“The king is dead. Long live the king.” The proclamation first made long ago in France upon the death of Charles VI and immediate ascension of Charles VII does not actually describe a very nice state of things: it is about succession, inheritance, and institutional permanence, all key ingredients in the ongoing exploitation of the many by the few. But perhaps, in its way, it also names something else: the capacity of the individual to exceed the spatial and temporal boundaries of his biological being to, in certain moments and for certain durations, become the embodiment of the collective, the means and method by which it realizes its destiny. The king is dead but, in fact, he lives, and with him France.
LeBron James was not the first to be declared what no basketball player will ever be: The Next Michael Jordan. I have vague memories, for instance, of a young man named Dajuan Wagner, who played a single disappointing season at Memphis University before embarking on an ill-fated NBA career, being thus designated on the cover of an issue of Sports Illustrated that arrived in the mailbox at my parents’ house when I was still a child, and Jordan still in the bloom of his greatness. Looking back over the same years, I do not remember any athlete, regardless of sport or age, ever having been anointed King. Philadelphia’s Julius Erving was a doctor; Bob Probert, the beloved enforcer for the Detroit Red Wings, was Mr. Probert; the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera was the Hammer of God. But never a king among them—and then there was. Far more clearly than I can recall seeing Wagner on the cover of that Sports Illustrated, I recall seeing, for the first time, what I believe was LeBron’s first billboard advertisement for Nike, illuminated above the intersection of La Tijera and Airport Boulevard in Los Angeles. LeBron had been a great high school basketball player in Akron and had skipped college to go to the NBA. But he had not yet played a single game, and yet there he was, reclined on a gold and red velvet throne, draped with a white fur cape, like the pelt of the endangered spotted snow leopard, resplendently bejeweled and sporting a glitzy sash of a vaguely bellicose nature. A trio of lions surrounded the throne in positions of repose. Of course Jordan, too, was depicted in his advertisements for Nike as a transcendent figure of sorts. But his transcendence was configured primarily in relation to the laws of physics: he could fly. Here, meanwhile, not flying but hovering above, was transcendence of another sort. Before we had a black president, Cleveland—and in fact, by extension, the rest of us—had a black king.
On the one hand, of course, the “King James” campaign was merely an all-too-predictable attempt by a billion-dollar shoe corporation to locate the unproven basketball player on whose market appeal it had just gambled 90 million dollars on the family tree of its most profitable spokesperson, “His Airness” Michael Jordan. Nothing new there. At the same time, the campaign’s particular resonance, registered in the clarity with which I even now remember the moment I set eyes on that billboard for the first time—the bend of passing traffic, the maze of headlights and street lamps beneath—seems to point to something in the fantasy we had collectively formed about this young man, long before he scored his first NBA basket or collected his first NBA paycheck, that had nothing at all to do with revenue yields, profit margins, or perhaps even basketball. Cleveland was a long-suffering city, both in the fantasy world of sports, where real-live long-suffering cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, even nearby Cincinnati, can find redemption, and in the real world of job loss, crime, and depopulation. For years one of the strange redeeming qualities of our national obsession with sports was that it allowed a few select young men to lift their families and friends out of poverty even as, by holding out this hope to countless other young men who never made it, the fantasy ruined far more lives than it could save. But the idea that one man could lift an entire city (it was estimated that LeBron brought $40 million to the city of Cleveland each year he played there)—well, that was really something.
Since LeBron announced that he would be “taking [his] talents to South Beach,” there has been a good deal of speculation as to why the decision provoked so much ire well beyond the city he spurned. Even former NBA players—who know better than the rest of us that basketball is a business, that a change of team is really just a change of costume, that the so-called owners are usually the first to turn their backs on a player when he is no longer financially expedient for them, and that therefore a player always, as the saying goes, has to do what is best for him and his family—have criticized and called into question the choice. Even Jay-Z, perhaps LeBron’s most famous friend (though it may have been the other way around), is unhappy.
Attempts to explain this backlash have generally fallen into one of two categories. Many have argued that it was not the decision itself that provoked such rampant resentment, but rather “The Decision”—the woefully misguided TV special with which LeBron and his “team” (that is, neither the Cavs nor the Heat, but his financial advisors) colonized ESPN on July 8. “The Decision” was, these people say, an exercise in narcissism of the worst sort, as well as a slap in the face to the Ohio fans who had adored and supported LeBron unconditionally during seven seasons. Others have argued that what’s so palpably unsavory about LeBron’s move to the Heat is the lack of competitive drive it evidences: a willingness to not be the man—to not be the man—and a no less uninspiring willingness to team up with, rather than strive against, the NBA’s other best player, Dwyane Wade. ESPN supercolumnist Bill Simmons accused LeBron of violating “the unwritten rule to keep teams relatively equal to maximize the competitiveness of the games … If two guys have any pride at all—especially if they play similar positions—then getting the better of each other trumps every other scenario.” I felt the same displeasure as everyone else, some inchoate combination of these two strains of disappointment, and I said as much to my father the morning after The Decision. And my father said: This guy is 25 years old, and he has a chance to be incredibly successful living and working in a beautiful and exciting place with two of his closest friends as colleagues. Think about how much fun they’ll have. Think about how many games they’ll win together. Sun and sea and cars and women. Don’t tell me, he said, that given the same opportunity, at the same age, you wouldn’t have jumped at it.
I could not tell him that, of course. Who wouldn’t jump at it? Many of the native Ohioans who feel so bitterly about LeBron’s departure have departed Ohio themselves: their jobs and lives have taken them to New York or LA or Chicago or Miami, or wherever. But by showing himself beholden to the same complex of self-serving desires by which the rest of us are driven in our meagerly individual existences, rather than following the path opened before him by the shared destiny of a people—his people, the forsaken sports fans of northeastern Ohio—what LeBron also revealed was not just that the king was dead but, far worse, that there had never been any king to begin with.