Every good story has four elements. The first three are provided by the storyteller be it a novelist, director, or playwright. The last is provided by the audience be it a reader, moviegoer, or a person who watches plays (there is no name for this, I checked). There are of course other elements to consider but, these are the absolute basics. The first three basics are provided by the storyteller and are a beginning, a middle, and an end. The last basic element, courtesy of the audience, is belief. Every story starts somewhere, goes somewhere, and ends somewhere. A good story is then believed by the people who see it. This is true no matter how fantastic or whimsical a story. If the audience believes in the story, it’s real.
LeBron James believes the story, as do we all. It’s why he went back to Cleveland and, it’s why we’re all okay with it. This, by the way, is not to say that LeBron James needs permission to go back to Cleveland but the last time he made A Decision everyone was markedly not okay with it.
James told his story starting from the beginning, in an essay he wrote in collaboration with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated explaining his decision to return to Cleveland. This is an interesting choice when you think about it. He could have just written about his love for Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, followed by his decision to go back home but, he didn’t. He chose instead to tell a story. His story. In his essay he explains the familial relationship he has with Ohio as well as his roots there.
Now the more cynical among us may think LeBron is selling a bunch of hock, just like he did four years ago. The more cynical among us would simply believe that he’s better at it now. The more cynical among us would be absolutely wrong of course. This is because LeBron wasn’t selling anything four years ago either. He was just believing in another part of the story.
Rewind to four years ago. A 25 year old LeBron James looks into the camera and says he’s taking his talents to South Beach and to the Miami Heat. He would later say he was shocked by the reaction he got. Why? Because LeBron tried to make his departure the spectacle everyone wanted, which backfired, as plans of that nature are ought to do. The narrative that should have played out is every sports analysts wet dream (the way the Cleveland return actually did turn out). The best player in the league takes a massive pay cut to try and win multiple titles with his friends. He selflessly turns aside money in the name of team work and winning. Any rational person knows that this totally works on paper. Theoretically it’s a good story. Hell, it’s a even a great story.
A bizarre thing happened though. Somewhere between LeBron’s good intentions and the broadcast of The Decision, the media and fans hi-jacked the story and changed it. They didn’t believe the story line given to them so they turned into something else. Something worse. They turned into the story of a man arrogant enough to air a half hour special about himself. They turned it into the story of a superstar unable to win a title, unfairly teaming up with other stars to finish a singular superstar’s job. Mostly though, astonished media and hurt fans turned it into the story of a traitor who betrayed his hometown for a more glamorous city.
Faster than it took the nickname “the Heatles” to stick, Lebron had become the villain in his own story. He wanted to be the hero but, instead was wearing the black hat.
The only thing that clears up that kind of stink is winning. The revamped Miami Heat did just that, notching 54 wins in their first season together. They did however have some perplexing losing streaks in the 2010-2011 campaign, which only exacerbated the learning curve that James had to overcome in playing with his teammates. That struggle and eventual Finals defeat at the hands of the underdog Dallas Mavericks gave everyone the storyline most near and dear to every sports fan’s heart. Hatred.
Lebron, very much not wanting to be the villain, was not just considered a villain but a defeated one. A Finals victory would have cleared the air, instead fans and media alike took some twisted joy in Miami’s defeat. The Big 3 as they had become known had everything about them questions from their ability to win together to their actual desire to win basketball games. To overcome the villainous title thrust upon him James had to become something he had never been before. An NBA Champion.
On October 29, 2003 LeBron James was becoming something he had never been before. An NBA player. The Sacramento Kings hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers as the first chapter of LeBron’s NBA career had officially begun. Cleveland lost the game but, with the brilliance of the rookie LeBron was on full display, they gained so much more. The Cavs gained the notion that this guy was special and that his story with them was far from over. LeBron, at just 18 years old, dominated the game. The kid was supposed to be raw. He wasn’t. He wasn’t supposed to be able to shoot. Yet he was making shots. He showed a tremendous feel for the game, as though he had been in the league for years. His jumpers fell. Not just the open ones either. On one play LeBron had the ball as the shot clock was running down, he pivoted to his right, elevated and leaned back, he released a high arcing fade away. Everyone knew it was going in and down it went. LeBron James was a natural.
It’s the summer of 2014 and LeBron James is 29 years old. He’s at the point in a player’s career where they begin to think about their legacy. He’s a superstar with two NBA championships, he’s been a future Hall of Famer for a while now, and he’s still in the middle of his prime. It’s the middle of the story. The 29 year old LeBron James headed back to Cleveland is still a natural but he is now at the height of his powers. James has never been better. He’s never been more popular, in fact, after his decision to return to Cleveland, LeBron James surpassed Michael Jordan as the most popular athlete in America. So, what’s next?
A story that has belief also has challenges (if not physical ones then mental ones). Nobody wants to see a hero traipse unencumbered from goal to goal, only stopping to wonder occasionally why life is so incredibly easy. It’s not entertaining and it’s not at all like real life (after all we like stories to remind us of ourselves). LeBron became the most popular athlete post-Cleveland Return. In so doing he must overcome the inherent challenges in it. There are a lot of them.
This is by far LeBron’s most inexperienced team so far, featuring a bunch of youngsters, who not unlike you or I have only seen the NBA playoffs on TV. Just months ago that locker room had a level of dysfunction bordering on complete implosion. The stories coming out of Cleveland were soap opera-esque; Tristan Thompson was accusing Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving of playing buddy ball, passing to just each other, and not getting him involved. After a 3-6 start punctuated by a 29 point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, there was a players only meeting that allegedly got confrontational. In short, the team was a mess.
Belief is a necessary part of storytelling involving the audience buying into what ever the story is. Who is telling this story? The LeBron story I mean, not the Irving-Waiters-Thompson fiasco. Whose narrative is important here? Is it the media who would have you believe that LeBron going to Miami is an example of his childishness; while his return to Cleveland somehow makes him a paragon of maturation? Is it the fans who spurned James for taking less to win but, rejoiced when he took more to back home and possibly win less? Is it LeBron who insisted that his return to Cleveland and inspire the boys and girls of Northern Ohio? It’s also possible that there is no story at all and that everyone involved you, me, ESPN, and LeBron are all choosing the parts of his life we would most like to romanticize. This inevitably says more about us than the story we’re observing.
The funny thing about sports and in this case, basketball is that while the games are played inside some painted lines, it’s the things that happen outside the lines that seem to impact people the most. There is a blurring of the lines between storyteller and audience that makes it hard to figure out who is commenting on whom. Examples of this are Isiah Thomas’ remarks that if Larry Bird were black he’d be ‘just another good guy’, or Magic Johnson contracting HIV, and the hilarious rivalry of Reggie Miller and Spike Lee. Those moments had a direct impact on how we viewed those players even as they continued their jobs inside the lines.
Each party has a say; the fans, the media, and players alike. Each party believes the story belongs to them. The story really doesn’t belong to anybody but, there is a power of equality in the misconception. If we all believe we own the story, then in a weird way, actually do own it. What makes LeBron special, apart from his freakish athleticism and eidetic memory, is that he figured it out. He’s owned the beginning and middle of his story. He also knows how he wants it to end. He wanted and needed the rest of us to believe it too. And you know what? We did.