Tuesday, July 20, 2010

LeBron: The Story behind the Story (Part I)

The sun had not yet sunk to the horizon as I headed south down Highway 6. Every fifty kilometers or so I drove through another sleepy town, and with the windows down, listened to the summer hum of insects. This was the night LeBron made his decision. Alone on the highway, I tuned the radio to WGR out of Buffalo, listened to it cackle and then catch. I wasn't sure what to expect, but if I'd been betting, my money was that he would stay in Cleveland. I hoped not. Whether it was the Bulls or the Heat, it would give me something to look forward to in the upcoming season, seeing as how our star, Chris Bosh, had already twittered his way to Miami.

The land north of Guelph consisted mostly of farms, and in the last of the fading light I could see the dark shapes of horses and cows grazing along the rolling hills, the land's gentle syncopation a startling contrast from the hue and cry of Toronto. It was a welcome break. The ESPN announcers were still waiting for LeBron to make his appearance twenty minutes later as I approached Guelph. The station cackled with static and broke off just as LeBron started to make his announcement. I grimaced in frustration. I'm missing the moment! About three minutes later the station broke back just as LeBron said "I'll be taking my talents to South Beach." I pounded my steering wheel in jubilation, and hollered at nobody out the window. LeBron. Dwayne Wade. Chris Bosh. Now THAT would be a fun troika to watch. Maybe it would give the league something to celebrate aside than the Celtics and Lakers. What intrigued me even more than the decision, which in my mind had played out as a great drama, were two things. The first, of course, was what story were the sportswriters going to write. The second was what it meant for the general public. Many people didn't realize it, but both questions had implications for the culture, including the non-basketball/non-sports fan. LeBron was more than an athlete, he was a celebrity capable of rippling the culture. It was the ripples that interested me.


The Story Behind the Story

"I'm cheering for my story."

Ask most sports writers who they're cheering for when it comes to covering players and teams, and that's the response you'll get. As someone who has spent more time writing fiction than non-fiction, I can tell you that sports writing uses more narrative than any other part of the newspaper, and most of the best work has its roots in myth making. One need only look at baseball, the relationship between it and one of its prevalent themes of father and son. (Explored beautifully in Field of Dreams) More than mere accounts of games played between adults, sportswriting offers a peek into a different world, a world that is often more fantasy than reality, a world created to offer us help and hope in our everyday lives. (And yes, my cynical friends, to get our money) When we understand it this way, we realize that basketball is not merely a game, which is why LeBron's decision wasn't – according to the sportswriters – a basketball decision. Although he spoke of playing (which means working) with his friends, Wade and Bosh, and winning championships, which is the ultimate goal for his type of employment, nobody believed him. Why would they? Reading a cross section of literally hundreds of reactions throughout North America from sports writers across the country, the unfailing tone of the articles was disappointment. Disappointment with how LeBron handled the situation, disappointment with his apparent ego, disappointment that he had chosen "the easy way", disappointment that a two time MVP switched teams to "create an all-star team". The only place where the disappointment made any real sense was for Cleveland fans, some of whom were seen soon after burning his jersey in effigy.

From a 'realism' standpoint, the response to LeBron's decision (and everything it included, like the hour long special to announce it) is ridiculous. That people would burn an athlete's jersey reveals just how well the sports writers have done their job the past hundred years in creating a mythological narrative to encase athletes. Their exploits are told and retold, as it was surely done in civilizations past, as a story around a fire. The myth story behind LeBron -- hometown kid from a poor home, perhaps the greatest of all time, leading his beleaguered, working class city to its first championship in nearly forty years -- was a powerful one. For seven years LeBron worked to bring that myth to its telling finale, but fell short. Instead of buying into his own myth however, LeBron changed the rules, and opted out of the narrative to play with his friends for a better shot at a championship.

"Not a leader." "Cowardly." "LeBron blew it!"

Those were the headlines the next day, and it seemed to me that most of the sports writers had made their decision. LeBron had gone from the hero to the villain, the greedy (though he took less money) and arrogant (his own show!) young superstar who preferred the rich, flashy night life of Miami to the good, hard working people of Cleveland. I understood their perspective. What choice did they have? They'd framed the story of the hometown hero for so long, spent so many years building a heroic narrative, there wasn't much else they could write, could they? It shocked me a bit how people accepted this verbatim, but sports have long since served as more than mere games in our culture. I remember the stories my dad used to tell me about the grace of Willie Mays and watching Mickey Mantle hit. Or how Roger Staubach would lead his Cowboys back from certain defeat. I remember how eagerly I read books and stories about my favourite athletes as a kid, how I'd get together with my friends and we'd all take turns being Ozzie Smith or Walter Payton or Larry Bird. In the shadow of these great narratives, of growing up and learning about life, the posters on my wall were about something bigger than the game or even my favourite player. They weren't true, necessarily, not in the strictest sense. But that didn't make them any less real or affecting, especially to a kid growing up in Welland, a small blue collar town just north of the American border.

So while I understand the "disappointment", most of it seems disingenuous to me. Sportswriters understand myth and story, and they do their jobs much the way anyone does their job. There's no mystique for them in the people they write about, although occasionally there is admiration. They're too close, for one thing. They see the humanity of the players, their selfishness and arrogance, their usual human foibles, on a regular basis. It's hard to hold someone up on a pedestal when you realize that they're a lot like you.

And yet, only a few mentioned, for example, that four years ago Kobe Bryant lost nearly all of his sponsors when he was accused of rape (later settling with his accuser) and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Phoenix. That narrative has long since changed again (aided mostly when Jerry West stole Pau Gasol and gave Bryant another stud to play with. Not that you'll hear anything about that, because Kobe "stayed" in L.A.) This season, the writers went with the "Kobe finds a way" narrative, including game seven when Bryant was nearly invisible for most of the fourth quarter.

While I still enjoy sports narrative and the occasional dabbling into myth (go John Feinstein) we need to realize that LeBron is not a villain. For an NBA superstar, he is remarkably well grounded and an unselfish player who puts his team first. Yes, he has an ego. So did Jordan. (As did Bird, Magic, Shaq, and Kobe) If Miami wins multiple championships, the LeBron narrative will change again, as it did for Bryant. As it always does. What it does however, is serve as a stark reminder to be careful in how we create our lives and build our own stories. Myth making is not merely for celebrities, but for us too. How we interpret the events of our culture are just as important as the events themselves. Does the LeBron decision truly impact our culture that much? Even for people who don't follow sports? I think it does, but I'll leave that for you to decide.

Stay tuned for Part II