LeBron Has Plenty of Adult Critics, but Teenage Hoop Stars Only See a Hero

Preston EllisContributor IAugust 28, 2019

LONDON - SEPTEMBER 05:  Lebron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks to children during the Nike Lebron James Tour as he launches the New Basketball Legacy on September 5, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Marco Secchi/Getty Images)
Marco Secchi/Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. — At 14 years old, Isaiah Collier already has highlights on highlights on highlights.

Like many young basketball players his age, he wants to star in the NBA someday. And like most teenagers with a legitimate path to the pros, he eats, sleeps and breathes basketball by playing in tournaments across the country.

But unlike most players his age, Collier also has front-row seats to someone he and his peers see as the ultimate hero both on and off the court.

"He and Li'l LeBron are good friends. They go back and forth," Isaiah's mother, Chandra Smith-Collier, told B/R earlier this month at the Jr. NBA Global Championship.

Having first connected with James' squad a year ago in the same tournament, Collier, a soon-to-be high school freshman, has a unique acquaintance to his idol, LeBron James. 

"He's good on and off the court, amazing in the community," Collier said. "... And then on the court, he carries himself as a leader, and it just inspires me."

Collier he isn't alone in who he and his peers choose to idolize.

Bleacher Report recently polled a collection of Jr. NBA Global stars. When asked which athlete they revered most, the answer was always the same.


The Kids Speak

From LeBron's athletic achievements to his off-court contributions—and even the emotional hurdles he's overcome—the next generation of basketball talent has taken to heart all that he's accomplished.

It starts with his work in the community.

Multiple players highlighted his I Promise School, a public school aimed at helping at-risk students. With assistance from the LeBron James Family Foundation, students at the school receive free bicycles, helmets, meals and college scholarships at the University of Akron.

ORLANDO, FL - AUGUST 11: Quinton Webb #32 of U.S. West Boys takes selfie with teammates after winning the Boys Jr. NBA Global Championship on August 11, 2019 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
Pamela Costello/Getty Images

"I really respect what he's done in the community," Quinton Webb told B/R one day before leading the U.S. West Boys team to the Jr. Global Championship. "You know a lot of NBA players are making millions of dollars, and I respect that he went out and bought a school, gave them transportation and a scholarship."

"Off the court, I look more at LeBron and his I Promise School," said Smya Nichols, a member of U.S. Central's championship squad. "I love that so much."

With dozens of role-model stars from which to choose, these student-athletes kept coming back to James when asked which stars they admire. That's in part because James' school is a representation of the work he's put in over his career to improve his communities.

James' foundation has donated millions to causes such as After-School All-Stars, a nonprofit which provides afterschool programs for low-income youth in Ohio and across the nation. He also donated $2.5 million of the proceeds from "The Decision" to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. His foundation helped fund the "Muhammad Ali: A Force For Change" exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum, and he's made significant contributions to the Children's Defense Fund, OneXOne, another organization in support of children, and to rebuilding homes in New Orleans.

The young athletes who aspire to emulate James seem to care just as much about what he does off the court as what he does on it.

But not everyone feels the same.


Everyone's a Critic

James is a role model, but he's also no stranger to criticism.

He experienced significant backlash following "The Decision," which he ultimately came to regret. 

"If I had to go back on it, I probably would do it a little bit different," James told Michael Wallace of ESPN back in 2010. 

James' critics have also attacked his intelligence and told him to "shut up and dribble."

Late last year, Kevin Durant said he understood why players wouldn't want to team up with the 15-time All-Star, four-time MVP and three-time NBA champion.

"I get why anyone wouldn't want to be in that environment because it's toxic," Durant said in an interview with B/R's Ric Bucher

"The reason is LeBron is getting all the credit and none of the blame," former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated. "And that's not fun for people. "They don't like being part of that world."

On top of all else, LeBron's parenting also gets scrutinized.

Last month, Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock reprimanded James for dunking in the layup line before James Jr.'s AAU game.

"I'd like to address the antics of the latest helicopter dad to land on sports earth. ... LeBron is making a spectacle of himselfa circus of his son's early playing daysand using his son's games as yet another platform to build the LeBron social media brand. It's inappropriate. It points to how much fame has inevitably changed LeBron over the past decade. Fame is a drug more potent and dangerous than cocaine. ... LeBron needs to follow the advice he gave his mom a decade ago: sit yo' ass down."


Parents Just Don't Understand...Or Do They?

While Whitlock took issue with James' behavior, fellow AAU players and their parents didn't bat an eye.

"Of course, LeBron," Collier's father, Dwayne, said when asked which player he hopes his son might emulate.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 28: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and his son LeBron James Jr., on the court after the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers basketball game at Staples Center on December 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. N
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

"I would say I would hope he would take after LeBron," Smith-Collier said. 

As far as "making a spectacle of himself," those deeply embedded in hoops culture may disagree.

"I would say that parents love their kids," New Orleans Pelicans vice president of basketball operations Swin Cash told B/R. "I am a parent that loves my kid and try to bring him around the game. I'm pretty sure at some point, if you see his shoes right now, I'll probably be on the AAU circuit at some point. I think that parents are just going to do the best that they can out here.

"Parents that are there say a lot more to me than the parents that aren't there. Any parent that's there [and] that's involved, and they give back to the community—I always say they're doing the right thing."

But front-office types and teenage athletes aren't the only ones to defend James' parenting. 

"I really think that as a parent, your No. 1 goal is to see your kids happy and doing what they love to do and you're proud," Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley told B/R. "As you get kids, you understand what's most important in life, and that's family. LeBron is just the ultimate dad. He's a fan of the game, he loves the game and he loves being around his kid."

Thankless Job, Ultimate Payoff

James' global fame means he can't escape scrutiny. But he continues to set a positive example for his children and many young, aspiring NBA and WNBA athletes.

"You get too down on yourself for no reason. You made three of the biggest plays in the game," James told his son Bryce following a poor-shooting game. "You got the offensive rebound, right, down four? You got the offensive rebound, got the tip-in, right? And then you had the outlet pass to Owen when he got the and-1? And then you made the last swing to him for the game-winner."  

When two of Bronny's teammates executed an alley-oop fit for the Harlem Globetrotters, James couldn't contain his excitement.

The Render @TheRenderNBA

LeBron James loses his shoe https://t.co/krwA5OZiZm

One of Bronny's teammates, 14-year-old Gabe Cupps, challenged James to a shooting contest earlier this year. Engaging in the challenge helped Cupps accumulate more than 300,000 followers on Instagram. 

James has long been one of the NBA's best players, but that's only part of his legacy. Young players also look up to him for the leader he's become off the court—often in a way today's adults don't. 

"I'm trying to be a leader," Collier said.

That's a refreshing thing to hear from basketball's future.

To any grown-ups wondering, that's the LeBron James effect.