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Sam Sommers

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The LeBron Narrative and the Psychology of Sports Fans

Posted: 06/25/2012 11:30 am

Right now I'm sitting in my living room, watching LeBron James put the finishing touches on his first NBA title. It's funny, I went into this series with the clear intent to root for Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant. And I wouldn't go so far as to suggest I'm now pulling for the Heat, but I have to say that LeBron's performance in this series (and the entire postseason for that matter) has been pretty captivating.

Why would I have decided to root for the Thunder? For one, they're an exciting, young team that has never gotten this far before. And then there are all the usual anti-LeBron talking points: his self-indulgent made-for-TV "Decision" special, his apparent indifference to leaving his hometown team behind, the arrogantly premature public counting of chickens in his introductory press conference with Heat fans (see below), and so on.

Indeed, anti-LeBron sentiment has become a cottage industry for the past two years. In addition to his purported rap sheet detailed above, there's the argument that true superstars don't leave for greener pastures; rather, they turn their own teams into champions. And also that he lacks the athletic killer instinct, too often passing the ball in crunch time to a less-skilled teammate rather than taking the shot himself. As the epitome of all that LeBron is supposedly lacking in this department, take a look at his following response to a question about how a lack of a championship would affect his legacy:

I would be disappointed that I never won, but my career would never, ever be disappointing because of the success I've gone through, with the friends I've met, the experiences I've been through. The game would still be as fun and as remembered for me even if I never win a world championship. I would much rather win. But if I don't, I'm not going to look back at my career and say it was tarnished because I never won a world championship.

Can you imagine someone like, say, Michael Jordan ever uttering those words? Of course not.

But here's the thing: that quote actually is Jordan's, not LeBron's. Jordan uttered these words in 1991, before he had won the first of his 6 titles.* That's hard to believe, chiefly because it doesn't fit with the image we now have of Jordan -- the narrative we buy into regarding who Jordan is.

So as the final minutes of tonight's fourth quarter tick away, it's interesting from a psychological perspective to ponder our current narrative regarding LeBron. For all the reasons listed above, he's been cast as a villain. And not without some merit -- the TV special and his introductory remarks were remarkably tone-deaf.

However, take a more careful look at the past few seasons of LeBron. On paper, at least, he has actually done a lot of the things we claim we want our sports heroes to do. He left salary on the table when he departed Cleveland for Miami, placing a greater emphasis on winning over money. In pursuit of a championship, he was willing to join a team that already had an alpha dog superstar in Dwyane Wade. And that whole criticism about passing up shots at the end of games -- don't we want our stars to check their ego for the good of the team?

But as sports fans, as in so many other walks of like, we gravitate toward the simple narrative in thinking about other people. Most sports fans wanted LeBron to stay in Ohio and try to bring his hometown team a championship. He made a different choice, and when he did so in notoriously poor and artless form, his die as villain was cast. It'll be interesting to see whether and how our LeBron narrative changes now that he's not only won a title, but has also risen to the occasion time and time again this summer.

What's the broader lesson of the saga of LeBron? Perhaps it's that in a universe in which Michael Jordan can come off as someone complacently satisfied with second place, we should force ourselves to recognize that individuals are far more fluid and complex than our straightforward narratives give them credit for. That quite often, we allow our narratives and preconceived notions to guide how we see each other, rather than objectively evaluating what goes on around us. Whether in our lives as sports fans, voters, parents, or professionals, it never hurts to step back for a moment to ponder whether we've given each other a fair shot or have made up our minds too quickly.

(* A grateful tip of the cyber cap to old friend Ricky Bush, for drawing my attention to the Jordan quotation in this context of thinking about LeBron)

Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's new book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Catch Sam's recent TEDx talk on the power of context below:

 
 
 

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