If you hadn’t heard, the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals on Sunday night in Miami, and LeBron James was quite underwhelming in the series. The man recognized by most as the most skilled player in the world has quickly become the most scrutinized—for his play on the court and antics off of it. Regarding the former, he has failed to live up to the expectations many had for “The King” (that he would be comparable to Michael Jordan). And his decisions regarding the latter have been even less endearing to fans: ditching his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers on a self-aggrandizing primetime special called “The Decision,” participating in a gaudy celebration with his new teammates before they had won a single game, and denying any culpability for his part in falling so far from the graces of the popular opinion mob.
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for James and his teammates now that they have lost. It feels most natural to join in with the jeers, gloating about how the proud have fallen. But how the majority conceives of the nature of that fall, and where redemption can be found, is as empty as James’ fourth quarter stat lines.
I don’t pretend to see into the mind or heart of LeBron, but here is what I gather as a spectator. LeBron has been regarded by others and, likely, by himself as divine by our cultural standards. He has had the talent, the body, the connections, the money, the fame, the business strategy, and the image, all the parts needed to build a cultural figure fit to idolize. But when he didn’t live up to the fans’ (or idolaters, commonly) standards, on the court or off, they were perplexed.
How could the divine fail us? How could the divine refuse to sacrifice and suffer with his hometown? How could a basketball god get outplayed and outshined by a guy who comes off the bench (Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks)? James, it was written, was to be a legendary icon, and now the balding Terry is claiming that God’s power was revealed in his strong shooting percentage throughout the NBA Finals.
Fans pounce, and have been pouncing, because the idol named LeBron James isn’t really God. It must be pointed out that this isn’t his fault. But idolaters never notice how silly their hopes and frustrations look when tied to a particular athlete. Because the sports narrative doesn’t round out to perfection, and sports don’t provide the weighty, moral fulfillments we project onto them, we bark at the sports. We get more fervent and demand someone like James be a better idol (like our old one, the anointed Air Jordan!) rather than placing our hopes elsewhere—in the truly divine.
We refuse to be sobered, to acknowledge that there is a Maker of the leather that binds basketballs, of the hamstrings that get players to the rim, of the natural order that draws us to the joys of sport, of the human mind that conceives of technologies like television, of the fabric that is sewn into jerseys, of all we are so proud of holding in our hands. We see the obscured image of God, and settle for worshiping that which is created, rather than He who creates.
I want LeBron to find whatever redemption he needs. I want Cleveland to find whatever redemption it seeks. But I don’t wish for redemption on the typical fan’s terms. I don’t want LeBron to make nice with us so that we can validate his crown. I’m not interested in a Rocky-esque off-season training montage that leads to James improving his game and recapturing all the self-glory he lost and more. I won’t be glad if Cleveland basks in bitterness and vengeance for years.
The lies in the sports pages tell us that the essential qualities of athletes are demonstrated on a court or a field, and that James’ problems will be solved exclusively on the court. The reports of Mike Vick’s breaking and fixing paralleled his football performance, as was the case with Kobe Bryant and a slew of others. This is because we are truly deceived into thinking that respecting the fan, or the game itself, will produce divine results. Humble yourself before the ball, the mantra would go, and it will lift you up.
Turning from our lust for the cruel and dark or the bright and shiny has to be cured by God, by the redeeming blood of Jesus. If anyone, from the janitor in Miami’s arena to the fan seated courtside to the King himself, would be granted a view of the Christ—who was humbled, who is exalted—then the heart-produced disappointment that flares up so loudly in such a trivial competition would begin to fade.