Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

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

What's the problem with LeBron?

Part 2: Gaining Fame and Fortune . . . and Devolving into Self-Obsessive Narcissism

Whereas in part 1 I focused on the outside forces contributing to LeBron James' narcissism, here I'd like to illustrate just how his "entitled" self-absorption has revealed itself. And again, I'd like to emphasize that his ever-increasing arrogance and grandiosity--and ever-decreasing empathy for his loyal followers--doesn't represent anything innate in him but is an almost inevitable reaction to the over-the-top hero worship he's been subject to since adolescence.

It takes a certain humility (not to say, considerable maturity) to take others' adulation in stride. But it doesn't appear that James learned very much about cultivating a modest, unassuming attitude from his family--especially when it's noted by Cleveland sports reporter, Andy Baskin, that his mother, Gloria James, would proudly go to his high school games and "taunt" other parents with her Wheaties box (!). Baskin, in his thoughtful post, "Reflections and Revelations on Covering LeBron James," refers to a variety of incidents that occurred during the time he covered James for the media. Like his fellow reporters, he felt impelled to look the other way when James acted questionably--feeling that, well, superstars behave differently from the rest of us, so he probably should be cut additional slack. But after his "Decision" and the egregiously insensitive, disrespectful way James left his team, his fans, and his city, Baskin felt quite within his rights to divulge earlier signs of James' offensive character flaws--which for so long virtually everyone had given him a free pass on.

It's fascinating that even in high school his behavior on the court was at odds with his behavior off it. Writers have commented on how mature--even selfless--he was in his willingness to pass the ball to others whenever they seemed in a better position to make a shot. And in fact a major part of what made his athletic performance so precociously stellar (and so "adult") was that he was every bit as accomplished at setting up shots for teammates as he was in finding the net himself. A natural born leader, he was also a superb team player.

Off the court, however, some of his behaviors disclosed less flattering aspects of his character. For one thing, Baskin recalls the brash audacity of James' publicly declaring: "I am a great leader!" And the youth was also involved in various incidents suggesting that maybe he really wasn't much more than an immature, self-centered adolescent--inconsiderate, smug, and egocentric. Or, to not coin a phrase, "full of himself."

Baskin talks about the time James was named amateur athlete of the year by the Cleveland Sports Awards, and arrived late--adding that, thereafter, James didn't bother to show up at all to receive his awards. Similarly, Baskin (then reporting for the cable station FSN) speaks of his tremendous difficulty in getting interviews with the superstar when James was in his first year with the Cavaliers. Even though NBA rules clearly specified that the home TV broadcasting team get first choice of a player after the game, he felt regularly snubbed by James. And during all this time James' "inner circle"--a most self-entitled entourage that seemed almost bullying in its presumptuous disregard for protocol--were demanding (and, of course, receiving) all sorts of privileges because, at every turn, those in charge felt they had to defer to James' preferences. Here the writer talks about how his professional colleagues would be "bumped off" team flights because James' men had "moved in around the team" and James wanted them accommodated (as in, his wishes were management's command).

Technically, it was James' cohorts that were offensive and obnoxious. But ultimately their annoying presence was James' responsibility. Similarly, when James was still in high school and his mother purchased an expensive Hummer H2 for his 18th birthday (financed by a bank comfortable enough that they'd be repaid based on James' future earnings), the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) felt obliged to investigate whether this lavish expenditure was a violation of its guidelines. And although his mother may have been blamed for this infraction far more than her son, what does it say that James proceeded to bring a remote control hummer onto the court and played with it--mocking the state that questioned the legitimacy of his owning the full-size model?

Later, when James accepted two throwback basketball jerseys worth $845 in compensation for posing for pictures a Cleveland store wished to display on its walls, the OHSAA stripped him of his eligibility--though James' successful appeal led to a judge's blocking the ruling and reducing his penalty to a mere two-game suspension. Both these incidents indicate the young man's growing sense of entitlement--and a self-righteousness that would only get worse as his reputation as the new basketball messiah (or, should we say, "second coming" of Jordan) became increasingly taken for granted.

Once a Cavalier, James' excessive arguing over calls with referees gave more evidence of his domineering sense of superiority. If the refs didn't see things as he did, he was more than ready to tell them about it. And in his many interviews he incessantly talked about the paramount importance of "winning"--yet, increasingly, it seemed as though his priorities had a lot more to do with his personally winning than helping his team to emerge triumphant.

Much has been made of the fact that when in the '08-'09 Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in six games, James refused to shake hands with the victors. Such an attitude in defeat is, by definition, considered poor sportsmanship. And at the time James' hasty retreat to his locker room was broadly criticized by the press. James, however, protesting that others could actually find fault with his behavior, explained: "It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. But somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them on beating you up. . . . It doesn't make sense for me to go over and shake somebody's hand."

As sympathetic as I can be toward James' defense (i.e., it's easy enough to imagine how hard it must be to acknowledge your loss directly to your "enemy," who--after all--has just defeated you and made you a "loser"), the fact is that such congratulation is precisely what good sportsmanship dictates. In a word, being "gracious" in defeat. And James' inability to behave this way reveals something essential about his egocentricity, as well as his tendencies toward self-righteousness and self-justification. Note also how his use of the pronoun "I" quickly devolves into the much more inclusive "you"--as though he's not really talking about himself but athletes in general (for it's not really he that's a bad sport). Nonetheless, his self-serving rhetoric gives him away as an individual unable to subordinate his ego to the ideals of the game.

Compare this glib rationalization, absolving himself of any responsibility for violating a hallowed sports tradition, to his equally prideful retort when he was criticized for his lackluster performance in the Cavaliers '09-'10 playoff series against the Boston Celtics. In the pressroom following the Cavs' loss in game 5, James excused himself by saying that he was disappointed in himself and claiming he'd had only three bad games in his seven years in the NBA (!). He seemed frankly unable to see, or speak of, his play in the larger context of letting his teammates down--or, for that matter, the whole city of Cleveland. Again, his self-pardoning statements (such as his jumper's just not falling) hardly seemed to justify the pedestal on which he'd been so firmly ensconced. For absent was any anger toward himself about his clearly sub-par performance, but rather (once again) what he revealed was a feeble attempt at self-vindication.

I measure ego strength by one's ability to face up to--and be willing to admit--personal errors, flaws, and shortcomings. There are instances in which James has demonstrated (despite his undeniably prodigious gifts as an athlete) a strong resistance to allowing others to view him in any other than the most advantageous of lights. So obsessed with his image, he's at times endeavored to edit or even "delete" reality when what it depicted was less than flattering. And the best example of how important it is for him that he be seen as special and superior is probably in his controversially ordering organizers (on July 6, 2009) to confiscate a CBS videotape made at the Nike LeBron James Skills Academy that showed Jordan Crawford of Xavier University successfully dunking on him.

In the years since James began his professional career with the Cavs, he's demonstrated a variety of behaviors that can be deemed vainglorious, condescending--or even haughty and disdainful ("King James," indeed!). These are all qualities associated with the narcissistic personality. And many of them betray a striking lack of sensitivity typical of narcissists, who tend to be so self-focused and -absorbed that they're unable to accurately identify with others' emotional experience. Consider, for instance, the frequently noted incident in which James showed up at a playoff game in Cleveland between his hometown Indians and the New York Yankees . . . wearing a Yankees baseball cap. Local fans were, of course, dismayed. To many, it seemed disloyal, selfish, and disrespectful--almost as though he were mocking them for their loyalty to him. (And, parenthetically, what a premonition that was of his "defection," and how he'd handle it on his July 8th ESPN special, "The Decision.")

Sportswriters who wrote about James in his Yankees cap mostly characterized his behavior as self-centered, and even obtuse. And it wasn't as though anyone was criticizing him for being a lifelong Yankees fan. It was that to attend a game in Cleveland's ballpark, be among so many of his adoring admirers, and then proceed to root for the other team was hurtful to the feelings of his followers.

As usual, defending himself when questioned about his--shall we say--"indiscretion," James simply asserted his right to favor any team he pleased. Empathy-challenged as he was (and still is--if not more so) he just couldn't grasp that his behavior would be experienced as a slap across the face by all those who assumed he'd be on their side, since all along they'd so faithfully been on his.

His exact words?--"As individuals I want every Indian to succeed. I love all these fans for coming out and supporting us. But team-wise I want the Yankees to win." Note the conflict between his sense of loyalty to his fans and his own personal preferences, which in the end have always been his final allegiance. He might profess his love for his hometown and all his supporters, but he wasn't willing to make that much of a commitment (or self-sacrifice) to accommodate them either.

This same conflict between self-glorification and (less egocentrically) valuing--or at least considering--the wants and needs of others is suggested by James' dichotomous tattoo choices. For at the same time he'd emblazoned on his physique the words "Gifted Child," "Chosen 1," and "Prince James" (referring to his first born), he also arranged to have written on himself "loyalty," "family," "Akron" (his birthplace, a city just south of Cleveland), and "330" (Akron's area code). Finally, given James' choice to play in Miami with his Olympic gold-metal buddies, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh--so he could improve his odds of winning championship rings--it's just possible that he wished to commemorate Akron mostly because that's where he was born. Still, his tattooed testimony, suggesting a strong dedication to the city--as well as his often-repeated promise to bring Cleveland its first NBA championship--made his departure seem an act of flagrant betrayal, a violation of trust--and a humiliating insult infinitely worse than donning a Yankees cap.

James' preoccupation with self and his disturbing tendency to self-aggrandize have received much attention in the aftermath of his decision to "take his talents to South Beach." Till then, his narcissistic arrogance had pretty much been downplayed by the media. But the gloves quickly came off when he collaborated with ESPN for the most elaborate one-hour primetime dog-and-pony show to announce (after allowing his many anxious listeners to wait for almost a half-hour!) that he'd chosen to leave his hometown to play with the Heat. The fact that even before he made this decision known he'd proclaimed July 1, 2010 (the date he'd be a free agent) as the biggest day in basketball's history says much about his self-referencing grandiosity.

One thing that defines a person as arrogant is their expectation, or demand, that everyone recognize--and pay tribute to--their superiority (whether or not it's actually been demonstrated). And, as many writers have pointed out, although James explicitly identifies himself as "the King," despite his enormous talent he's never once led the Cavs to a title. And, overall, his performance in the playoffs has been less than spectacular. Yet when the Chicago Bulls, one of the teams bidding for him, let him know that they wouldn't put his "LeBrontourage" on their payroll (as ever-deferential Cleveland had been willing to), he was quite ready to rule them out--and despite the fact that many sportswriters perceived the Bulls as probably his best professional choice should he leave the Cavs.

In addition to James' arrogance and sense of privilege is a certain exhibitionism (and all three are common narcissistic traits). As already noted by many writers, he's frequently revealed a desire to be in the spotlight and to draw attention to himself (hosting "Saturday Night Live," for example). But beyond his many TV appearances, he could also be quite ostentatious on the court.

Bill Livingston, writing for Cleveland's Plain Dealer has observed: With James, there was always a childish, self-aggrandizing aspect to his game. . . . He always wanted everyone to look at him. He valued trick shots, attempting looping, underhanded efforts from halfcourt before the game. He indulged in showy, copycat gestures like the pre-game powder throw. (Kevin Garnett did it first.) . . . He rubbed it in, dancing and preening, when the Cavs won and, at least twice, against Boston in 2008 and Orlando in 2009, he left without shaking hands after they lost."

And one "Snagglepuss"--writing for "Yahoo! Answers"--couldn't resist talking about how irritating he found James' antics on the court. In his own (non-mincing) words: "He comes across as a jerk. Dancing on the sidelines when beating a bad team, showing his teeth and flexing his muscles whenever he does something good, and not congratulating the opposing team when he loses. . . . I just find the way he presents himself to be very unlikeable. He seems arrogant (with the dancing and parading around) and all around unpleasant. I just hate the guy. . . ."

Both the above writers seem to have an intuitive appreciation of James' oversized ego. And I think the reason Cleveland fans were so willing to overlook his many not-very-endearing qualities is that they were simply so eager to identify themselves with someone of his stardom. (As an aside, I should confess that from 1970-1978 I was a professor at Cleveland State University--and always felt that the city somehow suffered from an inferiority complex. So it's easy for me to appreciate the collective loss of "borrowed" self-esteem, as well as the reactive rage, many Cavs fans experienced upon learning of his "desertion." Having, in a sense, "courted" him for seven years, how could they not take personally--and be devastated by--his ultimate rejection?)

The term "big ego" encapsulates the very essence of a narcissistic personality. And James' lofty ambitions--his well-publicized strivings for both professional and monetary success--fits right in with the diagnostic criteria for narcissism found in DSM-IV (the mental health practitioner's diagnostic bible). I've already alluded to James' grandiosity, arrogance, lack of empathy, sense of entitlement, need for admiration, and sense of himself as "special" (and so needing to associate with other high-status individuals--such as basketball stars Wade and Bosh). All of these traits are listed as characteristic of a narcissistic personality. But yet an additional criterion employed in this manual to help make such a diagnosis is the preoccupation with "fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love" (not to mention, celebrity!). And I might add that several years ago James actually traveled to Omaha to seek advice from Warren Buffet on becoming a billionaire.

And intimately related to all this is James' frequently repeated remarks on the supreme importance for him of winning. Almost obsessively, he's emphasized that nothing matters more to him. Finally, this single-minded focus probably best explains his decision to leave the Cavs to play with the Heat, whose starting lineup (through free agency) now boasts three of the most formidable players in the game. With such an "unfair advantage," he's increasing the odds that he'll win not one but many rings. Besides, he'll be playing with two of his best professional friends--almost like having his own "entourage" right on court. Moreover, his personal preoccupation with winning accounts for why (since childhood) he's rooted for both the Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. They may not have been Ohio teams, but they were the "big winners" he aspired to be. And growing up in the projects (in many ways a kid of the streets), it makes perfect sense that from early on he'd dream of (to cite DSM-IV again) "unlimited success [and] power."

In talking to Pat Riley (now the Heat president who, when he was a coach, accumulated no fewer than five championship rings--and who also led the effort to "seduce" James into coming to Miami), James commented: "The rings are pretty cool. I want some of those." Pure and simple, this was James' deal-breaking criterion for "divorcing" his native "family of fans" in Ohio and taking on what was likely to be a better (i.e., more "successful") family for him in Miami.

Tim Sullivan, sports writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, describes James' departure from Cleveland as "a tale of coldblooded calculation and hotblooded heartache, a vivid illustration of the disconnected values of the modern athlete and his adoring fans." And he develops his thesis by adding: " . . . the athlete who trades on the loyalties of a local audience, and who is enriched by the enraptured, breaks those bonds at considerable risk to his reputation. When James announced his decision on an excruciating ESPN special . . . leaving the notification of the Cavaliers to the last minute and to a lackey, he confirmed a shortage of taste, a surplus of ego and substantiated much of the stunningly bitter denunciation later disseminated by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert."

If James' blatantly self-serving decision has been much criticized in the media (and not just in Cleveland), it's because it's viewed as so "dishonorable." It's not that James didn't have the right to choose where he wanted to play, but that over the years he'd incurred a certain obligation to his fans. And James has shown precious little awareness--or caring--about any of this. Lynn Zinser of The New York Times calls her article about James' departure: "A New Low in James' Race to the Top." Discussing his precipitous "fall from public honor," she cites, among others, J. A. Adande, who (writing for ESPN.com) describes James' exit as coming with "extensive collateral damage"; Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times, who refers to James' leaving like "a spoiled child"; and Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com, who asserts that "James gave up any last claim to greatness by making this all about him and no one else."

Much of the irony in James' leaving his hometown is that it's so hard to imagine he intended to cause incalculable misery to the thousands of sports fans in Cleveland who'd zealously followed him over the years--and would, quite literally--walk through fire for him. It's just that James has lacked the maturity to grasp the massive moral insensitivity of what he's chosen to do. And having become so far removed from his fans--paradoxically, through their chronically uncritical celebration of him--he really couldn't relate to the incredible hurt they'd feel when he left them, rubbing salt into their long-suffering wounds in how he publicly "dismissed" them in announcing his departure. In fact, when questioned about his decision, he glibly responded with this astoundingly lame and illogical (but psychologically telling) rationalization: "It's not about leaving. It's about joining forces."

From the beginning, the Cavs' organization--in making him the face of their franchise and a civic icon--had given him everything he wanted, including an enormous salary that prohibited them from selecting the best free agents to support him. They allowed him input on personnel decisions and actually fired people he wasn't sufficiently satisfied with (including a general manager and coach). But all their accommodation and largesse was lost on him because in his narcissistic sense of entitlement (which, as I emphasized in part 1, Cleveland actually enabled) he'd come to expect nothing less.

The message Cleveland received from the way James made his monumentally discourteous and disrespectful decision must have been something like: "Sorry . . . but you're just not good enough for me. I need to connect to people and institutions more on my level [i.e., Wade & Bosh-and the far more "winning" city of Miami]. Frankly, this is gonna make it a lot easier for me to win championships. After all, it's my greater glory-not yours-that has to be my main concern. So, come on now. If you're really my true fans, get over it."

And James has said as much in interviews relating to his decision, asserting his personal and professional autonomy with no regard for any obligations or responsibilities he may have incurred by accepting all the benefits Cleveland had for so long showered upon him (as their "favorite son"). In his words on ESPN: "I didn't want to make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James, what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy." (Observe, by the way, how James' identifies himself in the third person, suggesting his exaggerated view of himself--as though his "I" must be expanded to a more distant "He" in order to accommodate his own grandeur. And compare this to his habit of referring to himself as "King James.") Then, also in this interview, James states ". . . . [My decision] is going to give me the best opportunity to win, and win for multiple years. . . ." And finally, for James, the concepts of "winning" and "happiness" appear virtually synonymous.

On "Good Morning America" (07/09/10), James again underscored his pre-emptive allegiance to self in comments as self-justifying as they are self-deceiving. And his unrecognized hypocrisy speaks for itself: "It was definitely tough [to leave Cleveland] because I know that the fans . . . wouldn't be able to understand it. And me being a loyal guy, I can understand where they come from. But at the same time, I had to do what was in my best interest." And then: ". . . I want them [his fans in Cleveland] to know that every night I went out there, I did it for them. I didn't do it for anyone else. . . ." And--finally--this confused (and not very convincing) piece of rhetoric: ". . . I always said [as a child] when, if I ever make it . . . outside these [project] walls . . . that, first of all, I'm gonna give back to the community. But at the same time, I'm gonna stay humble and know where I come from and not make myself feel or put people around me where I feel like I'm breaking them down and I'm not being humble by my situation, 'cause I remember those times too well. And I understand it, you know."

But despite what James so inarticulately is struggling to say here, it should be obvious that in the end what mattered most to him was the ego gratification of winning championships. If his fans would like to come along for the ride, that was fine--but not really the point either. And by playing with the Heat, a team that already has two championship-caliber players on it, he's doing all he can to ensure he'll really be a "big winner." After all, his foremost desire has always been not so much to be "the chosen one," as "number one." And this is a "mission" he undertook for himself alone.

Maybe this is why the heroes we need--those unique, high-minded individuals who can serve as our models, who can lead and inspire us--are rarely the heroes we get. Unfortunately, the extraordinary drive and commitment that typically are prerequisites to heroism are so frequently linked to the not-very-lofty narcissistic need to prove oneself superior to everyone else.

And the very idea of a "narcissistic hero" is hopelessly contradictory. For ultimately, the overriding narcissism negates the heroism--or even its possibility. LeBron James' all-too-human decision to leave Cleveland for horizons more personally promising is just the latest example of our discovering that we haven't been "witnesses" to greatness so much as to the grandeur of a narcissist.

Note 1: 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 any of the various posts I’ve written on narcissism for Pychology Today, all from  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).

Note 3: To explore other posts I've done for PT—on a broad variety of topics—click here.

 


--I invite readers to follow my psychological reflections on Twitter.

 

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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