We gain so much from viewing athletes compete for supremacy, we attract to their stories. We are consumed by the endeavors that athletes face; good or bad. The court of public opinion will attach an athlete’s personal endeavors to their biography and those endeavors, those stories, are either supplemental or detrimental to an athlete’s power, influence, and legacy. Rather we realize it or not an athlete’s story is just as, if not more, important than an athlete’s on-the-field/on-the-court performance; specifically when evaluating an athlete’s power. Imagine Tom Brady’s (pre-spygate) narrative without the 199th overall pick attached to his name. The media and public withdrew more influence from Brady considering the adversity he faced, enhancing his story, hence increasing his power. Consider Serena Williams’ power if she had been from Paris, France versus Compton, California. Story heightens an athlete’s power; story heightens their persona.
Our fascination revolving around sports does not end at performance and story. Now, more than ever, we indulge in comparison amongst athletes. Sports shows like “First Take,” “His & Hers,” and “Sportsnation” have engaged in debate and discussion about where athletes rank in particular categories. The combination of news and social media have increased and highlighted the conversations that occur in everyday public settings regarding the legacy of athletes. We highlight what athletes have accomplished. We talk about one athlete or a group of players potentially being recognized as “the greatest of all-time,” and we compare athletes with one another and provide historical ranking. However, there is a phenomenon that we have not fully acknowledged. There is a debate we have not discussed. There is a question we have not asked.
Who is the most powerful athlete of all-time?
Think about it. Which athlete has met the criteria for being great in their respective sport? Which athlete has had their story dramatized and followed by the masses? Which athlete has the most “player-leverage” we have ever seen? Which athlete has showcased their self-promotion abilities, sometimes without us even knowing it? To have done all this, there is only one athlete. His name is LeBron James.
It is almost an invisible phenomenon. Maybe because his story is not complete and for all we know, he has yet to reach his prime. Regardless, LeBron James is the most powerful athlete of all-time for a multitude of reasons. One of LeBron’s main attractions is his uniqueness as an athlete/basketball player. Standing at 6’8” and weighing around 250 pounds, the NBA has never seen a player with his physical stature in conjunction with his skillset. Yes, Magic Johnson was 6’9” and an all-time great facilitator, but he was not as fast and athletically gifted as James. LeBron James is a locomotive with a basketball awareness rivaled by few.
LeBron’s power is at least partially credited to his on-the-court accomplishments. At age 30, LeBron James has six NBA Finals appearances, two NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVP awards, four NBA regular-season MVP awards, 11-NBA All-star selections, and a plethora of other milestones. It is safe to say that LeBron James is already one of the most decorated athletes ever. In this regard, LeBron is no different from other athletes; an athlete’s power originates from their in-game performance and accomplishment. However, the complete power of LeBron James is attributed by a range other sources.
Story: The public and the media have been attached to the story of LeBron James since his days in High School. In 11th grade, a youthful LeBron was on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine with the title, “The Chosen One.” With that very title tattooed on his back, has there ever been a player in sports history with that high of expectation leaving High School? Analyst and followers of basketball were claiming him a future Hall-of-Famer at age 17, but that is not it. There is a higher level of interest involved in his story because of LeBron’s unique upbringing. His mother, Gloria James, gave birth to LeBron at age 16. From there, LeBron would endure moving from apartment to apartment and never having a relationship with his father. Statistically speaking, the odds were stacked against LeBron James from the very beginning; validating his comments after winning an NBA championship; “I’m not even supposed to be here.”
Those first seven years in Cleveland were nothing short of empowering for LeBron James. He quickly became recognized as an all-time great NBA talent. He led a limited Cleveland Cavalier roster to the 2007 NBA Finals. We know of his on-the-court accomplishments during that first run in Cleveland but behind the scenes, James was empowering himself by building a brand in the business world. In his early 20’s, LeBron James befriended Warren Buffett to help launch his marketing firm, LRMR Marketing, with three of his longtime friends. From there LRMR and James would begin investment deals in real-estate, business start-ups and other companies. We began seeing LeBron James in every other commercial, remember the Kobe-LeBron puppet commercials? LeBron James was a household name before he could legally drink and we fell in love with his story and his “pass-first” mentality on and off the court. We started the Jordan-James comparisons, which allowed the media to echo his name even more. We fell in love with the LeBron James rhetoric, we viewed him as a hero. Even if you were not one to celebrate King James, you still followed his every move, read every article, and listened to every media member speak about him just so you could know more.
The hero became the villain on July 8th, 2010 when the power of James enabled him to broadcast an infamous decision to join Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade in Miami for the upcoming 2010-2011 NBA season. The media showed video and images of James’ jersey being burned and the world began to react to his decision. Michael Jordan seemed opposed to James’ decision, stating that he “was trying to beat” Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, not join them. One way or another, the decision to leave Cleveland gave James more publicity. The Miami Heat would lose the 2011 NBA Championship to the Dallas Mavericks and LeBron’s imperfections and failures were magnified. The narrative was not that the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title; the narrative was that LeBron James lost the NBA Finals. When the villain loses, there is a celebration; when the villain wins, there is excuse and downplay as to why the villain won. The entire time the media and public were empowering James by bringing all the attention to his story. You were either a LeBron fan who watched all of his games and wanted to see him win; or you disliked LeBron and believed he was overrated and watched all of his games because you wanted to see him lose. Regardless of where you fell on the “LeBron spectrum” all of the attention was centered on King James. After the 2011 NBA Finals loss, in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, James admitted that he tried to embrace the villain role and began to play the game of basketball with anger and hate. In the same interview James admitted that he handled his departure from Cleveland the wrong way and no longer wanted to been seen as a villain. Was that a hint that he had planned to return to Cleveland all along?
During the four years in Miami, LeBron James and the Miami Heat won the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals and lost the 2014 NBA Finals to the “fundamental” San Antonio Spurs. In the summer of 2014, the story would heighten and James would be empowered again. When James opted out of his contract and officially entered free agency for the second time of his career, the NBA was literally on hold. Teams were not signing players until the LeBron James domino fell. Think about that. Teams were freeing up all the salary cap space they could just to be a part of the “LeBron sweepstakes.” At the bottom of the screen on the ESPN channels, James had his own separate segment appearing with updates and information regarding where the superstar could possibly land. Figuratively, James was ESPN during the 2014 summer free agency. The entire sports world was watching his every move, highlighting every credible comment regarding him, and anticipating his ultimate decision.
The villain became the hero in July 2014 when LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers through the usage of a heart-felt letter. The rhetoric in the media transformed from “where is LeBron going to go,” to “why LeBron returned to Cleveland.” Without even technically saying a word, as he did with “The Decision” in 2010, LeBron James reinvigorated his story to a level unparalleled by any athlete of all-time. Universally, King James had recaptured the role of protagonist; there was rejoicing. His decision to return to Cleveland was empowering.
The true power and influence of LeBron James needs to be recognized. His rise to influence is eternal. He is the best player in the NBA, which happens to be one of the largest brands in the world. LeBron James the businessman has accredited high wealth. Remember, the man has his own application through Samsung. It is only fair to credit some of his power to the fact that we live in the social media era. Without us even thinking about it, James’ influence and relevance were displayed when his tweets were being aired during the Super Bowl. Is that not remarkable? When have we ever seen an active player, in any sport, with this much control within their team’s organization? Currently James is more powerful than Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron will be able to leave Cleveland again if he is unhappy, Dan Gilbert knows that and has managed against his own traditions by spending into the NBA luxury tax and trying to give James the team he desires. LeBron James has been a trailblazer in creating his own power within an NBA organization by signing shorter-term deals and by executing the player-option clause. NBA players are far more powerful now than they were generations ago, and James has a lot to do with that. Recently James won the 2015 ESPY for “Best Championship Performance” (despite losing the NBA Championship to the Golden State Warriors) after being the first player in NBA Finals history to lead all players in points, rebounds, and assist. On the court the King is still ascending. In late-July of 2015 it was released that LeBron James and Warner Brothers agreed on a content creation partnership with plans for TV, film, and original digital programming. With this deal, James’ brand in the film industry will only continue to grow, not to mention the recent success of the movie “Trainwreck,” which featured the Cavalier. Clearly, there is only more power for LeBron to obtain.
Despite his 2-4 record in the NBA Finals, despite his admitted mistake with “The Decision,” we have to recognize LeBron James’ overwhelming power as an athlete. James’ global media presence is rivaled by no other athlete, ever. Has any athlete’s name been said more than LeBron James’ these last 12 years or so? His uniqueness as an athlete is an attraction, his story is an original and his unmentioned ability to “keep the reader guessing” has been ultimately empowering. Remember that timeless quote; “Absolute power corrupts absolutely?” What if it were suggested that the power of LeBron James is not even absolute yet? Now that is scary.