LeBron James, Cleveland and the Green Lantern Theory

Jonathan TjarksSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 7, 2010

Are you not entertained?
Are you not entertained?

Matt Yglesias, a liberal pundit, coined the phrase "The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics" to describe a common fallacy in people's interpretation of world events: 

"They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower."

If we can accomplish something by merely wanting it badly enough, then logically, if we didn't accomplish our goal then we must not have wanted it bad enough.  

** The premise of the Green Lantern comic is that a "power ring" exists such that its only limitations are the ring bearer's will and imagination.  If that person can overcome his own fear, then he can achieve whatever he desires. **

LeBron not defeating the Celtics in last year's playoffs? He must have quit on his team. The Cavs not besting the hated villains from Miami? A bunch of quitters

It's certainly one way to view the world, and as Yglesias explains, it has the virtue of being unfalsifiable. 

But as a former player, I never bought into the idea that how well I played a game made me any better or worse of a person.  Maybe the Celtics just had too much size up front and too much skill in the back-court to lose to a one-man team.  And nine times out of ten, a team whose offense runs through Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison isn't defeating one whose offense runs through LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.  

The media, trying to attract casual fans to boost TV ratings and page views, tends to cover sports like a soap opera.

It's this fundamental misinterpretation of what sports actually are that fuels a lot of the hate towards LeBron.  At 6'9" 260 lbs. + with the skills of a point guard and the athleticism of a dunk-contest champion, he's clearly the most talented basketball player in the world.  So where are the Cavs' titles?

Under Yglesias' Green Lantern model, the explanation is obvious: he didn't want to win badly enough. That's where a lot of the underlying sense of betrayal comes from:

What's ironic is that LeBron wants a championship badly.  So badly he was willing to ruin his sterling public reputation to try and win one.

Bill Simmons, ESPN's "Sports Guy" and self-proclaimed voice of the fan, inadvertently captured the emotionally-tinted prism through which many people view sports:

"I thought the fans would push them to another level, that it would play out like a sports movie: the overachieving underdog taking down the big bully. When TNT's Kenny Smith said he had never felt such electricity in an arena before a regular-season game, I was convinced even more. The fans were ready for a war."

There are two ways to watch a basketball game: as a tribalistic series of competing emotional narratives between "us" (with a team of highly-paid professionals from around the world representing a city's dreams, hopes and fears) and "them," between "the good guys" and "the bad guys".  

Or maybe it's just a game, a three-dimensional "chess match" of five "pieces" assembled by a GM and utilized by a coach in order to throw a ball into a basket more times than an opponent.  In that case, being angry at LeBron is as pointless as getting upset at your bishop—Damn you! How come you can't move like a knight does? The bishop from my last chess set would never have played like that!

Sports can be an intellectual exercise or an emotional investment.

For me, the turning point was the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game, which coincided with my graduation from the University of Texas.  The Longhorns, utterly unable to block Nebraska's front four, needed every last second to squeak by the Cornhuskers.  I had family from all over the world, people I hadn't seen in years, people ready to celebrate one of the biggest days in my life, and all I could think about was this game involving a collection of strangers.

I wasn't overjoyed when Hunter Lawrence's kick sailed through the uprights; I was relieved.  I cared too much.  When you invest yourself emotionally in something beyond your control, you are letting someone else's actions dictate your own personal happiness.  And you're certainly not capable of viewing their actions rationally.

That's what struck me about the reaction to LeBron in Cleveland: how utterly irrational it was.

The fans at the Q booed him every-time he touched the ball.  There isn't an athlete in the world who would compel me to boo him for more than one or two minutes.  Have you booed anyone lately?  It's like honking your horn—irritating as hell, even for the person doing it.  And there isn't a person in the world I hate as much as the fans seemed to hate LeBron.

To them, he was a "liar," a "jerk," a "traitor," a "back-stabber" and a "quitter".  

But the people who actually knew him personally, who met his high school sweetheart and their two young sons, who played with him for seven years, who shared locker rooms, plane rides and road trips ... they didn't seem to have any real problem with him.  Aren't they the ones in the best position to judge him as a human being?

The Cavs players have played basketball their entire lives.  They knew they weren't good enough to win a championship; "The Decision" was business, not personal.  Most of them were just happy to see their friend again, a long-time colleague who left for a better opportunity.  

Why should they be mad at him? LeBron made them all rich!  If Daniel Gibson, who never had a PER higher than 11.7 in his first four seasons in the NBA, had been drafted by any of the other 29 teams, he's fighting for a spot in the league right now.  In Cleveland, playing off of LeBron, he got a five-year $21 million contract.  Andy Varejao—who has never met a lay-up he couldn't botch—got a four-year $32 million deal.

** Is there a less interesting ticket in the NBA than the Cavs right now? Most bad teams have developing young lottery picks you can watch. The Cavs' best young player is ... JJ Hickson. Gather up the kids, Mo Williams is in town! **

Them going after LeBron? Jay-Z, LeBron's favorite rapper, faced a similar situation when Beanie Sigel, one of his old Roc-A-Fella artists whom he "left behind" after his falling out with former partner Damon Dash, started throwing shots at him.  

And if LeBron was who the Cleveland fans thought he was, he would have echoed Jay at his press conference: "I am so offended / How am I even mentioned / By all these f****** beginners / All I see is fake f**** I made millionaires / Running around, spewing they feelings in the air / All these little b******, burning they little bridges / Man, the shit is ... f****** ridiculous."

Seemingly everyone, from the fans to the media, was not happy about the Cavs professionalism:

"He started yapping at his old buddy Boobie Gibson (sitting on Cleveland's bench), as everyone who grew up in the Rick Mahorn/Charles Oakley era waited for one of the Cavaliers to stand up and punch him in the face, or at least tell him to have sex with himself. Nope. Nothing."

I'm going to assume that Bill Simmons didn't actually want to see a reprise of the 2004 Brawl at the Palace.  So what exactly did people want the Cavs to do?  Be mean to LeBron?  Would a wedgie have sufficed?  How about attempting to injure him?  Or maybe they were supposed to punch him in the face.  From a well-written piece by ESPN's Henry Abbott:

"I don't know what I was hoping for last night—absolutely not violence—but I know I wanted whatever it was to serve Cleveland on the level where it was really hurting. Speeches, opera, poetry, songs, rallies ... something powerful, dangerous, unimaginable and vulnerable that would make us all cry like that family stirring the krupnikas. This wasn't supposed to be just a basketball game—this was the taunting return of a city's false savior."

This may sound obvious, but LeBron was never a savior.  He is just a really tall guy who can jump really high in the air and do a lot of cool things with a basketball.    

As fans, watching him play a game, we can judge him as a basketball player.  But without ever actually interacting him on a personal level, how can we actually judge him as a human being?  

Is LeBron everything the jilted fans of Cleveland believe he is?  I don't know and I don't care.

What I do know is this—let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.  People should remember that before they insult another man's family.

LeBron's father is an ex-con named Anthony McClelland who had a casual fling with his mother at 16, expressed no interest in raising his son and bounced in and out of jail for most of LeBron's childhood.

My father was not particularly involved in my life as a I grew up, for reasons mostly out of his control, and no one has ever tried to make fun of me because of it.  If there's a line between decent and indecent behavior, then that sign is ... significantly over it.  Simmons was right, someone at the Q did need a punch in the face, but it wasn't LeBron.

As fans, maybe we should stop worrying about the moral character of our favorite players, and start looking at our own.

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