King James, the Big Decision, and What to Do About Character

LeBron JamesThe over-hyped LeBron James circus is finally over. We can all take a deep breath now, a sigh of relief, and get on with our lives. We know, we know, where the 25-year-old King James (he also has a tattoo on his back proclaiming himself the “Chosen 1”) is going to play basketball next year. “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” he said. Drumrolls go silent. The news is out. LeBron is going to play with two other great players, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, in Miami. Whew, I’m glad I know.

I happen to be an NBA fan, mostly a Phoenix Suns fan, as all of my friends know. But all I’ve got to say, after all of the buildup, after all of the over-dramatized suspense, Miami better win. Fact is, they may not. Pat Riley may have the magic once again, but I have my doubts. We’ll see.

But mostly, I’m sorry, I’ve got to ask: Was any of this extraordinary self-aggrandizement dignified? As Maureen Dowd said in The New York Times, James “seems to have no idea of the public relations damage he has inflicted on himself.” People don’t go for blatant egotism. People responded positively to the impressive James’ story before: young kid out of high school making it through grit and talent; young kid who grew up in a tough neighborhood with no father at home.

We can cheer for people with great talent, and we can cheer for fighting and winning against the odds — but we don’t like such extravagant egotism wherever we find it.

Let me ask it again: Was any of this dignified? Was there any redeeming value to all of this hype? I am fully aware we’ve all got our ego issues. My Christian theology tells me we are all inflicted with downright self-centeredness. But really, when we hear LeBron say “I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James, what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy” — and that’s it, the bottom line — don’t we at least slightly cringe? This isn’t a model we want for our kids, is it?

Can there possibly be some balance between looking out for ourselves and loyalty to others? Is it possible to put the team first, just a little? Is there something of real value in commitment to an organization that has treated you well? At least to show them a little courtesy? Is it possible to talk about meaningful relationships and the hurt feelings caused by your actions and decisions? Does humility matter?

I’ve just finished reading N.T. Wright’s absolutely great book on Christian virtue and Christian character formation. It is called After We Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. I have been totally stunned into some deep reflection on the actual discipline of character formation. Paul taught that we can actually “put off” the bad stuff, and we can actually “put on” the good. But it takes some work. It takes transforming our minds and developing habits of the heart.

Paul says, for example, that “the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control.” This is what good character looks like. Wright’s contention throughout this book is that we can actually learn these things, and as we do, we become more fully human, and the world becomes a better place.

I’m thinking hard about all of this.

I wish James and Dwayne and Chris and Pat all the best in Miami next year. And I am sure I’ll be on the front row of my sofa for the first televised game of the Miami Heat, maybe against the Phoenix Suns. We may forget all of this hype. But still, this little episode was sour. It hurt the NBA. It hurt LeBron James. It made our world momentarily more ugly.

Indeed, we can now move on. But let’s do what we can to build a world where character really does matter. You know, that’s what we are trying to do at Seattle Pacific. We are trying to focus on this kind of character formation. And if we do this well, the world can become a better place.