King James, the Big Decision, and What to Do About Character

LeBron JamesThe over-hyped LeBron James circus is finally over. We can all take a deep breath now, a sigh of relief, and get on with our lives. We know, we know, where the 25-year-old King James (he also has a tattoo on his back proclaiming himself the “Chosen 1”) is going to play basketball next year. “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” he said. Drumrolls go silent. The news is out. LeBron is going to play with two other great players, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, in Miami. Whew, I’m glad I know.

I happen to be an NBA fan, mostly a Phoenix Suns fan, as all of my friends know. But all I’ve got to say, after all of the buildup, after all of the over-dramatized suspense, Miami better win. Fact is, they may not. Pat Riley may have the magic once again, but I have my doubts. We’ll see.

But mostly, I’m sorry, I’ve got to ask: Was any of this extraordinary self-aggrandizement dignified? As Maureen Dowd said in The New York Times, James “seems to have no idea of the public relations damage he has inflicted on himself.” People don’t go for blatant egotism. People responded positively to the impressive James’ story before: young kid out of high school making it through grit and talent; young kid who grew up in a tough neighborhood with no father at home.

We can cheer for people with great talent, and we can cheer for fighting and winning against the odds — but we don’t like such extravagant egotism wherever we find it.

Let me ask it again: Was any of this dignified? Was there any redeeming value to all of this hype? I am fully aware we’ve all got our ego issues. My Christian theology tells me we are all inflicted with downright self-centeredness. But really, when we hear LeBron say “I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James, what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy” — and that’s it, the bottom line — don’t we at least slightly cringe? This isn’t a model we want for our kids, is it?

Can there possibly be some balance between looking out for ourselves and loyalty to others? Is it possible to put the team first, just a little? Is there something of real value in commitment to an organization that has treated you well? At least to show them a little courtesy? Is it possible to talk about meaningful relationships and the hurt feelings caused by your actions and decisions? Does humility matter?

I’ve just finished reading N.T. Wright’s absolutely great book on Christian virtue and Christian character formation. It is called After We Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. I have been totally stunned into some deep reflection on the actual discipline of character formation. Paul taught that we can actually “put off” the bad stuff, and we can actually “put on” the good. But it takes some work. It takes transforming our minds and developing habits of the heart.

Paul says, for example, that “the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.” This is what good character looks like. Wright’s contention throughout this book is that we can actually learn these things, and as we do, we become more fully human, and the world becomes a better place.

I’m thinking hard about all of this.

I wish James and Dwayne and Chris and Pat all the best in Miami next year. And I am sure I’ll be on the front row of my sofa for the first televised game of the Miami Heat, maybe against the Phoenix Suns. We may forget all of this hype. But still, this little episode was sour. It hurt the NBA. It hurt LeBron James. It made our world momentarily more ugly.

Indeed, we can now move on. But let’s do what we can to build a world where character really does matter. You know, that’s what we are trying to do at Seattle Pacific. We are trying to focus on this kind of character formation. And if we do this well, the world can become a better place.

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Categories: Character, Culture, NBA

9 replies

  1. This is great – thanks Dr. Eaton. I was unsettled by all the hype around this as well. Whereas once we used to report the news, now we’re creating news to report. I realize a large part of this is marketing and how to garner viewer’s eyes and attention, but self glorification can never be Godly, and at the expense of loyalty to others – as you mentioned – will ultimately set you up to fail.

  2. This was a great blog artilce. I was teaching in Cleveland when Lebron was going to a private school near Cleveland and driving around in a HUMMER that his mom mortgaged her house for because she knew he was great! At that time, teaching in the inner city, we were all watching LeBron.
    AT John Marshall High School in Cleveland, We had a very strong Character Education program that changed the lives of our students and their attitudes. I really enjoyed your comparison of Lebron’s attitude to a lack of good character. Thank you. I will forward a link to your blog to some of the teacher friends in Cleveland.

  3. I am sorry Cleveland but do you really think he was coming back. This is a show and he is a showman. Will his star shine more brightly in Miami, New York or …….

    Yes it will of course. Its just a game and wish him well

  4. Dr. Eaton,

    I appreciate your heart on this issue. This entry underscores an commitment in American Christianity to piety and personal morality. This commitment makes it difficult to call institutions to accountability and to over-emphasize the role of the individual.

    After living in New England, I witnessed some of the nation’s most committed fans remain silent when their favorite teams, the Patriots and the Red Sox, cast off players who had helped them to victory. In other words, why isn’t it that we fail to question the moral calculus that allows teams to treat legions of players as disposable. Especially, players who have been faithful to both their teams/organizations but also the causes of the city.
    I’d like to offer you a piece from Jason Whitlock to consider.

    http://msn.foxsports.com/collegefootball/story/jason-whitlock-expose-ncaa-not-reggie-bush-072210?GT1=39002

    Finally, this is the sports/entertainment; a microcosm unto itself. I think that he has been reasonably humble and level headed. Is it fair to call him an egoist? LeBron man is a young black man who has avoided so many pitfalls.

  5. Dr. Eaton,

    I appreciate your heart on this issue. This entry underscores a commitment in American Christianity to piety and personal morality. This commitment makes it difficult to call institutions to accountability, while at the same time tending to over-emphasize the individual.

    After living in New England, I witnessed some of the nation’s most committed fans remain silent when their favorite teams, the Patriots and the Red Sox, cast off players who had helped them to victory. I’ve often wondered why is it that we fail to question the moral calculus that allows teams to treat legions of players as disposable? Especially, players who have been faithful to their teams/organizations but also the causes of that particular city.

    I’d like to offer you a piece from Jason Whitlock to consider.

    http://msn.foxsports.com/collegefootball/story/jason-whitlock-expose-ncaa-not-reggie-bush-072210?GT1=39002

    Finally, this is the sports/entertainment industry; a microcosm unto itself. I think that he has been reasonably humble and level headed. LeBron is a young black man who has avoided so many pitfalls. I don’t think it is fair to call him an egoist?

  6. Dr Eaton
    Thanks for the great post. I too am a basketball fan but understand that this is a “show”, not unlike the circus or any other entertainment venue and accept the business aspect as a necessary evil. Unfortunately good business decisions don’t always go hand-in-hand with loyalty, as it should be, if your trying to maximize the profitability of your business or in this case, franchise, and more broadly, league. In that regard I think he made a good choice.

    As far as your questions, [ Was any of this dignified? Was there any redeeming value to all of this hype?] No… and yes; a significant amount of money (millions) was raised from the proceeds of the telecast and all of it was given to charity. Thanks again
    Noel

  7. Here’s some video of a humble player, Derrick Favors, after his first NBA basketball game:

    Derrick Favors Interview, 2010 NBA basketball summer league

  8. thank you for this article…i myself was profoundly disappointed in james for that spectacle masquerading as an event….yes, he was a free agent…yes, he could sign with anyone..as sports fans we all know what happens with free agents…it was how it was done…his fans who placed their hopes in lebron felt terribly let down…i thought he owed them at least a “heads up” of some kind…the fans of cleveland and lebron didnt need to be humiliated on national television…i dont hold any ill will toward lebron although i will be happy if they dont win….afterall, im a clipper fan…thats right, like “bigfoot” clip fans really do exist and this year i will be rooting blake griffin….oh! by the way, you can jump on our bandwagon anytime.

  9. This episode reminds me of playground basketball, in which all the best players on the court decide to play together on the same team, so they can win. It’s not particularly fair, and it’s why so many NBA fans are hoping Miami will fail.

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