They’re Parents, Too: Lebron James’ Decision Shows Us a Different Side of Pro-Sports Life

76767366“I’ve got my family to feed.”

In November of 2004, pro basketball player Latrell Sprewell, making $14.6 million at the time, made that legendary proclamation when asked by the press about contract negotiations with his team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

A statement like that is why it’s impossible for Jane or Joe Fan to relate to millionaire athletes. It’s difficult to believe their family concerns are the same order of magnitude as ours. And yet, we invest so much into our relationships with pro athletes, people to whom we can’t relate and with whom we can expect little to no personal interaction. Our society deifies these ordinary humans with extraordinary physical gifts, and in the process of building their monuments, also deems itself arbiter of their legacies, able to tear them down when we see fit.

In July of 2010, grown men burned jerseys of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star LeBron James when the Akron, OH native spurned the region’s basketball fandom to chase championships with a Miami Heat super team. The polyester bonfire clips were uploaded to YouTube, while Cleveland’s billionaire owner, Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans fortune, famously wrote a scathing letter directed at James in Comic Sans font and posted it to the team’s website, where it smoldered for four years.

The hero became the contemptuous villain.

On Friday, James, the best basketball player on the planet, announced in Sports Illustrated he was “coming home.” Four years after skipping town, the 6’9” forward, who won two championships in Miami, cited a calling that “goes above basketball,” a desire to be a leader on the court and in the community, to right old wrongs, and to anchor his young family, with two sons and a daughter on the way, in Northeast Ohio.

Of course, we’re conditioned to question whether or not his statements are genuine. LeBron gets a big, fat contract out of the arrangement, and rumors suggest the Cavs will seek to pair Minnesota’s present-day top talent, Kevin Love, with LeBron via trade, which in theory could result in more shiny hardware.

It seems contrived. These guys are jerks, right? For as long as we can remember, LeBron has gone by the moniker of “King James.” He has a tattoo that reads “Chosen One.”

These guys don’t care about the fans, we say. They’re robots. Highly compensated, robo-jerks. LeBron graced the cover of SI as a 17-year-old, had his high school games televised on ESPN, and was presented to America as the next Michael Jordan at 18.

Despite a cadre of image-makers begging us to love LeBron, America waited for him to fail. When he fumbled his exit from Cleveland at age 25, turning his employment status into a made-for-TV fiasco, we turned on him, just as he turned on Cleveland.

LeBron messed up. Can we just let him go “home?”

Peel back the big bucks, flashing lights and perceived slights. If LeBron wants to take a leadership role for the team and in the city, let’s allow him an effort in good faith before we cry foul. It’s reasonable to suggest LeBron has matured and finally realizes what’s truly important. Look around the league: by the time many of these guys hit 30; they’re craving stability. Few are as fortunate as LeBron to secure a long-term pact in a desired location.

As former NBA big man Etan Thomas related in an interview with Babble on his book Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge:

When your kids can express that they miss you and they don’t want you to leave, that is like the worst. I think of my son — he was like, ‘Wait, you gotta leave again? You just got here!’ I’d be like ‘Malcolm, we’ve got a game. I’m about to get on a plane in Chicago.’ And he’d say ‘No, I don’t want you to leave.’ When your kids say that to you — it crushes you.”

It would make a pit in the stomach of any parent on his or her way out the door in the morning. But professional basketball players aren’t headed off to work a nine-to-five. Sure, these guys aren’t having any trouble feeding their families. But we so easily overlook their human needs: sometimes, they just want to be home.

The human element is personified by grizzled veteran power forward Kevin Garnett, warrior of 19 NBA seasons. On the court, Garnett bangs bodies, cusses, and taunts his opponents, anything to gain a psychological advantage in his 48-minute quest to secure victory for his team. When Garnett played for Boston, venerable sideline reporter Greg Dickerson would approach the wiry Garnett, pouring sweat, after a big game and ask him a few questions.

The big man would provide thoughtful answers and close with “Boo Boo – go to bed!” – a request for his young daughter, watching at home, to hit the hay.

NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley famously said, in a Nike commercial:

I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Maybe Barkley is right; maybe LeBron should stick to the role of unfeeling Martian sent to dominate the world of basketball. His salary alone means he’ll never be one of us. But with his letter to SI, James reminds us of a life beyond the game and a passion in interpersonal relationships. While the narrative of the NBA parent cops out with schlock like Basketball Wives, James attempts to forge a different path, with his compass pointed squarely toward “home.”

As Cleveland hails the return of “The King,” America welcomes a kindler, gentler LeBron James.

image: thinkstock.com

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