NHL fans have long had it in for LeBron James. For whatever reason, he has become their poster child for a perceived softness that permeates the new NBA. And in denigrating him, they reaffirm their sport's own 'toughness', 'masculinity', and other completely nebulous ideas that are routinely wrong used as synonyms for 'good'.
Bringing down LeBron has meant a lot of memes because everything means a lot of memes these days. One, in particular, compares LeBron's victory speech immediately after the 2013 NBA Finals with the speech of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews after his team won the Stanley Cup in 2013. Whereas Toews used the word “we” in his speech 14 times, and the word “I” not once, LeBron had 18 instances of “I” and zero of “we”.
No effort is made here to verify those numbers. It is hard to do so without knowing which exact speech by either party is referenced – moreover, it sounds plausible enough to illustrate a point without needing the specifics being accurate. LeBron does say “I” a lot, and most other sports including Toews are well trained in the use of “we” and its derivatives. The point here is simply to be this: so what?
Standard PR Interviews
Toews’s speech is held up to be a shining example of teamwork. Of what it means to be humble, of what should be aspired to. Those traits are also often held up (although admittedly not in the aforementioned meme) to being the key attributes for success. This slightly flies in the face of the fact that the speech of LeBron’s used as a sample is taken directly after a title win - nevertheless, platitudes such as those are bandied around constantly.
In the case of Toews, his speech, if this one is anything to go by, will have met all the requirements of the textbook, of the PR training that athletes go through. He is suitably showing himself to be humble, to understand that the team is what matters, and to rightly deflect praise to everyone around him while the thoroughly complicit interviewer is trying to focus it solely on him. The reporter plays the game, Toews plays the game, and they play it well. Uninspiringly well, but well nonetheless.
Is Toews legitimate here? Couldn’t say. It might be faux humility, it might be real humility. Who knows! Good for Toews, regardless. His sincerity, though, doesn’t really matter. However heartfelt his sentiment - and the default position should always be to assume that it is completely heartfelt - he paid lip service to an idea.
That idea is one about teamwork. That idea is that teamwork is all-encompassing, and that to achieve a successful teamwork dynamic, one has to fully check their ego at the door. But LeBron and his demeanour seem to reject that latter argument, and there is evidence to support it far beyond the trivialities of his diction.
LeBron does indeed say “I” a lot. And it is striking when he does so. Striking in how different it is, and striking in how brazen it is. He did it again last week after three straight heroic performances won his Cleveland Cavaliers their first ever NBA title, and yet even I, as a man who heard that speech and immediately decided to write this post, heard it and thought, “he’s doing it again”. This is a LeBron thing, and few others do it.
What is Leadership?
However, an opinion of his tendency to publicly take the praise that is rightfully his amongst a sea of peers that don’t should not be conflated with an opinion of James as a leader. If he must be evaluated as a leader by us outsiders, then James as a leader should be evaluated based on much more than that.
“Leadership” is one of those known unknown terms, the definition of which is simultaneously taken for granted and eternally misunderstood. We all know the relatively simple dictionary definition – “the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this” – but we always look for the practical manifestation of that in sports stars with no consensus on what to look for. It has something to do with humility, that much we tend to agree on.
However, humility itself is also an enigmatic aspiration. We look for humility in athletes, often without exactly knowing why. We want to find it, for some reason. We want the athletes to know what abilities they have, use them to their fullest, and have nothing but the correctly prescribed amount fun while doing it. And when we look for humility, we don’t always know what we’re looking for. Derrick Rose was “humble” for the longest time based on account of the way he spoke, not on what he said – by being nervous and unforthcoming, humility was assumed, even as rumours of usual sport star behaviour started to seep out after time.
We are all too intoxicated on oratorical style, not just in sports, but life in general. Think Farage, think Trump – it’s not what they say, but how they relay it, that is the engaging part. LeBron talks differently to the others and (presumably consciously) goes against the grain. He has always done it. But how much that matters, if any, is a dichotomy. We measure one’s belief in a team concept by how well they downplay themselves, and yet downplaying is a conscious act of self-promotion. It wouldn’t be if we didn’t demand it to be striven for in our continued pursuit of some moral order.
It sounds humble and leaderly, for example, to involve the rest of the team even in a question that focuses on the individual. When his Boston Celtics were on the verge of winning the 2008 NBA Finals, Kevin Garnett publicly accredited their success to the whole team, “1 through 15”. This sounds good, noble, humble, welcoming, and all that fuzzy stuff. But it just wasn’t true, was it? Not even remotely true. At the same time as fans and media lauded a Big Three or Big Four, we lauded Garnett for this shout-out to the other eleven. We can admit the other eleven didn’t matter as much, but the actors involved can’t. Semih Erden, the #15 in question, would surely have admitted his role was minimal if not completely irrelevant. So what value is there in Garnett saying it?
The LeBron speech that spawned the Toews meme was not a one-off. In his interview with Doris Burke immediately after the final buzzer of game seven in this year’s Finals, LeBron by my count dropped 14 “I”s, seven “me”s, six “my”s and only two “we”s. This is what he does. This is how he talks. And how he talks need not be representative to us of how he truly acts.
Jefferson: I Owe LeBron My Entire Career
To arrive at an accurate assessment of his leadership, perhaps we should approach it differently. It is not about what he says in the PR game. Rather, it is what he says to those who matter. After game seven, Richard Jefferson was effusive in his praise of James:
“I owe my entire basketball career to him."
"I’ll give you a little walk down right now. I lost the national championship game to Duke, then I lost two straight NBA Finals, then my third year we lost to Detroit after being up 3-2 and they won the championship, then I lost to Miami and they won the championship, then to top it off I went to the Olympics and we were the worst team of all time."
My whole career has been so, so close. Then I had a stretch of six to seven years where you become a little bit of a journeyman. To be able to get on a team and walk in with a guy that says he’s going to be able to carry you and bring me here, I owe everything, every shot, every play, everything I’ve ever done to that man.”
Jefferson came to the Cavaliers team and ended being an important ingredient within it because Lebron said he would “carry” him. No one can say that and also maintain the thin veneer of socialism sports analysis, professional and amateur, demands.
James placed great value in Jefferson’s role, and Jefferson fulfilled it well, but Jefferson’s role was to help LeBron. Helping LeBron is helping the team, because LeBron is the very foundation of the team. Even Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will know and acknowledge this. The pieces are never created equal. James acknowledged it, Jefferson accepted it, and both gained. Perhaps this is how it should be.
LeBron is not any better or worse of a leader and team player than Toews or Garnett on any of this. But look at his career to date. He has won three titles in two distinctly different set-ups, an extremely difficult feat in the first place. He has taken both stacked and weak supporting casts to the finals, including six in a row now, and has got the best out of pretty much everyone he has worked with, from Eric Spoelstra to Larry Hughes.
James has had 123 different teammates in his career. Of those 123, who didn’t like him? Who didn’t improve with him there? Which teams underachieved? What bad blood and infighting has ever had to be suppressed? There has been little of all of the above. What is a leader if it is not someone who builds a team, unites a team, improves a team, drives a team to new heights and wins with it?
Some players do matter more. Some players do more, on the court and off of it. Some are the reason you got there, some helped along the way, and some happened to be the fortunate beneficiaries of a roster spot that gave them some piping hot seats to watch it all from.
A leader should not be defined by their platitudes or public speaking ability, but by ‘leading a group of people’, just as the dictionary told us it should be. This has always been true, but not often been the standard of proof we use in judging it.
Maybe LeBron is just more honest.