LeBron James and the New Sincerity of the NBA

8/14/13 in NBA   |   R_C_   |   2 respect

For over two decades, I’ve been observing the dispositions of NBA players during interviews and press conferences.  Recently, a gradual, universal shift in comportment has set in and become noticeable – one for which, even as I grow both older and unavoidably more cynical, I can’t help but identify an evident uprightness as the prevailing standard.  Whether due to the fall of a clearly nefarious end-of-millennium era, during which mainstream culture seemed readily to glorify some combination of misogyny, greed and violence, or to the evermore powerful microscope under which our superstars and celebrities are cast, the shift unquestionably is a positive one. 

I’m no psychologist – just a writer.  Moreover, I’m just a person – a person equipped with the same perceptual potential as most other people with five working senses. When dealing with others, therefore, it usually isn’t too difficult to gauge when another person is happy, sad, angry, relieved, surprised, or so on and so forth.  Quite simply, you just get a read on them.  And for that reason, it doesn’t take being a psychologist or a writer or any other type of professional to recognize when a person is being sincere; instead, all it takes is being perceptive. 

LeBron James is sincere.

Ironically, I first acknowledged this during the infamous Decision.  As the camera panned in close just before James announced where he would be taking his talents, you could see it in his eyes…  Could see what?  Sincerity?  No, not necessarily.  What could be seen, however, was how very reluctant he really was to embrace the fiasco, the spectacle of televising the verdict of his own free-agency.  Of course then, over the next year or more, he was ripped apart in the media for being everything from a megalomaniac to a traitor.  Yet between the display of his apparent uneasiness on that ESPN hot seat and the roomful of disadvantaged kids, to whom all of the proceeds of the event went, never for a moment was I ever sold on LeBron James, the Villain.   

Skip to three years later – the interview of James by Magic, Wilbon, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons following Game 7 of this past year’s NBA Finals.  The degree to which the four-time MVP and two-time champion let himself be overcome by his own emotions was awe-inspiring.  To see a star of his caliber – a caliber unmatched, really, by any other – bouncing up and down in his chair, elatedly transitioning between silliness and utter shock; between pure relief and pure gratefulness for the moment he was experiencing – as a passionate fan of the game and of the league itself, I could not have been farther over the moon.  Not only did the Heat’s last championship solidify the supremacy of James’ legacy, it also marked the regeneration of his image as the likable fun-loving phenom who entered the league when he, literally, was still just a kid.

Then, this past week, ABC aired what currently happens to be the latest exclusive interview with King James.  With Robin Roberts as emcee, the segment included both a candid sit-down discussion, throughout which topics ranging from A-Rod’s drug-use to the responsibilities of being a role model were covered.  As they spoke, James also made no small task of deferring to the venerable Roberts every chance he could – a fine continuation of the moving, humble speech he gave before presenting her with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at this year’s ESPYs a few weeks earlier. 

But the scene that really drove home how truly genuine James is occurred inside a school back in his hometown of Akron, OH.  He and Roberts made their way through cramped lime-green halls to a classroom of elementary-age children.  When the basketball icon finally ducked in beneath the doorway, as would be expected, the kids all were completely spellbound.  Nevertheless, James spoke to them as if he were a kindly local law enforcement officer, reminding them of the importance of being good students and to never stop dreaming – all obviously the rote of any sports star when addressing a group of young admirers.  Still though, by the unpretentious patience with which he waited for each student to recite their I Promise pledges (based on a program set up by LeBron and his foundation), and by the gentleness of the counsel he then stood before them and gave, it was all too apparent that in no way was he only there to go through the motions.  He cared.  He cares.  Without question.  In fact, after asking each child in the class to promise to do their part, he closed by saying, “And I promise that I’ll continue to be a role model to you guys, and inspire you guys, and to not let you guys down.  Ever.”  It wasn’t just that he made the statement, but rather, it was how he made it – from the heart, without any covert agenda; warmly, willingly and, above all, sincerely.

LeBron James isn’t necessarily the founder of this New Sincerity within the NBA, nor is he the only exemplar of it either.  Between Kevin Durant’s bashfully glad courtside receptions of the numerous proud kisses his mother gives him during every home game, and Derrick Rose sobbing unaffectedly as he thanked his own ma’ from the podium while accepting his MVP trophy in 2011 – among many other instances demonstrated by many other stars – the contemporary NBA is doing well to promote sensitivity as the sort of conduct duly becoming of one considered by society to be overtly masculine.  These are some of the premier athletes of our generation – living totems of corporeal potency – yet not only are they unafraid to appear sentimental in public, it’s often as if, even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t be able to help it.  After all, in the end, they’re just people too. 
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