That mushroom cloud you see is the Internet detonating at the news that Lebron James is returning to Cleveland. We Frenches are absolutely rabid NBA basketball fans. I came by my love of the game growing up in Kentucky, where virtually every single day I’d play basketball until it was too dark to see the goal. When it snowed, the first thing I’d do was run outside and start shoveling until at least the free-throw line was clear. One of the great disappointments of my childhood was the slow realization that — for all my practice — I was never going to be that good. There’s just not much of a market for slow six-foot guards who can’t create their own shot.
But I still loved the game. While college ball was a fun diversion, I always saw it as second-best, nothing more than an entertaining minor league for the real game, the pro game. Nothing beat Magic and Larry going head to head, or watching Jordan go for 63 in the Boston Garden, or — as I got older — watching Allen Iverson play with speed and quickness I’d never seen before.
Today, with three kids, basketball season is our favorite season. We get NBA League Pass, we drive down to as many Memphis Grizzlies games as we can (our closest team and a great, hustling squad that’s truly bonded with the city), and we hang on every second of the playoffs, drawing up brackets like most families do with March Madness. And, yes, my kids are fascinated by the league’s stars — following them on Instagram and sharing stories about their lives off the court with almost as much gusto as they share the on-court exploits.
I’m not much for the idea that athletes are automatically role models. A role model should be determined by their actions, not merely their talent or fame. But I know as well as anyone the hold that great athletes can have over kids’ hearts. And in that regard, I can think of few better statements about what it means to grow up, what it means to be a man, than the one LeBron James just wrote to explain his decision to return to Cleveland. There’s so much there . . . written in words that anyone can understand. Take this passage, about the the disastrous “decision” to leave Cleveland in 2010:
Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, This is really tough. I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.
In other words, sometimes you have to leave home to grow up. He didn’t do it the right way, or the best way, but he had to do it. That’s something that generations of kids feel and understand deep in their core.
Then there’s this about dealing with the hurt and hate and conflict arising from that decision:
To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough. The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned — seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, “OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.” But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?
There’s humility and self-awareness in that statement, the knowledge that — like it or not — his life is not just about him. He knows he has an impact on kids and has compassion for the effect of his choices. Then he mans up. He does what adults should do when they have conflict. They meet and talk it out. They don’t snipe in the press. They don’t try to destroy. Instead, they approach one another with humility and grace.
Finally, the ending is just magnificent. These are the words of a person who knows the power he has and is embracing it to do the right thing, to teach the right lessons.
But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.
This is the right way to deliver a very tough message about life. “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.” He says. But he also says that he’s in it with you. That’s he’s working for you and not against you. That’s a lesson that many adults need to hear, quite frankly. In teaching our own kids — as the role models in the home — the toughness is necessary, but the example — the love — is even more vital. When raising a child, words without action are worse than meaningless — they’re destructive.
Look, I know that LeBron James is “just” a basketball player. I know first-hand that there are heroes out there that most children will never know, who’ve given their last full measure of devotion to this country and their community. But James is also one of the most powerful figures in pop culture, a pop culture that is so often consumed by darkness.
But today, LeBron James didn’t just light a candle in that darkness, he lit a blazing torch.