Teens go through a difficult, sometimes torturous dance deciding who they are, what they stand for and who they're destined to be. Sometimes this results in a solid direction; sometimes it results in confusion; and, sometimes in tragedy. Having gone through a couple of years in which a few families I know buried their twenty-something children, I can attest that these years can be trying. Teens need compelling role models.
Young LeBron James was different. He knew what his talents were. He knew that, if he played his cards right and surrounded himself with the right people, he would be destined for greatness. From the moment his mother Gloria anointed him, while he was still in high school, with a Hummer, he was "King James." He knew who he was -- but did he?
Being a teenager, especially one who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and, then, the number one draft pick, there was ego, entourage and a sense of entitlement. With everyone oo-ing and ah-ing, with the money, the endorsements and the privilege (both on and off the court), if I were LeBron I would likely have been the same. Ego is easy; humility is hard when you're a "king."
How do I know this about LeBron? Aside from news articles, I have a personal experience. You see, during the waning days of his senior year at the St. Vincent-St. Mary prep school in Akron, Ohio, LeBron was Project Love's Searching for Teen Leaders honorary student chairman. The designation came, with LeBron's agreement, through his then-PR firm, and we were more than glad to be the beneficiary.
Searching for Teen Leaders is an annual, grass-roots nomination of teens who demonstrate leadership by empowering their peers to do acts of kindness, caring and respect. It culminates in the "top ten" teens in Northern Ohio who lift up their peers, schools and communities through their leadership and role-modeling. LeBron, in his ascension to the basketball throne of our community, was their role model, as well.
But at the "Good News Day" awards event, where the top teens and runners-up were to get their pictures taken with LeBron, and autographs given, he was a no-show. And, in his PR person's efforts to make amends, promising the top teens that they could attend a basketball game and have a special meet-and-greet with LeBron, well, that never happened either. The teens and their parents graciously swallowed their pride, accepted the excuse that was given, and moved on to college, careers and, I hope, good lives. LeBron moved on as well, probably not even recalling that, while he was a great athlete, he wasn't exactly a great teen ambassador.
We've come to accept this scenario as the excuse and noblesse oblige for athlete millionaires and billionaires in our country, with few exceptions the likes of Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning, Steve Gleason and, in Cleveland, our own lovable Z -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Fewer athletes ascend to the community leadership of Kirby Puckett, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron.
But, past is past. Who am I to hold a grudge? LeBron has demonstrated that he has moved beyond his teenage years, through his years of self-absorption, to be a great adult leader and role model. His transformation from the self-indulgence that many teens go through -- whether in the form of excessive drinking in college or self-entitlement at entry-level jobs -- to a sense of purpose, values and leadership is classy and commendable.
Words in his Sports Illustrated coming home letter, demonstrate his adult evolution:
... What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?... I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now... Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well...
He acknowledged that in the past four years, he has "... become a better player and a better man."
This letter oozed with the themes of family, origins, community, forgiveness, relationship, loyalty, gratitude and responsibility. His overriding message was one of servant leadership. Since the day he was supposed to show up to set the example for his teenage peers to now, it may have taken him 12 years, but #LBJ is Northeast Ohio's newest servant leader. He is a great example to teens and adults, alike.
Symbolic of his return to a new kind of throne and graciousness, this past week, LeBron sent cupcakes to his entire neighborhood. Add kindness to the list of values he brings back from his journey down south.
Having trained, through Project Love, 70,000 teen leaders in the past 20 years, I can tell you that, in theory, the newer, wiser, more humble LeBron is what many teens aspire to become. Parents certainly want this for their kids. Most -- whether for social, economic or competitive reasons -- will remain where the old LeBron was, stuck on themselves. But, for any region to grow, and for our country to grapple with issues like poverty, literacy, economic growth, civility and the American Dream, we need more teenagers -- ah, adults, like LeBron. And for teens to turn out like LeBron, we need the LeBrons who are out there (I can think of one number one draft pick future football star as a primary example) to also demonstrate leadership, humility, responsibility and values.
LeBron, most fans in Northeast Ohio forgive you and welcome you back. Project Love forgives you and welcomes you back, especially as a leader.
By the way, Searching for Teen Leaders, presented by Walmart stores and Shurtech Brands across Northern Ohio, is in full swing all over again. The teen nominees will be recognized for the wonderful things they do. But these are the top-tier leaders in their schools. Teens overall need your example, so do your peers, and the rest of us can use a values refresher from time to time, as well.
I, too, crave a championship for Northeast Ohio. But that's not enough -- your mission and purpose are so much greater. You're now a "witness" to putting your values-in-action in our community and country. Here's to your new-found role!
To nominate a teen leader, go to www.nominateyourteen.com.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/ Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us