Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Digging inside the summer of LeBron James
By Kevin Arnovitz
Larry Busacca/Getty Images Sport
LeBron James waits to announce his decision. Somewhere nearby, J.R. Moehringer observes.
In the final days leading up to "The Decision," LeBron James kept a very tight circle. One of the few outsiders who caught a close glimpse was author J.R. Moehringer, whose chronicle of James in the weeks prior to the announcement appears in the September issue of GQ, which launched Tuesday. Moehringer conducted multiple interviews with James and was on his hip in Greenwich, Conn. when James made his declaration on live television.
Moehringer's article seeks to widen the narrow lens through which we've been viewing James' decision to sign with Miami. We've been gnawing on the how for weeks, which makes Moehringer's examination of the why all the more useful. We caught up with Moehringer by phone on Monday afternoon:
In the piece, you write that you know what it sounds like when LeBron James is BS-ing you. What specifically does it sound like?
It sounds like he's not thinking about the answer. It sounds a bit rehearsed, like he's said it before and will say it again not long after you leave the room. He's been interviewed since he was a kid, and I think he's gotten too good at it maybe. It sounds audibly different than when he's speaking from the visceral part of him. It literally has a different tone to it.
You've written features on Kobe Bryant and other big-name athletes. Is there a particularity to LeBron's BS or is it a uniform brand of athlete-speak?
There's a uniform athlete-speak, but we all have our own music. Kobe is guarded because he's had an up-and-down history with the press. But this is not guarded. That's something different. This is more ... rehearsed is as close a word as I can come to it. It sounds as if he knows what he's supposed to say. He knows the most benign thing he can say and he sticks with that and doesn't deviate. If feels like he's been coached in locker-room speak. When he says something like he's not including other people in his decision-making, you just feel like it's ridiculous.
One of my favorite moments of the piece is when you're looking for a room within this large complex to sit down and interview him. You find one that seems to work for you, but you're told that it's "too private" for LeBron.
His publicist tells me that.
It's a theme that runs through the entire article -- that LeBron can't be alone, something you write in italics at one point. Your conclusion is that LeBron chose Miami in order to replicate his high school experience. You offer a disclaimer about the dangers of becoming a pop psychologist...
It was Buzz [Bissinger] who said that it's always dangerous to be a pop psychologist. Buzz has probably spent more time around LeBron than any writer on the planet, so I was anxious to run my theory by him. And he agreed in part, that it was clear [James] was replicating his high school experience. I think that's what it all boiled down to for me. I was surprised that no one put this together. I agree with Buzz that's it's dangerous to do pop psychologizing, but it seems to me that [James] has one formula for success in his life and that comes out of his high school experience.
This really comes across when you watch the "More Than a Game" documentary about LeBron and the Akron Fab Five. He thrives, he's happiest, he does his best when he is surrounded by friends. He just didn't feel like that was happening in Cleveland. It seems pretty clear that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren't just the best talent he can surround himself with, but they're a combination of talent and friends. He's looking for camaraderie. That's the formula that has worked for him -- and the only one that has worked for him. And that comes out of his early childhood when he was completely alone in the apartment he shared with his mother, not knowing his father, not knowing when or if she'd come home. It seems to me these were formative scarring moments that created this need for constant intimate contact. It came across to me watching the documentary. It came across to me reading Buzz's book. And it especially came across to me when he was introduced to the fans in Miami with Wade and Bosh by his side. He's not just looking to win. He's also looking to be happy, and he's only happy when he's surrounded by people he cares for and trusts. He's at his best when he has his brothers in arms around him and he's at his worst when he's completely alone.
You wrote that "He should have rehearsed. There were so many other, better ways to put his announcement." There's been so much critiquing of "The Decision," but what would you have had him do differently?
I don't think people have critiqued his performance as much as the announcement himself. And I'm surprised there hasn't been more critiquing of what he said and how he said it. That was so fixable. I don't think there was any way the decision was going to be a success. It was doomed from the start. An hour-long documentary about where he was going to play is, on the face of it, such a bad idea it couldn't succeed. But it didn't have to be the debacle it was had he gone in more prepared, ready to say more about the heartbreak that would be caused in Cleveland, ready to say more about New York and New Jersey, ready to say more about how he regretted hurting anyone in this process. If he'd prepared more things to say that were contrite and humble, it would've been a lot better or less grating to millions of people. He wasn't told going in, "You're going to be disappointing -- jilting -- millions of people and you need to speak directly to them. Not talk about winning, not talk about what's good for you, but rather emphasize the idea that you know you're leaving Cleveland in the lurch, and you know that you're disappointing other fans, and that you wrestled with this." That could've been expressed better.
But you think the backlash was inevitable, just by virtue of his picking someplace other than Cleveland? Don't you think that LeBron was going to turn villain the moment he announced he was leaving Cleveland no matter how that announcement was framed?
To some extent. I think he's very analogous to Brett Favre. I think what we've learned from him and Favre is that sports fans in America in the early years of the 21st century don't like a drama queen so you have to mitigate the impression that you're being a drama queen. Favre irritates people every year when he wrestles with his decision, but at least when he announces it, he doesn't do it in an hour-long special. You have to be aware that sports fans like their athletes to be self-effacing, humble, contrite when they make a mistake. I think he could've been more aware of the American sports fan today. If someone had said going in, "We need to minimize the appearance that you're being narcissistic," I think it could've played better.
Americans may like self-effacing athletes, but they follow narcissists. LeBron's favorables have dropped but I'm guessing more people will watch him next season than ever before.
Yes, I think we're simultaneously turned off by narcissists and fascinated by them. That's not to say that I think LeBron is a narcissist. I think "The Decision" itself, the TV special, was narcissistic by definition. But the jury is still out on whether or not LeBron is a narcissist. But he has a public image as a narcissist. And, yes, you're right. His favorables may go down, but the ratings on Christmas Day when the Heat play Kobe and the Lakers will be astronomical. But what will this do for his marketability? What will it do for the sneakers and the sports drinks he endorses? I don't know. Time will tell.
But there is a psychic toll to being a villain. We've never really seen this in sports before where someone goes, almost overnight, from hero to villain -- and not for anything they've done. This guy didn't cheat on his wife. He didn't have affairs. He didn't do drugs. He wasn't stopped for a DUI. All of this rancor, all of this animosity because of a marketing decision, because of a TV special. This is unprecedented in sports history. We don't really know how forgiving Americans are going to be long-term. Brett Favre was a villain last year. Then he put together the greatest, grittiest season of his career and all was forgiven. And now we're back to square one where he's being villainized again.
Mike Royko once said that sports fans are the biggest a******s in America. Is that what we've seen over the past month or so?
I think sports fans are not blame-free. They are complicit in this because 13 million of them tuned into this show. The vehemence, the animosity in the days that followed were completely out of proportion. OK, the guy sat there for an hour and talked about himself. Maybe he's guilty of too much self-regard but how does that merit the kind of scorn that's been heaped on him? I just don't see it. He was a free agent and he went to play for two guys who came into the league with him he loves like brothers. I just don't understand this kind of animosity -- more animosity than we saw for Tiger. Tiger was the butt of jokes but I didn't see this kind of hatred or anger aimed at Tiger. Is it because in the midst of the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, the guy is publicly wringing his hands about where to go make $100 million? Maybe that's part of it. But I think the Royko quote is a good one at this moment, because I don't think anyone is blameless in this whole fiasco.
What do you make of the notion that LeBron is taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at him, as he tweeted? You asked him in the interview about anger as a motivator. At the time -- this was before "The Decision" -- it didn't seem like a premise he was comfortable with --
Yeah, I got the sense he was uncomfortable talking about that. He might be in touch with his own anger, but he's not very good at expressing it. What I make of that tweet is that it says more about Twitter than it does about LeBron. If every day you have an open Twitter account, you might be tempted to tweet things like that and it doesn't really reveal as much of your true nature as we like to think. If he starts to play with that kind of anger, with that Jordan-esque vengeance, then we can look back at that tweet and as a foreshadowing. But from what I've seen, this is still a guy who doesn't play with a lot of anger.
Of course, he never walked through the firestorm that he's walked through in the last month. But it's easy to say in a tweet that you're taking mental notes. It's much harder to go out and live it every day and let that anger be your fuel. I really don't think I see that as being part of his personality. I see him as a guy trying to be happy as much as he's trying to win. Winning is part of happiness, but being on the floor with guys he loves and trusts is as much a part of his motivation as anything, and it's a bigger part of his whole psyche than anger as far as I can tell at a distance, peering at him across the barriers of helpers and handlers and friends and family. Right now the LeBron we all know is a filtered LeBron. I don't know that any of us have had a real look at the real LeBron. He's still only 25 and still very much evolving. That's the other reason why I think it's unfortunate people have cast him as a villain. He's just begun.