LeBron James, underdog: How an NBA legend became a humble, hungry hero of the downtrodden Rust Belt

We admire Goliath, but we worship David -- and nobody works that contradiction like LeBron James

Published April 14, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

LeBron James     (AP/Brandon Wade)
LeBron James (AP/Brandon Wade)

He is a mad scientist’s vision of the perfect athlete, with brawn and brains and a hurricane's velocity.  When he ascends toward the rim, he doesn't merely blow past his opponents; he uproots them, making the world's largest men seem too frail, too pathetically human, to stand up against his next-generation talents. But for all these preternatural gifts, and the unprecedented pop-cultural influence that accompanies them, he still seems to view himself as a mere David battling against a legion of Goliaths. LeBron James has done more than any contemporary athlete to dash the hopes of underdogs and their supporters, yet in his latest incarnation, as he struggles to bring a championship to the downtrodden region where he grew up, he is doing everything he can to bring them back to life.

When the NBA playoffs tip off this weekend, LeBron will find himself in familiar surroundings and unfamiliar circumstances.  His Cleveland Cavaliers, to whom he recently returned after four years and two championships with the Miami Heat, are a hugely talented but wildly inconsistent team.  Where his Miami teammates were a lethally efficient, playoff-hardened outfit, the young and mercurial Cavs have been lurching back and forth between an electrifying offense and a narcoleptic defense.  They are led by a player who has now logged more than 42,000 career minutes and 1,050 games, leading some observers to question whether LeBron has the stamina to guide such an inexperienced roster to a championship.  While most pundits, and the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, agree that he is poised to make another deep postseason run, this will be the first time in nearly five years that LeBron is not the prohibitive favorite to win the title.

Under any other circumstances, the shift from title favorite to title contender would not transform a gifted athlete into an underdog.  But a sense of exaggerated spectacle hangs over all things LeBron, and he has recently made a deliberate effort to align his public image with an underdog story line as old as David and the Israelites.  The phrase, "I promise to never forget where I came from," is emblazoned at the top of his Twitter feed -- a pointed reference to his hardscrabble origins in Akron, Ohio.  It was by instilling his teammates with a “hungry and humble” identity that he spurred the Cavs to turn around their season and adopt the fluid, unselfish playing style that has distinguished his greatest teams.  And even before the current season, LeBron was beginning to draw strength from the ridiculous yet undeniably entertaining conceit that he is nothing more than “a kid from Northeast Ohio,” struggling against the odds.

If we survey LeBron's rise to the top of America’s athletic and pop-cultural pyramid, we can see that even this singular and innovative player — the first true superstar of the Twitter Era — has proven unable to resist the allure of the sports world’s most timeless and tired cliché.  Like so many great entertainers before him, LeBron has had to slowly, and painfully, reconcile himself to the contradictions of his audience: Americans love a winner but they prefer someone who triumphs against the odds; we look up to Goliath but we worship David.  

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LeBron’s reclassification as an honorary underdog would have been unthinkable just a few years back.  This is a player who was declared his sport’s “Chosen One” at the tender age of 17; an athlete who has dominated the opposition since his first professional game.  Not long ago, LeBron even seemed to embrace the very opposite of an underdog identity, transforming himself into the NBA’s ultimate heel – a rim-rattling villain unconstrained by loyalty or sentiment. Following his 2010 announcement that he was abandoning his hometown Cavaliers and "taking his talents to South Beach," LeBron’s transcendent abilities became shrouded in a cloak of mercenary self-absorption.  He changed the number on his uniform. He changed the way he signed his autographs. He seemed to revel in being the most hated player in arenas across the NBA. LeBron was the greatest basketball player on the planet but he made it excruciatingly difficult to root for him.

And yet so many of us did. During the Miami years, LeBron replaced the underdog, the sentimental mascot that unites sports fans of every stripe and pedigree, with an equally compelling narrative: the desire to see greatness affirmed for posterity, no matter what the cost to one’s integrity as a sports fan.  In those Technicolor moments when he was soaring toward the rim, the LeBron Show became one of the few athletic spectacles powerful enough to override the tribalistic loyalties that are the sports world’s enduring currency.  Watching such a gifted player win championships and awards restored some order and logic to a cold hard universe; it affirmed his place in history and our own role as his chroniclers and supporters.  When we were rooting for LeBron, we were rooting for Goliath, and hoping that we could will into being the definitive, recorded proof that such a giant strode the earth.

What makes LeBron such an iconic — and, I would argue, the iconic — 21st-century athlete is the self-conscious role that he has played in reshaping these story lines and archetypes.  Like a growing number of American entertainers -- Jay Z, Louis C.K., the double-headed titan that is Brangelina -- LeBron has evolved from being his profession's most versatile leading man into something closer to an actor-director or a performer-producer: the sports world's first player-general manager.  Entire careers are altered on the basis of his tweets; the rise and fall of whole franchises is predicted from the things he mumbles while hugging his former teammates.  The scrutiny can seem absurd, even paranoid, at times, but the basketball world cannot afford to overlook such gestures.  They are more often than not the product of intricate planning on the part of LeBron and a circle of close advisers who have been building his brand since he was a teenager.  And they can have startling real-world consequences: Last summer's cleverly staged announcement that LeBron was returning to the Cavaliers is estimated to have shifted nearly 50 players to new teams, including 30 players and draft picks shuffled by the Cavaliers and Heat alone.  Like no other athlete before him, LeBron James has seized control of his own narrative -- and, by extension, the story of the entire, $60 billion sports entertainment industry.

It’s been a natural trajectory for a man with dreams of starting an entertainment empire when he retires.  But for all LeBron’s directorial aspirations -- his desire to regulate the episode-by-episode, season-by-season story lines of his career like some HBO showrunner -- they have proven impossible to satisfy in an era when an athlete's foibles and failures are the subject of constant, often withering scrutiny.  LeBron has achieved more control over his public image than a Joe DiMaggio or Julius Erving could ever have imagined but he's also been held more accountable for his gaffes. This is precisely what makes the LeBron Show such riveting television: In the face of dramatic setbacks, he has had to summon raw, resourceful, refreshingly unscripted responses.

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Just as we started to acclimate ourselves to the image of LeBron as a brilliant but unlovable talent -- a Kobe Bryant for the millennial set -- his career was transformed by a humiliating defeat.  After his listless performance against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, fans and pundits began to question his championship mettle. The anti-LeBron sentiment that had been building since he joined Miami erupted in a series of vitriolic memes on sports sites and social media. He was called “LeFail,” “LeBrick” and, most of all, “LeChoke.”

With his talents and leadership suddenly under attack, LeBron began to reinvent his basketball persona.  He refined his 3-point shot. He became the league's most brutally efficient post player. And most surprisingly, he began to dial back the “Chosen One” rhetoric that had alienated so many fans and observers.  Within a two-year span, the youthful egomaniac who had predicted he would win “not one, not two, not three, not four…” championships with his Miami superteam had morphed into the self-help-reading, chamomile tea-sipping veteran who told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, in the lead-up to the 2012 playoffs, that to win just a single title "would be so amazing" — the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  Eight weeks later he won his first championship.

Success seemed to validate this first draft of the "hungry and humble" narrative, even as it sharpened the contradictions in LeBron's public image. Here was the sport's one-time super-villain being praised for his generosity as a teammate and philanthropist.  Here was an icon of millennial entitlement who had become a true societal outlier, a rare rags-to-riches success story within his increasingly stratified society.  And it's those tumultuous origins -- the years of being evicted from one apartment after the next with his mother, Gloria -- that may hold the key to understanding the most enduring contradiction within this rapidly evolving epic: LeBron is a colossal talent who thrives on being an underdog.  On the night he won his second championship with the Heat, LeBron confounded reporters by saying that he "wasn't supposed to be [there],” wasn't always destined to be dripping with confetti and champagne after delivering one of his sport's greatest fourth-quarter performances. "I'm LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city," he reminded us —  a David with the body, the mind and the championship rings of a Goliath.

With his decision to return to Cleveland this season, this dual identity has acquired new, almost mythological significance.  LeBron is now the standard-bearer for the entire underdog region where he grew up.  Every time he dons the red and gold of his hometown team, he is making the same appeal to history and posterity that many fans make when they shed their traditional loyalties to root for him; the David-like narrative he has revived from its grave simply has more long-term appeal than the Goliath-like exploits of the super-team he had built in Miami.  That his first season with the Cavaliers has been more difficult than expected, with a new group of players and coaches that have struggled to cohere, has only added to the Rust Belt luster on his crown.  That he has also revealed the first signs of his mortality, missing more games due to injury than in any previous season, has introduced an ominous new subplot into this third act of his career, and raised the stakes of his heroic narrative.  That LeBron has bounced back from each of these setbacks to lead his team on a series of dramatic, season-saving winning streaks suggests that he will continue to do his best work when he is being doubted, not applauded.

And LeBron still has his doubters. With the playoffs about to begin, some pundits believe that the Cavaliers are too inexperienced and inconsistent to defeat the NBA's elite contenders: the deadly sharp-shooters of league-leading Golden State; the ball-busting ruffians on the Los Angeles Clippers; and the battle-tested veterans who pound the court in San Antonio.  But this inconsistency is what makes the Cavaliers the most dangerously unpredictable team in the competition.  As in the case of their leader and playmaker, it is impossible to tell if they are a David masquerading as a Goliath or a Goliath masquerading as a David.

Whatever the outcome of its current season, the LeBron Show has become more than just the story of an athlete's personal maturation; it has also become a story about the culture and the country in which his legend is set. To be a great American athlete you must also be a great storyteller; this has proven doubly true in an era of unmediated access to the lives of famous players. LeBron now understands this: He knows that when his spectacular, mad scientist-worthy body inevitably fails him, he will be left only with his narrative and the hope that it can stand the test of time.  His great achievement has been to craft a story that motivates him to scale new heights of athletic performance even as it stirs the imaginations of his countrymen.  In his contradiction-riddled epic, we confront the colorful contradictions of America itself — a vast and powerful country enthralled by exaggerated stories of winning against the odds. LeBron James has internalized a lesson as old as David and his slingshot, a truth as enduring as the final lines of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": when his legend becomes fact, we will "print the legend."

By Will Di Novi

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