Monday, June 13, 2011

On LeBron James, Psychoanalyzing Sports, and the Dangers of Expecting Gods in Flesh

LeBron James played terribly in the NBA Finals. Which tells us, umm, that LeBron James played terribly in the NBA Finals. But since I keep hearing people psychoanalyze that to invent some kind of character defect or fourth quarter allergy or "unclutchiness", here's a reminder: The man who can't close games (so we're told) scored 29 or his team's last 30 points in a playoff victory. Here's the tape:

I'm not a "fan" of LeBron James. I don't know him personally, and have nothing invested in his success or failure. But I'm even less a fan of psychoanalyzing sports, especially since, from such a distance, there's so much information we don't have access to.

I think that much of what I call LeBronophobia is both misinformed and misguided, driven less by some great insight into either his character and the game of basketball and more by a cultural dynamic that must build up mythic heroes only to tear them down. Simply put, whatever you think of the man himself (and, since I don't have access to the man himself, I try not to think anything of him), LeBron James is one hell of a basketball player. One of the best ever. He's also arguably the most scrutinized (and often irrationally and inconsistently - the man simply can do nothing right) 26 year old athlete in history.

So, now that we have seen him "fail" in the fourth quarter (which has nothing to do with his teammates, and nothing to do with the opposition, right? Because he has to be either a god who is untouched by circumstances or a tragic failure; he can't simply be a human being who is really, really good at basketball), we have a new narrative: LeBron James can't come up clutch when it matters. He simply doesn't do fourth quarters. I don't need facts. I don't need data. I know what I saw.

So, see this: 29 of his team's last 30 points. In a crucial playoff win.

Why did we forget this? How was it so easily dismissed?

Or, perhaps, deep down inside we remember this and expect him (or anyone else) to be able to do it again, on command, in any situation. Perhaps this improbable feat became the new normal, the standard by which he would always be judged, and failing to ever do it again marks him such a failure that we can dismiss all of his past, present, and future accomplishments and dismiss him altogether.

No matter how much our mythos wishes it were so, there are no gods walking this earth in sweaty shorts and sneakers. When we expect deities (and divinize a past that didn't happen the way we remember it: Michael Jordan missed more shots with the game on the line than he made, and like LeBron James he often passed to his teammates in crunch time, which didn't used to be a character defect) we too easily dismiss the remarkable human feats in front of us. So LeBron James must be a god. And LeBron James can't be a god. And somehow I've learned something from his failure to be a god.

This way of analyzing sports matters, because it both reflects and creeps into our daily lives. How much personal conflict comes out of our expectation that those we love will be quasi-deities, perfect beings capable of reading our minds and conforming to wishes we haven't even learned to express to ourselves, much less our loved ones? And, when they fail to be gods in the flesh, how often do we cast our loved ones the way we cast LeBron James, the fallen angel who has become a devil, best understood through their tragic flaws and not the grace that first drew us to them?

How much self loathing is privately rooted in the expectation that we must be perfect, we must be gods in flesh? How much of my own misery is rooted in the fact that I am not, and never will be, who I wish I were? Because who I wish I were is an impossible standard. I wish I were a god, perfect in power, perfect in understanding, beyond reproach, above critique. And if I cannot be who I wish I were, then I must confront who I am afraid I am, someone unworthy of love, of affection, even of life itself.

When our options are perfect or worthless, we will always be worthless. But we are not who we wish we were, and we are not who we are afraid we are. I am not, and never will be, who I wish I were; and I am not, and never have been, who I am afraid I am.

And LeBron James is not a god. He is a basketball player. And a very good one, who has been to the NBA Finals twice, only to see his team come up short of winning the title. He has played some good games, and he has played some bad games. And some of his bad games have come in the NBA Finals, in the last 6 games.

And, lest you forget, one time he scored 29 of his team's last 30 points. Which tells us just as much about him as his recent failures.


Liam said...

Great post, Chris.

Anonymous said...

Your biblical comments are quite interesting and sober. Why do you write so rarely?

In Him,
Fr Pavel

Pastors Scott Wilson and Aaron Mansfield said...

that, and how many of us have been part of an NBA team that gets to the finals twice with you? It's a strange world, sports journalism.