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.