“The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.”
An executive for whom I once worked gave me a very powerful tool for self-assessment, particularly for assessing my feelings about my own performance. Morale, this person said, is the relationship between expectations and reality. Morale rises when reality exceeds expectations; morale drops when reality fails to meet expectations.
Which takes us to LeBron James. Rick Reilly rose to the defense of LeBron James, as many less eloquent commentators have recently. It is true that LeBron hardly cuts the figure of the modern, spoiled athlete. It is also true that LeBron is a lightning rod for criticism. Reilly, naturally, implores us to suppress our animosity for LeBron and cut a nice guy a break.
There’s only one problem: I hate LeBron! And Reilly’s rationalizing doesn’t help resolve it in the slightest.
I beat myself up for awhile over my supposed unwarranted dislike for likeable-enough LeBron. I am pretty good at identifying the trends I dislike in sports, and, if I’m unable to justify my dislike, I usually learn to accept them. Here, I just can’t help hating a nice guy.
Then I got it: LeBron is a victim of low public morale. LeBron is not a criminal or a spoiled celebrity. He just provokes incredible disappointment in us. His career has raised expectations so high, and his impressive feats on the court just haven’t met them. Plain and simple.
Expectations for LeBron mostly skyrocketed on their own. We drooled over ESPN’s coverage of LeBron’s high school contests (if you can call them that), as a tight end in high-tops ran circles around the competition. We allowed our minds to race with the fairy-tale hope that basketball’s next great prodigy could singlehandedly write a storybook ending for his hometown team and a city that, for far too long, has fallen crushingly short of sports’ pinnacles. And, as LeBron periodically flashed the once-in-a-generation greatness we all anticipated, we convinced ourselves that those hopes were well placed.
We all know what happened next.
But do we really? Examined through the lens of our collective morale, “The Decision” takes on a significance that transcends mere public relations nightmare. (After all, athletes routinely manage to make us forget about their violent crimes or sexual misconduct and win our respect with their on-field performances.) In taking his talents to South Beach, LeBron, all at once, both lowered the boom on our noble expectations for him and erected a wholly unachievable new set of Machiavellian goals for himself. Not only did he wipe out the possibility of winning his hometown Cavs a championship. He also crowed that he would win no less than seven championships with his new, Frankenstein coalition of basketball talent in Miami. He provoked the single biggest swing in public perception an athlete could ever conceive. And, as he surely now knows, he set the bar way out of reach.
Dwayne Wade still shines at times, but has shown himself to be on the downside of his career. Chris Bosh is a valuable piece, but always lacked transcendent skill. Now the Heat may find themselves hamstrung by their contracts for years. LeBron still has a decade of dominance in front of him. But in this era of salary cap restrictions, the question is, Who will he play with?
LeBron won’t win seven championships. His trophy collection may never even reach the size of peers like Kobe Bryant. And we will certainly never mention him in the same breath as greats like Jordan, Magic, Bird, or Russell. And that might not present the mammoth problem that it does if LeBron didn’t elevate the bar to an untouchable level.
We dreamed LeBron would become the next Jordan, and envisioned him at the mountaintop. Then LeBron declared himself the next Jordan, and told the world he knew better than we did how to reach those heights.
But unless LeBron defies overwhelming odds (or makes another, more prudent jump to a new team), he can never align reality with our expectations. That’s not a crime, as Reilly points out. It’s just a massive disappointment.