In Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” he sings, “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” It’s both an observation and a lament about how each generational changing of the guard demands its own unique voice, coded language and defiant look. That need to rebelliously announce and define what’s news and cool while scornfully denouncing what’s old and uncool is as true in laundry detergents (New and Improved!) as it is in music, literature, politics—and sports.
Every age needs ageless heroes. But it’s important that we closely study our culture’s most prominent heroes because they reflect the trending values we are being asked to embrace while pointing to the future those values will lead us to. This generation’s most prominent basketball hero is LeBron James, and he clearly represents a bold new language.
LeBron isn’t the shiny new penny of sports. At 34, he’s no perky teen idol or sassy YouTube “influencer.” He’s a 16-year veteran of the NBA who’s played for the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s a husband, a dad, and, though he’s playing with the intensity of a man in the prime of his athletic and intellectual prowess, he’s not too many years from doing ads for joint-pain medication. His status as sports icon has been earned from years of grinding out victory after victory on a daily basis.
Why him when there are many great players out there? Steph Curry is paid more (his salary is $37 million versus LeBron’s $35 million), and last year Curry’s jersey was the top NBA seller. But LeBron has the most followers on social media, with 104.3 million (Curry has 42 million). Kevin Durant has higher three-point and free-throw percentages, but LeBron beats him in most other categories. Part of his statistical dominance is that he’s been playing longer than Curry and Durant. With time, they both may surpass him as players, but for now LeBron is considered by many to be the best in the NBA.
LeBron’s overwhelming career achievements include three NBA championships, four times NBA Most Valuable Player, 15 times NBA All-Star and many other awards and distinctions. But here’s another reason he’s considered the best: LeBron has been selected as the No. 1 NBA player by Sports Illustrated for six years in a row because of his remarkable consistency. He’s proved himself to be steadfastly effective no matter where he plays, who he plays with or what his age is. Some years, he has single-handedly dragged less experienced and less talented teammates into the playoffs. His consistency is illustrated by his stats from the 2012–2013 season, which are very similar to those of the 2017–2018 season. For a player in his 20s, that wouldn’t be noteworthy, but when comparing a 28-year-old with a 34-year-old, it’s not only impressive, it’s inspiring.
To inspire others is a key trait in a cultural hero. LeBron’s sheer athleticism motivates young players to reach for a high standard of physical preparedness. His physical dominance isn’t just genetic luck; he is dedicated and disciplined in his workout and diet, often rising at 5 a.m. to begin exercising, which he does five days a week off-season, and seven days a week during the season. His routine includes everything from a step-climber, spin classes, Pilates and weights to hot tubs, cold tubs and a liquid nitrogen chamber. Just reading about his relentless routine makes me want to drop and pump out 50 pushups.
Which brings us to another heroic characteristic: perseverance. LeBron reportedly spends over a million dollars a year on his training, which includes a personal biomechanist—a former Navy SEAL—traveling with him on vacation. We don’t begrudge him that expense—he’s a professional athlete whose body has been abused and bruised since childhood. Back problems have plagued him for years. He is certainly rich enough to retire anytime he wants, but he keeps stepping out onto the court each year to receive more physical punishment.
Yes, he faces formidable opponents on the court almost every day, but more important, he’s in an epic battle against time. This is a fight we all face eventually, and eventually we all lose. But we can’t help but root for an athlete who struggles with such grace and determination. And who refuses to go gentle into middle age. To watch a 270-pound, 34-year-old man move with such agility and stamina and style puts a little extra lift in all our steps. In last year’s playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, LeBron badly twisted his ankle and still managed to pull off a triple double: 33 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. That’s pretty much the definition of perseverance.
But an effective leader doesn’t just command his followers to victory; he is a leader who helps each of them elevate their individual talents. He becomes the rising tide that lifts all boats. “Leadership isn’t a one-day, two-days or two-month thing; leadership is consistent,” he has said. “Once you get into team sports and you see how you are succeeding, you understand it isn’t about you. In order for you to continue to be successful, everyone has to be important and have something to do with the success.”
Being a leader among ambitious, competitive athletes is not an easy task. I was a leader at UCLA and on the Lakers, and balancing those roles was challenging. Success depends on your teammates respecting you, not just as a player but as a strategist.
But success as an athlete isn’t enough. To laud anyone as a cultural hero, that person would also have to embody as well as promote some of the core values of that culture. LeBron has done that through his outspoken political and social advocacy, especially in support of racial equality. But beyond just talking, he has taken positive actions to better the community and country. This was demonstrated when Fox News’ Laura Ingraham famously reacted to an ESPN interview with LeBron in which he discussed, among many other topics, politics, by complaining, “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball. Keep the political comments to yourselves.… Shut up and dribble.”
Instead of just engaging in a social media war, he turned her lame insult into a three-part documentary series for Showtime called Shut Up and Dribble, which explores the evolving role of athletes in today’s divisive political climate. Over the years, LeBron has added his voice to the many athletes of conscience who wish to call attention to social injustices in order to eradicate them.
This “dumb jock” stereotype is the same refrain I and other athletes have heard all our lives from conservatives who use the lowest form of logical fallacy, the ad hominem (name-calling) attack, to distract from the message. The weird implication is that a black man raised in America has no idea about racial injustice because he also plays basketball. I have been a journalist and book author longer than I played basketball, yet every time I publicly express an opinion, some people complain that my opinions have no validity because I was once an athlete. Because he is so articulate and revered, LeBron is helping to eliminate that stereotype.
I’m often asked whether there’s a significant difference between the black athlete activists of my era and those of today. In the ’60s and ’70s, there were fewer of us: Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and a handful of others. Today, a lot more are speaking out. Sadly, aside from numbers, there’s not much difference because so little has changed. Athletes are still punished for using their constitutional rights, and the things we protested 50 years ago are still happening. And some members of the public are more outraged at being reminded that little has changed than the fact that little has changed. It would be easy for black athletes to give up in despair at such a response. But players like LeBron, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Hawkins, Serena and Venus Williams, Eric Reid and many others keep fighting for justice.
There have been missteps, like a media exchange in 2017 after Charles Barkley called LeBron “whiny” and “inappropriate” for publicly complaining about Cavaliers management’s not securing better players. “I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that,” LeBron said. “I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying.”
Part of the animosity seems to stem from Barkley not including LeBron in his list of five top NBA players of all time. I understand an athlete who plays for love of the game, or for adoration of fans, or even for money. But concern over one’s “legacy” seems shortsighted. I set a lot of records when I played, but I never played to set records. I didn’t concern myself with creating a sports legacy as much as I did with my legacy as a teammate, a social activist, a helpful community member. LeBron is all those things too, which is why worrying about his sports legacy seems petty.
LeBron’s legacy is assured. He will continue to break records, perhaps even my all-time scoring record. When he does, I’ll be there cheering him on, because every time a record is broken, humanity has pushed the boundaries of what we are capable of.
Last year, LeBron helped found the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, for some of the city’s underprivileged children. More than providing academics, the school will also reach out to the students’ families to provide them resources to improve their lives economically, emotionally and educationally. This kind of dedication to community makes him more heroic than slamming a basketball through a hoop.
Finally, the GOAT question, which runs through the media like a nasty STD: “Who is the Greatest of All Time?” A month ago, LeBron claimed the title for himself during an ESPN interview, saying he deserves the title because he gave Cleveland its first championship in decades after an improbable comeback from being behind by three games to one. “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time,” he proclaimed.
It’s a little disappointing hearing him play this imaginary game, which is akin to asking, Which superpower is better, flying or invisibility? I get asked this question a couple times a week, and my answer is always the same: The game has changed so much over the years that there is no leveling rubric to take into account the variables. So, sorry, LeBron, you’re not the GOAT because it’s a mythological beast. It’s like asking, How big is the horn on a unicorn?
But LeBron James is the hero this generation has thrown up the pop chart. It’s a place he clearly has earned, and we are all better off for him being there.
→ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played center for 20 seasons for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. He remains the NBA’s all-time lead scorer and was a record six-time NBA MVP. Since retiring, he has written 19 books, including Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, Coach Wooden and Me and Becoming Kareem. Abdul-Jabbar’s legacy and memorabilia are up for auction here.