Spotlighting Student Work #7: Basketball’s Chosen James

And now for something completely different–we have an essay about a sporting saviour by student Jamahlia Smith. This essay discusses basketball icon LeBron James and his role as a chosen one within the sport. We will let Jamahlia say a bit about herself.

I am Maori (Ngai Tahu), Pakeha, and Tongan. I’m in third year and double major in social anthropology and (mainly NZ) history. I plan to do a post graduate diploma in early childhood education and look forward to developing and participating in inclusive environments for young children. I took this paper as although I have explored religion across cultures, there was a gap in my knowledge of biblical texts. It has been eye-opening, and the course has created a passionate and inclusive learning environment.

Now for LeBron!
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King James – The Chosen One

Jamahlia Smith

The American Monomyth can certainly be seen in film and television, such as the current abundance of superhero movies (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002). However, messiah figures are not restricted to a world of fantasy – they also walk among us. Sport exemplifies secular devotion in the modern day. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the biggest sites for fanatical devotion in the sports world. LeBron James plays in the NBA, and is one of the most well-known and followed figures in basketball today. In this essay I will demonstrate how James fulfils many of the characteristics of a modern messiah, drawing comparisons to Jesus – a biblical messiah. I will argue that James is a modern messiah in the sporting world by outlining his professional career. Furthermore, I will argue James is just as much a messiah off the court due to his participation in social justice, politics, activism, and charity.

Like many messianic figures, LeBron James’ origins were unusual in nature, and he was set apart from others at an early age. James’ mother was just sixteen at the time of his birth (Wahl, 2002). His early life was rough, as he moved frequently in the low socio-economic areas of Akron, Ohio (Wahl, 2002). James never knew his biological father, however in fourth grade he moved in with his basketball coach (Marsh, 2010; Wahl, 2002). James then flourished as a young man, both academically, and in sports. Similarities can be seen in James and Jesus’ early lives. In Matthew 1:18-24, Jesus is embraced by Joseph, a man who is not his biological father. As James grew older his divine, outsider status became apparent. Before starting his NBA career in 2003, the hype surrounding James was rising at a rapid rate (Marsh, 2010). At just seventeen years old, messianic language was used to describe James, as can be seen in the 2002 Sports Illustrated cover that positions James as “The Chosen One”:

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The young James. Full of energy.

Moreover, many in the sports industry assigned greatness to James. For context, Kobe Bryant was one of the biggest names in basketball in the late nineties through to the 2000s, and is hailed as one of the greatest players of all time. Adidas representative Sonny Vaccaro asserted “At this age LeBron is better than anybody I’ve seen in thirty-seven years in this business, including Kobe” (Wahl, 2002). Coach Jim Fenerty shared Vaccaro’s sentiments: “We played Kobe when Kobe was a senior, and LeBron is the best player we’ve ever played against. LeBron is physically stronger than Kobe was as a senior, and we’ve never had anybody shoot better against us” (Wahl, 2002). Positioning James as superior to Bryant before James had entered the NBA was huge, and nicely exemplifies the sensational nature surrounding James’ early career. Perhaps most importantly, James embraced his outsider status from a young age, this is demonstrated particularly well in his first tattoo that came shortly after his Sports Illustrated cover in 2002:

LEBRONZWEI.PNG
And a really nice back, too.

In John 4:25-26, Jesus accepts his messiah status exclaiming “I am he”. James is most certainly not an apprehensive messiah figure, and I believe his first tattoo can be seen as a contemporary expression of “I am he”. James’ messiah status has evolved over time and in monolithic proportions as he entered the NBA and was given an international platform to flaunt his powers.

Notions of LeBron James’ extraordinary powers and divine competence come from his inherent talents, but have also been constructed through specific Nike marketing campaigns. Again, we can see James embracing a messianic identity, claiming extraordinary talents and the ability to remain ‘cool’ as can be seen in his Sports Illustrated article:

A lot of players know how to play the game, but they really don’t know how to play the game, if you know what I mean. They can put the ball in the hoop, but I see things before they even happen (Wahl, 2002).

This highlights James’ self-proclamation of physical prowess, but more importantly here is the claim of magical mental abilities (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Nike played on these attitudes surrounding James, developing commercials that utilized religious iconography, and positioned James as a quasi-divine figure that should be worshiped. This is seen in two commercials: “Book of Dimes” and “Pressure”.

“Book of Dimes” is set on a basketball court that has been transformed to also resemble a church service. There is a podium in which ‘preacher’ Bernie Mac stands, with a gospel choir behind him. He preaches to the audience, not from the bible but from the “King James Playbook”. Mac reads: “Basketball’s chosen one asked the soul of the game for court vision, and it was granted to him”. The audience becomes increasingly excited. It is at this point LeBron James enters the ‘church’ – the audience rejoices, with singing and celebration:

LEBRONDREI
Holy crap

This commercial has obvious religious connotations. Firstly, Nike declares James ‘King James’ – attaching a religious narrative to James, with the King James Bible having influence in America (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Further, the commercial assigns a clear messianic identity to James – James is positioned as an extraordinary individual, who deserves worship (Marsh, 2010).

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Rejoicing all around

This commercial has obvious religious connotations. Firstly, Nike declares James ‘King James’ – attaching a religious narrative to James, with the King James Bible having influence in America (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Further, the commercial assigns a clear messianic identity to James – James is positioned as an extraordinary individual, who deserves worship (Marsh, 2010).

“Pressure” is less overtly religious, however it does present a modern messiah narrative by demonstrating LeBron James’ divine competence. The commercial depicts James playing his first NBA game. James is given the ball as the commentators exclaim: “talk about pressure, is he going to be able to handle it?” The crowd is loud and rowdy, awaiting action from James. However, he then freezes, staying still for around ninety percent of the one-minute commercial. The crowd grows silent, commentators whisper “talk about not being able to handle the pressure”.  Suddenly, James laughs and proceeds over the three-point line to take his shot. This commercial shows James’ ability to stay ‘cool’ in the face of pressure, both physically and mentally, fulfilling the criteria of a divinely competent modern messiah (Billings & Mocarski, 2014).

It is also of note that LeBron James’ career was on the rise when NBA legend Michael Jordan was retiring from professional basketball. Jordan’s departure from the NBA left a gap that needed to be filled – a Second Coming of Michael Jordan (Marsh, 2010). The 2002 Sports Illustrated article together with the two Nike commercials clearly demonstrate the American Monomyth narrative – James was born of unusual circumstances, was given an extraordinary gift, and divine competence, in order to restore faith in the NBA after Jordan’s retirement (Laurence & Jewett, 2002; Marsh, 2010).

I will now turn my attention to LeBron James’ divine competence off the court, exploring his selfless zeal for justice through social activism. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement arose from a rise in police brutality and racial profiling in America, which saw many young African American males killed by police (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017). James supports the BLM movement, demonstrating his black and white moral world that is driven by justice. This can be seen through various acts in social media, and also in real life:

 

In the first image James and his teammates wear the same clothing Trayvon Martin wore when murdered by police, highlighting problematic racial profiling. In the second image, James wears a shirt depicting the last words of Eric Garner before his death at the hands of police (Strauss & Scott, 2014). The clear message bought forth is that James stands in solidarity with victims of police violence. James supports the African American community, providing a platform to bring light to these issues. This highlighting of injustice through peaceful protest was recognized, most notably by Barack Obama who commented:

We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness. We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves. LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention (Westfall, 2014).

James’ activism is exemplary of the American Monomyth narrative – America is in a state of social crisis (racism, violence, political indifference), James attempts to deliver his community from evil through peaceful protest (Laurence & Jewett, 2002). Further, James’ careful approach to protest is reminiscent of Matthew 5:43-48 which stresses the importance of peaceful relationships, even with one’s enemies. James’ participation in social activism very much aligns him as a modern messiah. Moreover, the deliberate choice to focus on attention rather than aggression demonstrates James’ divine competence in relation to social justice (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017).

Sport offers hope for national and regional communities. Sports stars and teams often have a loyal band of followers. LeBron James fandom takes these notions to the next level. It is typical for fans to strongly support certain teams, with the athletes in these teams taking a secondary role. However, James’ fandom supersedes team supports and loyalty. Fans of James will follow him wherever he goes, the team in which he is in has become irrelevant. Further, these disciples look upon James in awe and as quasi-divine. This can be seen in Nike’s “Witness” campaign. This campaign involved a commercial in which fans express their undying admiration for James whilst wearing “witness” shirts. Nike then took fans notions of James, and constructed his image in billboard form:

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What a guy

This billboard depicts James in a Christ-like manner, with his arms extended. Moreover, this billboard is huge, demonstrating James’ larger than life status (Marsh, 2010). James fandom is not restricted to basketball. James has built a loyal following as a community leader and role model due to his social activism previously mentioned, together with his many charitable acts, including opening schools for disadvantaged children (Savvas, 2018). In this way, James is situated as ‘bigger’ than his position as an athlete, rather he is an empathetic messiah, whom should be witnessed and worshipped in all his glory (Billings & Mocarski, 2014).

LeBron James exemplifies the American Monomyth just as much as the fictional superheroes we watch at the movies. James fully embraces his identity – he has been on a messianic path since his unconventional childhood, and is assured he is made for greatness. James blurs lines between religion and pop culture through his career as an athlete. However, James is never limited to his on-court life. He transcends sports through his social activism and passion for justice. His devoted followers witness and admire his extraordinary powers both on and off the court.

 

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV.

Bob Bob. (2008, May 14). Nike Basketbal: Witness – LeBron James Ad . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbpAIAew2DY

Burfiend, G. (2014). All the King’s men. [online image]. Retrieved from http://web.colby.edu/ar120/2014/04/25/all-the-kings-men/

Coombs, D. S., & Cassilo, D. (2017). Athletes and/or activists: LeBron James and Black lives matter. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41(5), 425-444. doi:10.1177/0193723517719665

Hughes, A. (2004). Book of Dimes. . Retrieved from http://www.believemedia.co.uk/work/allen-hughes-nike-book-of-dimes/

James, L. [kingjames]. (2012, March 24). #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice . Retrieved from https://twitter.com/kingjames/status/183243305428058112?lang=en

Jewett, R., & Lawrence, J. S. (2002). The myth of the American superhero. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

LeBrecht, M. (2002). LeBron James SI Covers. [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/nba/photos/2007/06/07lebron-james-si-covers#1

Marsh, B. E. (2010). The Emperor and the Little King: The Narrative Construction of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2345/1322

Mocarski, R., & Billings, A. C. (2014). Manufacturing a messiah: How Nike and LeBron James co-constructed the legend of King James. Communication & Sport, 2(1), 3-23. doi:10.1177/2167479513481456

Savvas, L. (2018). LeBron James opens school for underprivileged children. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/sport/basketball/45018003

Strauss, C. & Scott, N. (2014). LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Nets players wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts before Cavs game. USA Today. Retrieved from https://ftw.usatoday.com/

Tony Ricks. (2006, May 14). Nike – LeBron James Pressure . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rv3niQ-w3y0

Wahl, G. (2002). AHEAD OF HIS CLASS: Ohio High School Junior LeBron James is so Good that He’s Already being Mentioned as the Heir to Air Jordan. Sports Illustrated. (Feb 18. 2002). Retrieved from https://www.si.com/vault/2002/02/18/318739/ahead-of-his-class-ohio-high-school-junior-lebron-james-is-so-good-that-hes-already-being-mentioned-as-the-heir-to-air-jordan

Watson, T. (2014). 10 Of The NBA’s Most Tattooed Players. [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.vibe.com/2014/04/10-nbas-most-tattooed-players/vibe-nba-tattoo-lebron-james/

Westfall, S. (2014) President Obama: More Sports Stars Should Speak Out on Social Issues. People Magazine. Retrieved from https://people.com

February 2002 Sports Illustrated cover. Retrieved from LeBron James SI Covers by Michael LeBrecht, 2007, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 08, from https://www.si.com/nba/photos/2007/06/07lebron-james-si-covers#1

LeBron James’ ‘CHOSEN 1’ tattoo. Retrieved from 10 Of The NBA’s Most Tattooed Players by Terrence Watson, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 08, from https://www.vibe.com/2014/04/10-nbas-most-tattooed-players/vibe-nba-tattoo-lebron-james/

Stills from “Book of Dimes” Nike commercial. Retrieved from Believe Media by Allen Hughes, 2004, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from http://www.believemedia.co.uk/work/allen-hughes-nike-book-of-dimes/

Tweet about Trayvon Martin. Retrieved from Twitter by LeBron James, 2012, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from https://twitter.com/kingjames/status/183243305428058112?lang=en

“I can’t breathe” shirt. From LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Nets players wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts before Cavs game by Chris Strauss and Nate Scott, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct 09, from https://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/12/kyrie-irving-i-cant-breathe-t-shirt-before-cavaliers-eric-garner-lebron-james

“We are all witnesses” billboard. From All the King’s men by Grant Burfeind, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from http://web.colby.edu/ar120/2014/04/25/all-the-kings-men/

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