Hype is a small word with large implications. Hype converts athletes into icons, forces a teammate to become an individual, and transforms a person of public interest into a national fixation.
The challenge is whether the athlete can live up to the hype without wilting under the pressure. Hype can easily compromise an athlete’s soul, turning him from a once promising prospect to a selfish flash-in-the-pan type player.
Basketball phenom LeBron James has been caught in the hype storm since his freshman year of high school. And since then the hype has continually been building.
By the end of his junior year in high school, the [then] 17-year-old James had already graced the covers of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN magazine. The national intrigue surrounding James was so enormous that ESPN 2 aired several of his high school basketball games.
He was such a dominant player that the media dubbed him “King James” and “The Chosen One.” James was being hailed as the next Michael Jordan, after being drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft.
Nike signed a $90 million contract with the King before he played in his first NBA game.
Needless to say, James faced incredibly intense pressure to succeed.
Professional sports are an unforgiving place for failed athletes. Athletes who lack the strength or maturity to deal with the media hype and pressure of professional and public expectations often find themselves wondering where things went wrong.
Big names who can’t measure up often lose their confidence, under-perform, and are quickly forgotten. It is very easy for would-be stars to fall into either basketball obscurity or the purgatory of fans’ disdain.
But certain rare players with special qualities and strengths survive and prosper under difficult circumstances.
Former first overall pick Kwame Brown succumbed to the hype, never living up to it. The notorious Sam Bowie, who was drafted before Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, is regarded as one of the biggest mistakes in sports history.
And 1998’s first pick, center Michael Olowokandi, was forced out of LA because of his poor play and was berated by the fans.
Entering his rookie season, no player in NBA history had faced higher expectations or been given so much attention as LeBron.
Because of the propaganda, the way James played was going to be closely scrutinized, his mistakes severely ridiculed, his demeanor analyzed, and his worth questioned. Before his first game, the hype was in full hurricane force, but the unflinching James was not fazed.
Unlike so many others, LeBron looked directly into the eye of the hype storm and attacked it like he does when streaking down the lane toward the basket.
In his first professional game, LeBron James scored 25 points, had nine assists and six rebounds, and even managed to theft four steals.
Nobody remembers that Cleveland lost that game, and yet that moment will be forever embedded in the minds of sports fans as LeBron’s coming out party. In one game LeBron made a defining statement that he will not shy away from pressure; he will thrive and excel in it.
From that very first game, LeBron established his style and approach to basketball. When the game is on the line, LeBron James wants the ball. He wants to be the one taking the last shot, and the majority of the time, he makes it.
Last season, LeBron willed his team into the playoffs and then put them on his back and carried them into the finals. After several gutsy and dominant performances in which he was unstoppable, LeBron started to get mentioned as one of the best players in the NBA.
In a career-defining game against the Pistons during the 2007 playoffs, LeBron scored 29 of the Cavaliers' last 30 points including 25 in a row, marching them into the finals. In that game he hit fade away threes, cut to the lane in fierce fashion, and played outstanding defense.
In that moment all the hype culminated in one inspiring performance. LeBron electrified and showed the potential of how good he could be and of the greatness to come.
It is rare to see a player in the NBA astonish a crowd night in and night out. What is even more rare is to see a player literally exhibit seemingly impossible maneuvers every single game.
LeBron has succeeded not only as a player but as a revered teammate, entertainer, leader, and role model.
His formula has been a championship mixture of very special ingredients: maturity beyond his years, tenacity and will, dedication to team, humility and perspective, and a rock solid, balanced image.
Despite the pressure he faced, LeBron managed to become a once-in-a-lifetime player and managed to tame the hype that had surrounded him.