Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

LeBron James: The Making of a Narcissist (Part 1 of 2)

LeBron James' narcissism--biological or biographical?

Part 1--Seeds of Greatness; Seeds of Narcissism (or, How James' Idolatrous Fans Sadly Brought It on Themselves)

When we consecrate someone as "King"--even if just metaphorically--he's likely to begin acting like royalty. Similarly, if we, figuratively, put him on a pedestal, we're literally making him higher than us. However unwittingly, we're actually inviting him to look down on us "common folk," and to view our needs and preferences as mattering far less than his own. It's hardly any wonder, then, that his behaviors may end up seeming self-centered, arrogant--and woefully lacking in empathy.

Obviously, the above characterizations are meant to describe something essential about NBA demigod, LeBron James--and considerably prior to July 8th when he formally (and rather callously) announced his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers to pursue future championships with the Miami Heat. If James has in fact demonstrated increasingly narcissistic proclivities since he began playing with the Cavs seven years ago, I believe it's because his many devotees, though unknowingly, have in so many ways encouraged him to do so.

We may well complain--and certainly Cavalier fans en masse have complained--about the ruthless way James left (or, in their experience, "betrayed") the city that had for so long paid homage to him. And this loyal adulation prevailed even though he'd yet to bring a single championship to this most trophy-starved of big cities. But it's only to be expected that a young athlete, still maturing and in the process of defining himself, would likely succumb to the tremendous temptation of taking his self-aggrandizing cue from his countless adoring followers.

I frankly see little to be admired or respected in the way James conducted himself as a free agent since the conclusion of the '09-'10 basketball season. But while I'd like to explore some of the psychological dynamics of James' behavior--which I think are best understood as narcissistic--I'd like also to focus on the external, non-basketball forces that so greatly influenced it. In many ways, I think it's only fair to see James as being as much a "powerless victim" in this whole scenario as the many fans who've felt so let down (if not heartbroken) by his decision to leave a place he'd told his enthusiasts would always be "home" to him (as Chicago was to Michael Jordan, or Los Angeles to Magic Johnson, or Boston to Larry Bird). In a sense, his entirely self-interested and "entitled" behavior was richly enabled by those same fans who now damn him as a monstrous traitor. And I think this point is vital to consider . . . and one I've yet to see adequately covered in the media.

So, where did it all start?

Anyone who's followed James' career at all knows that his extraordinary athletic gifts were already well-recognized--and even celebrated--while he was still in high school. A three-time "Mr. Basketball" of Ohio, his prodigious talents were highly touted in the national media in his being forecast to be the next NBA superstar--and this in his sophomore year yet (!). Then, at 18, and never having participated in a single college basketball game, he was immediately selected as the number one draft pick in 2003 by the last-place Cleveland Cavaliers. And his initial salary (whatever it was) must have paled in the face of the seven-year, $90 million contract he signed with Nike. In other words, his valuation was sky-high even before he stepped onto an NBA court.

Exactly when he was given the moniker "King James" I'm not sure. But the literature I've reviewed indicates that this nickname was being applied to him certainly by his junior year of high school--if not earlier. And the very idea of his taking on such an appellation, identical to the most famous English version of the Bible, speaks--well--volumes. How could someone not end up feeling lordly, superior, and majestic, or (more specifically) like a "messiah," when he's proclaimed a kind of savior by the media--called upon (almost from above) to deliver to the Cleveland Cavaliers their very first title?

In an open letter to local fans, Dan Gilbert, the Cavs' majority owner, wrote scathingly of James' departure by referring to him as the "self-declared former King." But I think it's essential to stress that James did not start out as some sort of obnoxiously arrogant egotist, pretentiously declaring himself the new "emperor" of basketball. No, his regal designation as "king" came not from within, but without. But uncritically buying into all this hype, James did appear to "adapt" himself to this lofty image of self. Indulged and flattered by his hopeful (and therefore loving) followers--whom, we can safely assume, wished to emotionally identify with his triumphs and see themselves as winners--he (or his ego) was unable to resist regarding himself in the same admiring way as those so extolling him.

From early on, it must have been the greatest challenge for James to hold onto some semblance of humility about his exceptional athletic skills. Consider also--to provide one of the most striking examples of the lavish praise that seemed to follow him everywhere--the fact that when he was 17 years old Sports Illustrated put him on its cover, with the caption, "The Chosen One."

Nike, too, "featured" James in a way that honored him as larger--much larger--than life. Receiving permission from the city of Cleveland to place a 10-story-tall billboard on an office building that showed an iconic image of James, with his arms outstretched and head thrown back, Nike's mural of him literally dominated the skyline of downtown Cleveland. The illustration I'm providing below (though what it actually depicts is James' performing his well-known pre-game powder toss!) seems to intimate that James is to be identified with Christ on the cross, sacrificing himself for the good of humanity. Overblown? Pompous? Profane? Certainly, all of these . . . and more.

But depicting the basketball superstar as the savior (or should I say, Savior) for perhaps the single most frustrated sports town in the nation served to make him into a person worthy of nothing short of idolatry. A figure of such radiant immensity that it was as though such a person ultimately could do no wrong--could, with impunity, do whatever he chose. And it would have to be right because his stature was so absolutely peerless as to render all his behaviors unquestionable. (And, in this regard, I can't help but think of President Nixon, who once considered whether anything he did could possibly be illegal--because he was, after all, the President.)

Additionally, much has been made of James' heavily tattooed body. And I think it's suggestive that many of the words and illustrations that adorn his physique actually reflect, verbatim, what he's been told--and come to believe--about himself. For example, so much "lionized" in the press, his right arm bears a picture of a lion with a crown (king of the [basketball] jungle, perhaps?). Having "absorbed" the notion of his royal status, on his lower left arm can be found an image of his first son's face--along with the inscription, "Prince James." Across his chest are the words, "Gifted Child"; and his pectorals sport a large animal looking like some sort of lion/dragon hybrid. Most egotistically revealing, perhaps, is the banner embellished across his back--"Chosen 1." But, yet again, Sports Illustrated gave him this idea: he merely adopted it. In brief, having repeatedly received the message that he was a kind of latter-day patrician (or something even higher) James "branded" himself accordingly--to match this sanctified image.

So his tattoos are probably best seen as explicit "engravings" of what fans and the sports world have made of him. He might almost be seen as a "marked" man--the very real victim (casualty?) of our need for heroes, for individuals with extraordinary abilities that (in order to enhance our own self-esteem) we're desperate to identify with. Not just his fans in Cleveland but also the larger culture (in which he's become such a celebrity) have bestowed upon him a "power and glory" that, in his relative immaturity, at 25, he's hardly had the experience or knowledge to deal with wisely.

"Anointed" as "King James" has unfortunately endowed him with a vast sense of pride and privilege. As a result, many of his behaviors--particularly his most recent ones--have bordered on the shameless (or fallen into that sorry pit altogether). And--to recapitulate what I've already said--the cause of his ever-growing grandiosity, arrogance, and sense of entitlement is less a manifestation of something innate in him than an almost inevitable reaction to the hero worship that he's been the object of since adolescence. (His early life, abandoned by his father and growing up in the projects in a single-parent household, is another story . . . and one that additionally suggests why James would be so susceptible to letting others' flattery and adulation go to his head.)

Note1: Part 2 of this post will focus on demonstrating how LeBron James' behavior has become, in the seven years since he began playing for the Cavaliers, increasingly narcissistic (and, as I've already indicated, almost inevitably so).

As an update to both parts of this post, I added in July of 2014 a third piece on James, which you might be interested in taking a look at. Entitled "LeBron James to Cleveland: 'I'm Coming Home,'" it discusses, among other things, the more mature James' "re-decision" to leave Miami and come back home to Northeast Ohio and the Cavaliers.

Note 2: If you’d like to explore other posts I’ve written on narcissism, all from somewhat different vantage points, here are the links:

"9 Enlightening Quotes on Narcissism—and Why,"

“6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About,”

 The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But . . . “,

“Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics,”

“Our Egos: Do They Need Strengthening—or Shrinking,”

"LeBron James: The Making of a Narcissist" (Parts 1 & 2)  [the present "set" of posts],

"Reality as a Horror Movie: The Case of the Deadly Sweat Lodge" (Parts 1 & 2—centering on James Arthur Ray).

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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