Kane Webb: Why Give a Damn About LeBron James



On the power of the written word and the lure of you-know-where. Oh, and the LeBron thing too.

“She was scared about leaving everything, and I got that, but I also knew you couldn’t start living in the new place until you said f***-all to the old.” — Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. 1

A week ago Friday and my wife leaves for work with this send-off, “Call or text me if LeBron makes a decision.”

Now, let me tell you about my wife. Besides being a world-class mother and partner, a drop-dead gorgeous, hysterically funny and whip-smart woman forever looking 29, she officially knows less about sports than the family dogs. She’s been known to confuse the SEC with the NFL and wonder why the Razorbacks don’t ever play the Dallas Cowboys. I have to quiz her on Super Bowl Sunday if we’re going to a party so she’ll know the basics: starting quarterbacks, teams playing, NFL and not SEC. So for my wife to (a) know who LeBron James is enough to casually call him by his first name and (b) care at all who LeBron James is and what decision he’s pondering, while (c) demanding ASAP updates on said LeBron James and said decision, may well be one of the signs of the Apocalypse. (You’ve been warned.)

Dutifully, shortly after noon on the fateful Friday, I text her with the news. I follow up with an email link to James’s as-told-to essay in Sports Illustrated, which you know by now is how he announced his decision. 2 My wife’s response: “wow… I love him!”

Hyperbole aside, and I’m a solid 60 percent sure she’s being hyperbolic, my wife’s reaction is echoed by the vast majority. And it speaks to the reasons why people even give a damn about what is, on its face, a story about a rich basketball player changing jobs. The reasons are old-fashioned and twofold. They are the power of the written word and the pull of home.

Going home is not an easy decision. Home is scary. It’s the past you, and sometimes you don’t want to see that person again. He was the reason you left in the first place.

James seems to understand this. “People there have seen me grow up,” he writes. “I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming.”

That’s the thing about home. You do know exactly what you’re getting back into. Is there anything more frightening than that? But no matter how long you’ve been gone, home is the place where a former version of yourself resides. If you’re really lucky, if you’ve left and managed to build a new life at all on any level, nothing has changed when you get back home but you. Or as the essayist Leslie Jamison advises so eloquently in the quote atop this column, you have managed to let go. The only thing harder than the letting go may be the going back.

I’m reminded of a funny-perfect line whose provenance escapes me now. I apologize to whoever I’m stealing this from, but it goes something like this: At home, I find myself surrounded by perfect strangers with whom I share nothing in common but blood. Yet, ultimately, home is irresistible, and so are our past selves, which makes James’s Twitter-crashing decision not shocking at all, but inevitable. The novelist Charles Portis, a native of these parts who lit out for New York as a newspaperman and eventually returned to write perfect little books, has said famously that lots of folks try to leave Arkansas but never quite achieve “escape velocity.” 3 He’s right. He usually is. But I think his take applies pretty much everywhere. Home is home. LeBron James’s home has as much gravitational pull on him as Arkansas does on many of us. It just takes some of us longer to mature into understanding that. James has reached his logical conclusion before the age of 30. (“I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. . . . . The more time passed, the more it felt right.”) He’s a lucky man.

* * *

So James wrote us a letter. Oh, he may not have put pen to paper or even fingers to keyboard, but what he told SI‘s Lee Jenkins amounted to an old-fashioned missive. It allowed him room to think out loud, to explain himself, to answer questions without all the rigmarole of a press conference or some 140 characters spit out in a Tweet and left open to interpretation. We again witnessed, and celebrated, the strength and influence of the written word. For once, we had a sports story that wasn’t just made for the sound-bitten “insiders” at ESPN; it was consumable for the most casual observer, the kind of sports fan who might confuse the SEC for the NFL.

Of course anything that has such mass appeal and ends so neatly invites skepticism, cynicism. And it should, lest we all be played for suckers. This time, the irresistibly funny Drew Magary at Deadspin played the cynic best. 4

He writes, “While narratives change a lot, people tend to remain the same, and I would wager that the only thing about LeBron James that has changed since The Decision back in 2010 is that he now knows precisely what kind of horseshit sports fans and sportswriters want, and how to deliver that horseshit. It should be humble, it should be understated, and it should turn up in tasteful prose in a tasteful magazine. … All of this gets you the requisite pat on the head from the media — some large percentage of which is a lot more interested in pandering to the idea of the moral superiority of the Rust Belt than in actually living there — all because you did things the RIGHT WAY.” The cynic in me admits that Magary makes an awfully fine point. But the cynic’s approach here seems a little forced, and sad. (And, yes, I know we’ll go too far the other way and celebrate LeBron James, professional basketball player, as international role model and Faulkner of the hard court. But we could do worse. 5)

Just this once, let’s err on the side of sincerity and idealism. Let’s say James’s comeback story represents the power of the written word and the pull of home. I can get behind that. 6

* * *


1 Highly recommended read. Jamison is the best kind of essayist. She’s personal without her writing being all about her. Her collection is a surprise bestseller and critic’s darling, the former of which is practically unheard of, the latter of which is deserved.

2 As if you haven’t read it already. http://www.si.com/nba/2014/07/11/lebron-james-cleveland-cavaliers

3 Do yourself a favor and read the collection of Portis’s newspaper and magazine stories with the same title, Escape Velocity. Another noted Little Rock writer, Jay Jennings, put it together. Oh, and speaking of Jay, you might read his beautifully composed tribute to Portis upon the author being honored with the Porter Prize Lifetime Achievement Award this past spring. http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2014/apr/08/tribute-to-portis/

4 Magary, also a contributor to GQ, is as funny as any writer on the web and the best reason to visit Deadspin. His “Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo” during football season is a guaranteed laugh. NOT FOR READING AT WORK!

5 Here’s looking at you, celebrity-athlete arrested yesterday, today, tomorrow.

6 Another example of the power and appeal of LeBron James’s comeback story: At no point in this column do I say which team he left or which team he’s going to. And I don’t need to, do I?



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