No doubt all of you are sick to death of all the speculation about LeBron’s future. Article after article essentially saying We don’t know jack. Or even worse, the not-so-subtle “hints” dropped by unscrupulous journos who try to spin every basket James makes at Madison Square Garden as some sort of secret love poem to the city of New York. Really, unless you’re a fan of either the Cavs or the Knicks, free agency rumours in the middle of the season are unlikely to get you terribly excited.
There is, however, something genuinely interesting when considering LeBron’s future. Specifically, his self-coined ambition of becoming a Global Icon merits discussion – because what was once dismissed as a silly display of arrogance is now well within the realm of possibility.
Truth be told, accusations of arrogance and self-importance were probably entirely fair when word first spread about the whole Global Icon thing. This is a guy who dubbed himself The King as a teenager in high school, and then a Global Icon at 21 – Undisputed Master of the Universe seemed inevitable by the time he turned 25. More crucially, there was something completely unsavory about someone that young and talented focusing so intently on the business side of things.
This sentiment was particularly strong amongst all us Aussie plebs. Growing up in a culture where the sportspeople are drilled from a young age to be self-deprecating and play their sports for the love of the game, LeBron’s antics were particularly jarring. Yet, less than 5 years on, the sporting landscape has developed almost perfectly for LeBron to achieve what he so boldly envisioned.
For starters, he has, over the last two years, unequivocally established himself as the clear-cut best player in the NBA. He’ll deservedly win his second MVP trophy this season and will start odds-on to complete a hat-trick in 2011. That’s the first box checked. Then, as if by act of God, the seemingly invincible Tiger Woods empire has come crumbling down. And even if Tiger manages a successful comeback, it’s tough to imagine him regaining his overwhelming global popularity for a few years at least.
Combined with the inevitable decline of Federer over the next couple of years, it will leave the Global Icon window wide open for at least two or three years from 2011 onwards. No other major sport currently offers a viable candidate.
The group of four youngsters behind Roger Federer in the tennis world each have their own vulnerabilities, and none has shown that they have the ability to dominate. Soccer simply has too many leagues to ever produce a single candidate, even if one warranted it. Transcendent sports stars – your Schumachers, your Jordans, your Woodseses – have to be recognised as the unquestioned best by the fans of that particular sport before they can appeal to a broader audience, and I just can’t envision a time where a Brit and a Spaniard will unanimously anoint a single champion. That no player has ever won the Ballon d’Or (soccer’s MVP equivalent) more than three times confirms as much.
So the door is very much wide open, and don’t buy for a minute that LeBron needs to move to New York to fulfil his ambition. That’s a completely US-centric view that conveniently ignores the fact that folk in China or Australia don’t give two hoots about where LeBron plays. The only remaining obstacle in his way is winning a ring – because without it he’ll never be fully endorsed by the entire basketball-viewing public, as much as I personally disagree with that perspective. So from that point of view, it makes far more sense for ‘Bron to stay in Cleveland, where he has a solid if unspectacular supporting cast around him.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lebron was always intending to stay with Cleveland, but kept quiet because;
- It forces a quarter of the teams in the league to gut their entire roster in the hope of luring him.
- It forces Cleveland to act with far more urgency, bettering his prospects for a ring.
Case in point, do you think Miami still stands pat at the trade deadline if they thought Wade was any chance of leaving?
In any case, all of the above really misses the crucial question; namely, do we even want LeBron to become a Global Icon? Is that ultimately good for the sport?
I’m somewhat torn on the idea. On one hand, having a single ambassador tends to attract a whole new audience to a sport. People may tune in to watch Lebron rather than watch basketball, but they can’t avoid doing the latter in the process, and so a whole bunch of new fans are born. I’m sure we all remember what Jordan’s era did for basketball in Australia, and no-one can deny the sport needs a fresh jolt.
Yet I can’t help but think that once the Championship comes, Lebron is likely to spend more time Global Iconising and less time working on his game, which might rob us of seeing him achieve his ultimate potential. Mind you, it’s not likely to make a massive difference – a guy who works incessantly on his game isn’t likely to just stop – but I can’t help but think that being the face of sports worldwide is likely to cut into his practice time, and in turn somewhat dampen his legacy in the sport of basketball itself.
So that’s the dilemma; if we root for Bron Bron, we do so with the understanding that he’ll likely become bigger than the sport itself and in turn attract a horde of new fans (and bandwagoners, of course) to the sport. If we root against him, we are essentially rooting for a hungry, driven LeBron who’ll fall short in his short-term global ambitions but may do things on the basketball court that we can’t even imagine.
Usually, I’m not one to begrudge anyone a ring. Professional athletes, especially the top echelon, work incredibly hard and deserve any success that comes their way. But maybe we can agree that he doesn’t have to win one just yet. Give us another year or two of improvement spurred on by failure; a post game, improved footwork, a triple-double season even. That’s not too much too ask for, right?
Then, go and get your Global Icon on. I’m sure there are many high teas with Warren Buffet and cringe-worthy Gillette ads with subtle homosexual undertones on the horizon.
But not just yet.