Is Wrestling ___?: LeBron James

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After the Game 5 loss that put his opponents on the hill to win the NBA Championship, LeBron James matter-of-factly told the media, “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world.”

Generally, people who say things like, “I make a lot of money,” or “I look fantastic naked” are met with universal scorn because, well, it’s rude and socially aggressive. For King James, however, it seems less clear-cut as to whether we should see him as a blowhard spouting self-aggrandizing garbage in the face of a loss or a proud leader with his back to the wall, trying to exude confidence. It’s a question that cuts to the heart of what we value as a culture. On one hand, parents raise their children to be humble and not rub things in others’ faces. However, those same parents lay awake at night, praying that their children have the confidence to stand up for themselves and make it in the world. So what message should those parents send to their kids about LeBron?

James curiously finds himself at the tipping point of so many of these debates about American cultural identity and values – it’s what makes him a fascinating athlete and not just a rich, famous one. It’s gotten to the point where one of the compelling questions of this era in culture banter is, “Is LeBron James a good person or a crummy person?”

When LeBron James opted out of his contract with the Miami Heat last summer, I compared it to the breakup of professional wrestling’s Four Horsemen, stating it was the end of an era of bad guys in the NBA. With a return to the Cavaliers and his home state of Ohio, LeBron, the megalomaniacal sellout mastermind of “The Decision,” was granted an Ebeneezer Scrooge-like reprieve. With just a swipe of a pen, he turned on a dime and instantly became an admirable home town hero again… at least in Cleveland.

However, one promotional truism from the world of wrestling holds here: nobody can ever be as big a hero as they were before the first time they became a villain. (That’s the reason why John Cena never turned heel and why Hulk Hogan, while still extraordinarily famous, is not the star he was prior to his nWo run.) This phenomenon permeated media coverage of the NBA Finals as commentators who would’ve gushed about the aggressive but patient poetry of LeBron’s game back before his 2010 Decision were somewhat reserved in their praise of his near-triple-double averages. The questions about the series were all worded negatively with respect to LeBron: “Can LeBron score enough points?” “Can LeBron find ways to get teammates involved?” “Can LeBron solve the Warriors’ team defense?” The message from the media was clear: We’re willing to accept and promote you as a conquering hero, but only if you conquer.

Come Game 6, LeBron and the Cavaliers were unable to stave off defeat at the hands of a Warriors team that was broader, if not deeper, than them. However, with his head-and-shoulders above the pack numbers, LeBron could have easily been declared the Finals’ Most Valuable Player in loss. The selection of Andre Iguodala, a reserve for most of the series, over James demonstrated once and for all that the media are uncomfortable elevating LeBron to culture hero status. Instead of the best player in the world, they chose to acknowledge the canniest player on the floor, the man whose mother punished him for scoring too many points when he was young -- the anti-LeBron. So, for now, humility reigns. The ability to make others better is valued over drawing attention to your own talents. Being part of a successful system is valued over having a system built around you.

LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, but he’s still not fully accepted as the brand-defining, babyfaced star that he could be. In spite of his tremendous talents and unquestionable charisma, there’s still something about him that makes us look at him and think, “I’m not sure if I trust this guy.” That’s why, for all the feel-good “welcome home” fluff, he’s still a heel in the pro wrestling play that is sports coverage.

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