Friday 21 October 2022

Whitlock: LeBron James’ desire to be ‘more than an athlete’ diminishes his pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring title

 LeBron James’ quest to be more than an athlete has diminished his athletic accomplishments and focused attention on his intellectual shortcomings.

James’ misguided quest to be seen as a social justice activist, talk show host, movie producer, and NBA power broker has demeaned the sport that made him famous.

That’s why ESPN and TNT, the NBA’s television partners, will be forced to manufacture anticipation, excitement, and drama around James’ pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record. That pursuit kicked off again Tuesday night when the regular season opened and James’ Lakers visited the Warriors. Barring injury, James is projected to surpass Abdul-Jabbar in late January. 

The timing is poor. James will be hunting Jabbar at the climax of the NFL playoffs. But the timing is irrelevant. A true telling of James’ legacy will encompass his degradation of basketball and sports.

“More than an athlete” translates to “I’m not a dumb jock.” It’s a slogan steeped in identity insecurity. It insinuates James is ashamed of his profession. It strips sports of its exalted place in American culture. It undermines the importance of sports. It disparages jocks. 

It’s not an argument athletes should make. It’s an argument best left to pundits, educators, clergy, parents, politicians, comedians, and other culture critics. 

Muhammad Ali did not demand that we see him as more than an athlete. He insisted we recognize his greatness inside the ring. At the age of 22, when he stopped Sonny Liston in the seventh round, Ali barked: “I’m the greatest boxer of all time. I shook up the world. I’m a bad man.”

Ali’s organic and authentic actions outside the ring made him more than an athlete. His quest was always to be the greatest boxer.

LeBron James can’t match Ali’s authenticity. That’s why he will never be as revered as Ali or Michael Jordan or even Tiger Woods. The main thing – competition within their sport – was always the main thing with the all-time greats.

LeBron has driven athletes away from an intense focus on winning and dominance. Many athletes now divert much of their attention to setting up their post-sports careers. They want to be moguls. Competition is their side hustle. Cultivating and managing a brand take precedence over athletic feats.

LeBron wants to be judged as more than an athlete. He’s pointing us to his flaws. As a movie and television producer, LeBron is well below mediocre. As a host of “The Shop,” he’s every bit as inept as Magic Johnson was hosting a talk show. As a social justice activist, he’s an uninformed race-baiter who gets his talking points straight from Twitter. As a political activist, he’s controlled by the Clintons and Obamas and compromised by Nike’s ties to China.

I’m a writer and a columnist. It’s the best thing I do, so I insist on doing it. I’m perfectly fine with people judging me based on my work as a journalist. I won’t be wearing T-shirts that say “more than a writer.” I’m not ashamed of my chosen profession. No matter how much money I’m offered, I’m not going to launch a second career as an underwear model or porn star.

Watching LeBron pretend to be a public intellectual is the equivalent of seeing me on the cover of Playgirl magazine. You would never read my columns the same way.

That’s what LeBron has done to basketball. When I watch him play, I can’t shake from my mind all the other aspects of his life he’s forced me to consume.

When I watched Jordan, Magic, Larry Bird, Kareem, and Isiah Thomas, all I thought about was how incredible they were as athletes.

I don’t enjoy sports the way I used to because I know way too much about the men who play the games. I know how phony, easily manipulated, and misguided they are. They’ve removed all the mystery by sharing all of their thoughts on social media.

I’m a consumer. When I walk into my favorite restaurant, I don’t want the chef to be more than a chef. When I visit a church, I don’t want the minister to be more than a minister.

As you read this column, do you want me to be more than a columnist?

LeBron James’ pursuit of Kareem should be a big deal, a really big deal. It won’t garner near the attention and celebration it should, because LeBron has damaged the popularity of basketball. He’s made us evaluate athletes in a way that exposes their shortcomings.

He undermined the magic of sport. He disconnected the game from its most passionate fans, the common man. ESPN, TNT, and Nike will do their best to restore that magic. Barack Obama, Jay-Z, Kamala Harris, and Spike Lee will sit courtside. So will Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, and the other Hollywood elites.

It will feel like the Academy Awards, a night celebrity elites set aside to wag their fingers at the commoners. Short of Will Smith and Chris Rock agreeing to a halftime boxing match, I’ll skip the game and catch the highlights.

I’m more than a sports fan.

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