Too often in our world it seems that wrong is rewarded. We try to teach our kids that it’s important to be humble, to be unselfish, to be loyal. We tell them that’s it’s not “all about them.” We tell them it’s important to work hard and pay your dues, stay in school, go to college. But then all around them they see people who are arrogant and selfish, and who, as a direct result of their choices, are showered with success, money, fame, and power. They see so-called role models in sports and entertainment who make it clear that’s “all about me.” They see people for whom the regular rules seem not to apply—they didn’t really need to bother with boring hard work. They didn’t need to stay in school or even go to college. The good life seems to have come to them simply because they demanded it.
But every now and then, the values that we strive to teach are vindicated in the flashy world of popular culture. Every now and then hard work and teamwork triumph over exceptional talent and individual superstardom. Every now and then humility and selflessness triumph over braggadocio and self-interest. Every now and then those who paid their dues get paid back at last. Such was the case Sunday night when the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat in the sixth game of this year’s NBA championship.
Of course, most readers know that I’m the farthest thing from an avid sports fan, but this season’s contest piqued my interest. As I bantered with my students about the game as we cruised the Caribbean on our 8th grade class trip, I sensed that more was at stake than a mere game.
Like most Ohioans, I was familiar with basketball star LeBron James' ungracious departure from the team of his youth, the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer. For months before his decision James let the rumors swirl about whether he would stay with the Cavs or sign up with another team. The intense anticipation culminated in an unprecedented one-hour primetime special on ESPN entitled “The Decision.” Like Results Night on American Idol, James milked the full hour, before dramatically revealing to the world (and his former team) his decision to leave Cleveland and join his friends Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. Together this powerhouse Trinity would chase the championships James had been unable to snag with his less talented teammates in Cleveland.
The Cavs were horrified, Cleveland was devastated, and basketball fans quickly divided into two camps. There were those that felt that James showed tasteless arrogance in the way he left his home team (all but the most die-hard Clevelanders respected his right to choose another team, but many objected to the self-indulgent way he unceremoniously dumped his former team before millions of viewers). And then there were those that felt that “King James” had the right to do what he had to do in whatever manner he chose to get a championship ring.
And for much of the year, it appeared that LeBron James had made the right move. Any hopes that Cleveland would somehow beat the odds and succeed without him quickly evaporated. Meanwhile, Miami proved a dynamic force in NBA basketball, muscling their way through the playoffs and into the finals against the Mavericks, a team with only one big star Dirk Nowitzki, oldsters such as Jason Kidd, and a bunch of relative unknowns. The outcome of this matchup seemed a foregone conclusion.
But something strange happened as the finals began. Miami won the first game at home, lost the second, then won the third game which was played in Dallas. Game Four, last Tuesday, is when I began watching—following the action an TV poolside on the deck of our cruise ship in port in Nassau, Bahamas. It was noted that LeBron was having difficulty, especially in the fourth quarter when his outsize talent was especially crucial. He just couldn’t seem to deliver when he was needed most. Was it nerves? The pressure of the game, the media, his own exorbitant expectations? No one seemed to know, not even LeBron himself. In a sense, it didn’t matter what the reason was—the fact was James was virtually scoreless in the fourth quarter of the fourth and fifth game. The games were close with both teams just points a part right down to the buzzer—had LeBron been himself, there’s no doubt Miami could have won.
By the time Game 6 rolled around and the action shifted back to Miami, Dallas definitely seemed to have the momentum and while the two teams remained close in the first three quarters, in the fourth, Dallas pulled away opening up a lead that Miami was powerless to chase down. The final score was 105-95.
Granted, if the Heat had won and James’ choices had been seemingly vindicated, as a teacher I still could have carved out a teachable moment of sorts. I could have made the argument that though LeBron might have won the basketball championship, in the game of life personal character is what really counts, blah, blah, blah. But the argument would have been a tough sell against the obvious tangible benefits LeBron would have been reaping.
I’m not here to make a judgment about LeBron James as a person. I don’t know him personally. I’m sure he has many fine qualities, and I dare not claim to know his heart. However, we can and should judge his actions, and we can decide whether his public image is worthy of emulation. This is the critical thinking we want to teach our students to engage in. The critical question is not: “Is LeBron James a good person?” The question is: “Were his actions good? Is his public persona worth imitating?” The lack of payoff for his choices makes answering those questions just that much easier.
Count this week’s win for the Dallas Mavericks, a win for teachers and parents as well.
This post by Andrew Sharp on the SB Nation website provides some great insights into why "King James" failed to live up to the hype as well as several links to some other great articles on the subject.