LeBron is the greatest NBA star of all time.
He confirmed that in his letter to Sports Illustrated, where he explained why he’d made the decision to leave Miami and return to Cleveland. He is incomparable physically. Skill-wise, he fits neatly somewhere between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. He is not the closer that Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird were, but that is offset by this: LeBron is as inspiring as a man as he is as a player.
I don’t know LeBron. I’ve done a handful of interviews with him, but I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup. So I can’t speak from the perspective of someone connected to his inner circle. I’m going only by how he carries himself, what I’ve read about him from the people who know him, and on what he stands for.
In all likelihood, he eventually will lead Cleveland to a championship. He has Kyrie Irving, the point guard he has never had, and he could be getting All-Star forward Kevin Love. But James went to Cleveland for reasons that are so unselfish and so compassionate that it’s almost unbecoming for a modern superstar.
Many overlook the holistic greatness of James. Perhaps, being a family man and working with young people, I appreciate that part of James.
It has always been there. He speaks well and is thoughtful when he talks. His peers speak highly of him. He is a great teammate who plays the game the way many other great men around this nation coach it.
My wife, not a sports fan, loves watching him play because of his sportsmanship — “He speaks to everybody. He shakes everybody’s hand.”—and I’ve always been impressed by his composure on the court, especially after hard fouls. As a (still kind of) young African-American man, I certainly appreciate the cleanliness of his public image. He keeps his nose clean and makes being a father look as cool as being an All-Star.
He is respectful without being docile. He is under control without being vanilla. He is controversial while avoiding real trouble. He is the most criticized, scrutinized, hated megastar our country has ever known. Yet he is still fun-loving, respectful and thick-skinned. From his minijersey scandal as a prep star, to leaving the court early against Boston, to The Decision, to the NBA Finals losses, James always seems to rise above it.
It seems we should stop and celebrate this about James. This is the stuff we should be talking about more. He could have stayed in Miami and been a contender in the East. He could have gone out West and created a powerhouse. Instead, he explained his decision by talking about community, family, setting a good example, boosting the economy of a hurting town.
Charles Barkley was famous for saying he is not a role model. James is constantly showing he wants to be a role model.
There was a time when sports stars were renowned for being great people, too. LeBron is cut from that denim.
The last couple generations of athletes have been chided for being selfish. We abhor their greed and resent their recklessness. We are furious when they break the law (and get away with it). We come down hard when they get involved with drugs.
Meanwhile, James hires his friends to run businesses. He relishes his role as Gloria James’ son. And he has enough class to squash a public beef in private, where dignity can reign.
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this type of stuff. Watching a sports figure of James’ stature operate with such dignity melts my heart much more than game-winning shots. Especially knowing he hailed from a broken home and that life bullied him into adulthood prematurely.
I respect James even more. Not because he chose Cleveland, but because he valued the intangibles of home more than racking up championships. Not because he doesn’t make mistakes, but because he always seems to learn from them and is better for them. Not because he is in complete control at the prime of his career, but because he is in his prime and yet thinking about how he will impact others.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James wrote. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
He is the greatest because he best combines on-the-court success with off-the-court value. It’s time we appreciate that about him.