If you’re going to pick a sports hero for your children to admire, it’s best to do it carefully.
For years after I met him I talked about what a cool guy O.J. Simpson was; I can’t do that anymore. A former sportswriting colleague once wrote about a famous pro football player, calling him “my kind of guy.” His kind of guy later was arrested for exposing himself to two young girls.
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The pantheon of American sports idols is cluttered with the names of athletes whose public achievements on fields or courts were tarnished by private flaws. Pete Rose. Tiger Woods. Lance Armstrong. Aaron Hernandez.
Still, even after his team fell short in the latest NBA championship series, I can’t suppress my admiration for LeBron James. If the once and current Cleveland Cavalier had never won a championship, set a scoring record or won a most valuable player award his is, arguably, one of the most copy-worthy rags to riches stories in the history of American sports.
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Raised in poverty by a single mother and no on-site father, with a formal education that ended after high school, he’s the role model we say sports should provide for our kids. And if he had only gone on to become one of the greatest players ever in his sport, that would be reason enough to emulate him.
But, in my mind, there’s more to admire about LeBron James than arching three-pointers, muscling down the lane and flicking no-look passes to open teammates. What other athlete can you name who has the physical skills to dominate his sport, the personality to host “Saturday Night Live,” the ability to regularly discuss finances with Warren Buffett and a business acumen that’s the base of studies at Harvard University?
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If he has a flaw on the court, it’s that he tends to complain about virtually every call the officials make that goes against him, as if a player of his magnitude should never be whistled for committing a foul or making a turnover. That’s standard operating petulance in pro sports, though.
But after his team’s final loss, the first thing James did was go directly to Kevin Durant — the opponent who had denied him a championship, over-achieved him as MVP and eventually may supplant him as the game’s best player – to share a long congratulatory hug.
Even earlier in the series James displayed his perspective when sportswriters grilled him about how he would deal with two consecutive lopsided losses. “At the end of the day,” he replied, “it’s still just basketball, man.”
Maybe that’s what makes me admire him most.
Because there’s a lot more to LeBron James than just basketball, man.
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