The story of basketball star LeBron James is worthy of great literature: a tale of two cities and a transition from selfishness to heroism.
The journey for LeBron started in Cleveland. After four years, the heir apparent to Michael Jordan’s throne led the Cleveland Cavaliers team to the finals in 2007 but lost to the San Antonio Spurs.
James was finally able to take the team to the Eastern Conference championship and to compete for the national title. Despite his best efforts, the former high-school phenom could not lead the team over the threshold of championship greatness. He was faced with what ESPN called “the decision” and chose to leave. When he signed with the Miami Heat, Cleveland’s fans were burning his jersey and summarily disowned the would-be king.
James went to Miami as a part of the initiation to complete his training. His time in Miami was spent under the tutelage of former University of Kentucky and NBA legend Pat Riley. Four years and two rings later, he was set for the return to Cleveland.
This time, he faced the defending champions who had the best regular season record of all time. To heighten the drama, Cleveland had to win three consecutive games with the final battle set to take place in hostile territory. Like a classic epic, the hero managed to best his opponent.
On the surface, LeBron’s decision to leave for Miami appeared to be a selfish act. In the novel A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton lives mostly an apathetic, self-centered life, but his final act of pure selflessness shows the capacity humans have for change.
To remain in Miami where he could surely have wonn more championships would have only enhanced his personal treasure chest and ego. But taking his newly acquired skills and experience back to a young, inexperienced but hungry Cleveland served to build a legacy which lifted James to the plane of basketball heroism.
When Carton chose to sacrifice his life for his friends, he not only allowed them to have personal happiness but the story implies that the old French regime would yield a new egalitarian society, but only through loss and personal sacrifice. James’ personal sacrifice allowed Cleveland to once again become a city of champions and a first for the Cavaliers’ basketball franchise.
He had to withstand boos, taunts and unpleasant criticism from angry supporters who didn’t understand the journey.
American writer Joseph Campbell describes the three-step formula for the hero’s journey as separation-initiation-return. This formula is evident in the lives of the protagonists from most epics and great literary works.
The journey seldom takes place in sports, as many athletes leave a team and never return. But when it does happen, it makes moments like the Cavalier’s victory memorable.
Sports and communication scholar Andrew Billings has argued that many Americans watch because we believe sports can provide lifelong lessons in teamwork, building discipline, perseverance and the ability to make good decisions, especially under pressure.
Sports can also embody the great works of literature making it complementary to the classroom. We enjoy a good contest because LeBron James’ journey to legendary status represents the hero in each of us. It always takes the worst of times to bring out the best in us.
David Shabazz is assistant professor of journalism at Kentucky State University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.