The LeBron Narrative and the Psychology of Sports Fans

What do our feelings about LeBron tell us about ourselves?

Posted Jun 22, 2012

Why would I have decided to root for the Thunder?  For one, they’re an exciting, young team that has never gotten this far before.  And then there are all the usual anti-LeBron talking points: his self-indulgent made-for-TV “Decision” special, his apparent indifference to leaving his hometown team behind, the arrogantly premature public counting of chickens in his introductory press conference with Heat fans (see below), and so on.

Indeed, anti-LeBron sentiment has become a cottage industry for the past two years.  In addition to his purported rap sheet detailed above, there’s the argument that true superstars don’t leave for greener pastures; rather, they turn their own teams into champions.  And also that he lacks the athletic killer instinct, too often passing the ball in crunch time to a less-skilled teammate rather than taking the shot himself.  As the epitome of all that LeBron is supposedly lacking in this department, take a look at his following response to a question about how a lack of a championship would affect his legacy:

I would be disappointed that I never won, but my career would never, ever be disappointing because of the success I’ve gone through, with the friends I’ve met, the experiences I’ve been through. The game would still be as fun and as remembered for me even if I never win a world championship. I would much rather win. But if I don’t, I’m not going to look back at my career and say it was tarnished because I never won a world championship.

Can you imagine someone like, say, Michael Jordan ever uttering those words?  Of course not.

So as the final minutes of tonight’s 4th quarter tick away, it’s interesting from a psychological perspective to ponder our current narrative regarding LeBron.  For all the reasons listed above, he’s been cast as a villain.  And not without some merit—the TV special and his introductory remarks were remarkably tone deaf.

However, take a more careful look at the past few seasons of LeBron.  On paper, at least, he has actually done a lot of the things we claim we want our sports heroes to do.  He left salary on the table when he departed Cleveland for Miami, placing a greater emphasis on winning over money.  In pursuit of a championship, he was willing to join a team that already had an alpha dog superstar in Dwyane Wade.  And that whole criticism about passing up shots at the end of games—don’t we want our stars to check their ego for the good of the team?

But as sports fans, as in so many other walks of like, we gravitate toward the simple narrative in thinking about other people.  Most sports fans wanted LeBron to stay in Ohio and try to bring his hometown team a championship.  He made a different choice, and when he did so in notoriously poor and artless form, his die as villain was cast.  It’ll be interesting to see whether and how our LeBron narrative changes now that he’s not only won a title, but has also risen to the occasion time and time again this summer. 

(* A grateful tip of the cyber cap to old friend Ricky Bush, for drawing my attention to the Jordan quotation in this context of thinking about LeBron)


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