Already the league's top player, LBJ is rapidly becoming its best public representative as well. The latest instance of his world-class philanthropy: doling out in-game encouragement to Michael Carter-Williams during the rookie's breakout debut.
Michael Carter-Williams says LeBron told him "way to play" a few times during the game.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) October 31, 2013
If James' positive vibes toward an opponent seem a little weird, it's probably because there's not much precedent for magnanimous NBA superstars.
The league's all-time greats—especially guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant—harbored a self-created insecurity that left no room for friendliness. They concocted doubters, fabricated detractors and generally became great because they convinced themselves everything that moved was an enemy in need of annihilation.
It worked pretty well.
But James is different. He seems to have no problem projecting an image as a kinder, gentler superstar. Sure, he's also been pretty good at getting the job done on the court in recent seasons (see: two titles, four MVP awards, general statistical dominance), but James isn't interested in coming off like a stone-cold killer in the process.
Take his commercials for the contrived, image-shaping ploys they are, but also consider that he's uniquely believable in the role of Mr. Nice Guy. He lets us into his home, introduces us to his family and comes off like a pretty swell dude in his Samsung spots.
And he becomes some combination of a city-wide babysitter and the Pied Piper in his latest Nike ad.
Based on how he's conducted himself as a pro—from dapping up Paul George in the Eastern Conference Finals to giving MCW an "attaboy"—it makes sense that he'd be willing to embrace those narratives.
Striving to Improve
Stepping back a bit, James' conduct evinces a real sense of perspective.
Basketball is obviously important to LBJ—probably more so than anything else in his life. He stressed his incessant desire to improve on the court to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press, via Yahoo! Sports:
I'm nitpicking now, obviously, at my own game. I want that. I want to be uncomfortable. I want to continue to push the envelope and get to a point where I feel like I'm trying to master everything. Now, I can't be the greatest at everything. There's better rebounders than me. There's better passers than me. There's better scorers than me. But I want to be able to maximize my potential in everything I do.
But he also understands that hoops isn't the only thing in the world. He's trying to be a better human being as well.
So often, we get caught up in criticizing athletes for even the tiniest slips in their killer instinct. We dig into players like James and teams like the Miami Heat for "coasting" or "lacking a sense of urgency."
But those jabs are the result of a weird sort of fiction we've created in professional sports. We romanticize great teams and players of the past, painting them as single-minded robots who never once moved their settings away from "destroy."
That's a ridiculous effort in revisionist history. Even the league's most notorious cutthroats relaxed every once in a while.
James is just confident enough in himself and his team to be a nice guy more publicly. And as far as the NBA's concerned, he couldn't be doing it at a better time.
LeBron hasn't had any notable brushes with the law. There have been errors in judgment to be sure: The Decision and his foolish promise of at least a half-dozen titles in Miami come to mind. But he's never been mixed up in any real unsavory business.
James is very concerned with cultivating a positive image for himself and for the NBA as a whole. Perhaps some of that is a financial decision, based on the idea that being relatable and generally positive helps sell products.
Whatever the source of James' squeaky-clean image, he's showing it off at an ideal time for the league.
The NBA has long desired to move past its defiant, hip-hop-inspired image of the late '90s and early 2000s. Today's Association is a full-fledged international conglomerate with designs on selling itself not just to teenage males, but also to mothers, fathers, grandparents and people from every walk of life in every country on Earth.
Allen Iverson, now officially retired, was the marketable symbol of the league's recent past. His brash attitude had major niche appeal. But despite the fact that he was instrumental in revamping the league's image more than a decade ago, the NBA isn't about guys like him anymore.
The league is growing up, and it wants a superstar with broader, more mature appeal.
James is that guy. And beyond being eminently marketable, he's going to play a key role in the NBA's forthcoming effort to clean itself up.
According to ESPN's J.A. Adande, incoming commissioner Adam Silver is facing a crisis in league-wide discipline:
Five months before Adam Silver is elevated to his new role of NBA commissioner, nearly two months before the 2013-14 season begins, his agenda is being defined for him. The increasingly disturbing news about NBA players and coaches this summer is turning off-court conduct into a leadership priority, much as it was for Roger Goodell at the start of his tenure as NFL commissioner.
When Silver takes charge, he'll have a two-pronged attack ready. In one hand, he'll have the ability to up penalties for players who step outside the law. In the other, he'll be able to market James as not only the league's most transcendent player, but also its perfect citizen.
Both will be powerful tools.
What Matters Most
There are a lot of NBA fans who don't like LeBron, and articles like this probably don't help quiet critics who are sick of hearing about how singularly great he is.
But there's no getting around the fact that James is everything we should want in a superstar.
He's confident, supremely talented, a good citizen and a mature adult. We can pretend that he needs to have a sharper edge, but the truth is that we should be praising him for retaining his humanity in the ultra-competitive NBA world.
James' "nice guy" image is good for his own sanity, great for the league and even better as a reminder to fans that it's good to keep things in perspective.