LeBron James has come a long way since being thrust into the spotlight as a high school basketball player out of Akron, Ohio. He has been the most hyped NBA Draft prospect of all time, been drafted number one overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers (pretty much his hometown team), led a franchise that had been off the radar for some time to prominence, became a "traitor" by publicly spurning the Cavaliers and "taking his talents to South Beach "to play with two superstars on the Miami Heat, made four finals appearances and won two titles while there, came back to Cleveland to a fanbase that was still distraught about his exit, led the Cavaliers to two championship appearances in two seasons, and, finally, winning a championship which gave Cleveland its first major pro sports championship in 54 years. That is a lot to accomplish for a man who is just turning 32. The funny thing is, people still find reasons to dislike him.
Sure he's made some poor choices. He angered Cleveland sports fans by wearing a Yankees cap (his favorite team) to every Indians-Yankees game he attended in Cleveland. He publicly ditched his hometown team and angered a whole region to the point they burned his jerseys. He embraced the villain role while playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. He wasn't going to win just four championships in Miami. Not five. Not six. Not seven (he was right). He rubbed people the wrong way from 2010 to around spring of 2014. But LeBron isn't the villain anymore, and we all need to realize that. While the LeBron hate has eased up since he came back to Cleveland, it is still present. People find reasons for this. "He is an attention junkie", "He doesn't pass enough", "He passes too much", "He can't win without other superstars", and the usual go to: "He isn't as good and will never be as good as Michael Jordan, no matter how much he tries". I've decided I would let you know why LeBron hate should be nonexistent. LeBron has done many things right in his years of stardom and they should not be overshadowed. As for the Jordan remarks, that is for another time. I mean, is it really that big of a problem to not be mentioned in the same breath as an egotistical gambling addict who was only respected by teammates because of his fear-by-intimidation leadership style?
Let's start from the beginning. LeBron James was in the spotlight as a teenage basketball player playing at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. He was born to a 16-year-old single mother who moved them around town from apartment to apartment as she struggled to find a job that could keep them afloat. When he was young, his mother realized he needed a more stable upbringing and he ended up living with the family of a local youth football coach. Going from being poor, not having food or a dad in his life, and living with a family that was not his own to becoming the most sought after basketball prospect is a huge learning curve. LeBron took it in stride and in 2003 was drafted straight out of high school by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the first pick. Cleveland, which is only a 45 minute drive from Akron, was like an extension of home. For the next seven years, LeBron James would not leave the Northeast Ohio area. He would not truly move away from home until he was 25.
His first go round in Cleveland included: an 18 win increase from the previous season during his rookie year (17 wins in 02-03 to 35 wins in 03-04), a Rookie of the Year Award (in a class with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade), five playoff appearances in seven seasons, one finals appearance (they were swept by the Spurs), no first round playoff exits, and a 42-29 playoff record. He did so with a lack of stars around him (Shaquille O'Neal does not count as he was at the tale end of his career). He also won two Most Valuable Player awards, was named to six All Star games and won the All Star Game MVP in two of them. He was the first true Cleveland sports superstar since Jim Thome, and that's a terrible comparison (no offense to Thome, who is a surefire Hall of Famer) because LeBron's celebrity and impact were many times greater. Those were the reason he was viewed as the villain when he left in 2010.
After the 2009-10 season, we all know what happened. James left Cleveland for the Miami Heat, a decision which was publicly aired on ESPN in a primetime event titled "The Decision". He left a whole region in Northeast Ohio heartbroken and angry. Jerseys were burned and hatred was spewed, but did you know that one television program raised $6 million and was donated to various charities? Even in LeBron's most famous "bad guy" moment, he still gave an incredible amount to charity. While "The Decision" may have been a selfish and egotistical way to leave his home in Northeast Ohio, he still used the earnings in one of the best possible ways.
While in Miami, LeBron was criticized by Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan for not wanting to be "the guy" and having to team up with superstars to win a championship. Let's keep in mind Magic Johnson won five championships, all five of which included Kareem-Adbul Jabbar on the same team and three of which included James Worthy. Both of those players are now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Kareem has the most points in NBA history and Worthy was part of the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players list. Michael Jordan won six championships. All six of those championships included having Scottie Pippen on the roster and three had Dennis Rodman. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Rodman is considered to be one of the best rebounders of all time and Pippen was easily the best sidekick the NBA has ever seen. The criticism was, and still is, unfounded. Especially when the two men who dished it had that kind of help themselves.
He also lived up to the villain role in Miami, making four Finals appearances, winning two championships in four seasons (was named the Finals MVP for both), won two NBA MVP awards and was a four time All Star. He did that all while having a target on his back and being constantly criticized.
Something to remember is that LeBron was living away from Northeast Ohio for the first time in his life. He started playing in Miami when he was 25 years old. That is longer than many people live that close to home. James has described the experience with pretty good logic, saying:
"Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.
That is a great way to describe it, and a very fair comparison. When people go to college, they experience things that help them grow as adults because they are away from home for the first time. Although LeBron never went to college, his Miami experience can be seen as comparable.
LeBron made his return to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, and he hasn't looked back since. On the court, he has become a leader for a team that features young stars such as Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, an older veteran star in Kevin Love, aging vets Richard Jefferson and James Jones, and other pieces that didn't fit with other teams, such as J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. He led the Cavaliers to a 20 win improvement in his first season (from 33 wins in 13-14 to 53 wins in 14-15), and two Finals appearances against the Golden State Warriors. They lost the first time without Irving and Love, due to injury. The second time around was different. They won 57 games and came into the Finals with a 12-2 playoff record and a lot of doubters. They ended up coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the 73-win (a league record) Warriors team in seven games. It was the title the city had been waiting 54 years for, and James was named Finals MVP to put the cherry on top. While we may be mesmerized by the redemption story and his achievements on the court, we should not forget his contributions off the court that have made him not only the face and voice of Northeast Ohio, but to people who are underprivileged, in need, or have overcome adversity.
James has helped revive a city which had been in poor shape by giving them hope, which shows the power of sports. He has also teamed up with the University of Akron to help revive education with underprivileged youth in the area. His education program, named the I Promise program, has promised a full ride scholarship to an estimated 1,100 underprivileged youth in Northeast Ohio who finish high school with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher. That is an estimated $41.8 million. The University of Akron renamed their education department the LeBron James Family Foundation Education Department. That's not bad for a poor kid from Akron, Ohio that never went to college. James also does work with various other charities, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Children's Defense Fund.
Not only has he used his platform for charitable causes, but for social and political causes as well. He has openly spoken about African American equality in the United States, a touchy subject that many athletes and celebrities stear clear of. He openly endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, going as far as to speak at a rally on her campaign trail even though he was unsure of what to think about being on the political stage in such a big magnitude. While many would not agree with the Clinton endorsement, he still used his platform to speak up about a cause he believed in which is commendable to say the least. He also has been active in rooting on Ohio sports teams, even the Indians. He made sure they knew he was supporting them and that it was their turn to bring the city a title. Although they lost, James and his teammates were at the games supporting the Tribe. He has also been seen rooting on the Cleveland Browns and Ohio State Buckeyes teams.
On a more personal scale, James is a family man. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Savannah, and they have three children: LeBron Jr., Bryce and Zhuri. He is often seen at his children's basketball games rooting them on. Being a family man isn't always the norm for professional athletes, but LeBron has been doing well in that aspect.
With all of that said, to say LeBron James is a villain these days is an exhausted narrative. He has learned from his mistakes to become a true leader, not just in sports, but in today's society. That is why he is considered the most influential athlete right now and was named Sports Illustrated's 2016 Sportsperson of the Year. Not only is he an amazing talent on the basketball court, which we should cherish, but he is also a man who cares about people, his hometown (and whole region), gives back to kids in similar situations he was in, a devoted father and husband, and a true role model for many people young and old.
Charles Barkley was wrong about athletes not being role models. LeBron James has proven him wrong, and then some. He has gone the extra mile and has shown his human side. He is truly a once in a lifetime talent, but that talent stretches much further than just on the basketball court.