Forget the stats. Forget Jordan. Forget the next destination.
The legacy of LeBron James isn’t just about basketball. It’s about his values, leadership and commitment to those around him — both on and off the court.
I grew up watching the world’s most talented basketball player from a distance, but over the past few years I’ve become one of his biggest fans. The only thing more admirable than his phenomenal athletic ability is how much he has evolved as a player and person over time.
James’s situation is beyond unique. He has been scrutinized on a national level since high school, but literally came from nothing. He was raised by a single mother who lived on welfare and had him at the age of 16. His childhood home was condemned at age 5. He never even met his father. It wasn’t until age 9 that he found a remotely stable living situation when he moved in with his youth football coach and learned how to play basketball.
I’ve always been fascinated by the polarizing nature of James. Whenever I tell people that I’m a fan, many react in disgust. This Quora answer has a nice rundown of the various reasons why people dislike him (e.g. “He’s the face of the NBA and with praise comes a lot of hate. LeBron could’ve gone 8–0 in his Finals appearances and solve world hunger and people would still hate him.”), but I think it’s evident that everything started with The Decision — an ESPN special in 2010 where he announced his next move to join the Miami Heat.
Critics will never let him live this down. Cleveland Cavalier fans felt stabbed in the back. Though James has since admitted that the moment should’ve been handled differently, I don’t think it should be so difficult to forgive him. Some key factors to keep in mind (#3 being the most important):
- He was twenty-five years old.
- He returned to the Cavs and won a championship in 2016.
- The live broadcast raised $6 million for charity.
His dedication to the community is arguably more praiseworthy than his basketball accomplishments. In 2016, James pledged more than $40 million through his foundation to help children in Akron, Ohio obtain college degrees. He is actively involved in other nonprofit organizations centered around low-income children and families, including After-School All Stars, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Children’s Defense Fund.
Contrary to popular belief, James’s improbable rise from inner-city poverty to the NBA is an uncommon story. The majority of people who start their lives in his unfortunate position are unable to escape it. Your average NBA player, meanwhile, typically comes from a more supportive background. James truly defeated the odds in every sense of the phrase.
In the book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz references an eye-opening study about birth names as a reflection of socioeconomic status. Though many believe that James’s rag-to-riches story is a frequent occurrence in the NBA, the opposite is actually true: a more privileged background leads to a better chance of becoming a professional basketball player.
According to the data, African American children who come from the wealthiest areas in the United States are more than twice as likely to make the NBA than African American children from the poorest areas. Once you consider this fact, James’s rise to stardom is even more unbelievable.
Discussing an economic research paper from 2003, Stephens-Davidowitz writes: “Kids from better-off backgrounds are more likely to be given common names, such as Kevin, Chris and John… If the NBA really were a league filled with poor black men, it would sound quite different. There would be a lot more men with names like LeBron.”
When James said “I am not even supposed to be here” after winning the NBA Finals in 2013, it was not in jest. He was simply speaking the truth.
If you knew what LeBron went through and you knew what he became, no way in the world you could root against him. Still don’t understand it. — Frankie Walker
The vast majority of children in his position do not defeat the odds, but he is doing everything in his power to address this problem.
Plenty of athletes avoid political and social commentary entirely — knowing that it will likely alienate a portion of their fanbase. However, James has repeatedly used his massive platform to speak up about racial injustice, poverty and other important issues affecting millions of Americans.
A few months ago, he tweeted a link to an excellent podcast from The Daily that explores the struggle for African American men in our country. James, of course, knows this struggle better than anyone else.
The current President of the United States, meanwhile, isn’t helping the situation. Accordingly, James has called him a “bum” on multiple occasions and doesn’t care about the fact that he risks angering some of his greatest admirers with these comments. When it comes to social issues, he would clearly rather do the right thing than try to appease everyone.
During the 2018 NBA Finals, when asked about the Philadelphia Eagles getting uninvited from visiting the White House, James said: “I know no matter who wins this series, no one wants the invite anyway, so it won’t be Golden State or Cleveland going.”
Aside from his understandable disdain for Trump, James’s poise in front of the press also cannot be understated. In the world of social media, a lot of athletes get caught doing and saying dumb things. However, he has no history of crime or scandalous behavior and always manages to remain charismatic and composed in front of the camera. He possesses a level of patience and self-awareness that is rare these days, and his professionalism comes through in every media appearance.
When it comes to James’s personal life, the one thing that he prioritizes over basketball is family. By all accounts, he is a great father and husband who has always understood why family is far more important than anything else.
I’ve heard people argue that he is fake, selfish, superficial, the list goes on. The interview below, however, is one of many examples that disproves all of these assumptions. His reaction to the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife is as real as it gets and reveals James’s intuition about life as a whole. Basketball is an extremely small part of something much greater.
Of course, the topic on everyone’s mind right now is which team he will join for the 2018–19 season. There are numerous options on the table (really, it’s any team he wants), but the final stage of his career is icing on the cake at this point. It doesn’t matter if he joins the worst team in the NBA next year.
No matter where he ends up, my opinion on James will never change. He represents one of the most powerful figures in sports and has effectively used his platform to bridge the gap between entertainment and social change.
Whenever the time comes, he will be sorely missed in the league. However, his legacy will not be represented solely by his place in the record books.
Once James moves on from the NBA, the most important thing to remember will be the fact that his commitment to family, community and activism is just as impressive as his strength and skills on the basketball court.
I still need more dunks though. 😜