such as baseball or football. But, Jordan had a better supporting cast, notably Scottie Pippin, another all-time great, and one of the best coaches ever in Phil Jackson. In any case, LeBron is still only 30 with 5 or so years of peak performance left, barring injury. That is plenty of time to win more titles and add to his legacy.