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Basketball's Ambassador-In-Chief

Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. He is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. — Earl Woods

While Earl Woods’ comments about his son are pretty funny in retrospect, they did stem from an understandable impulse. Tiger was a worldwide celebrity who transcended the sport of golf. Most athletes are famous enough that people want things (mainly money) from them; Tiger, at the time, was on the level of a Bono or a Bill Gates or a Bill Clinton, where society began to want things in return for all the money, fame and adulation they had received.

This summer, LeBron James reached that level. The infamous tattoo on his back isn’t pure hubris; he is, in many ways, “The Chosen One”. Michael Jordan was the first basketball player to transcend the sport, and ever since he proved it was possible, the basketball industry has been consumed with the search for the “next MJ”. The entire AAU infrastructure, which has revolutionized the game both on and off the court, was essentially created to find a 15-year-old LeBron James in Akron, Ohio. Many thought the search was fruitless, that no one would ever be able to lift Excalibur from the ground, that no player could ever be as great as Jordan.

By carrying the Heat to the NBA title and leading Team USA to Olympic gold, LeBron proved himself worthy of the crown. It’s impossible to deny the talent of a 6’9 270 point-center, but until it was validated by a team championship, there would always be lingering doubts about his game. He may or may not match Jordan’s number of titles or Kareem's scoring records, but you can no longer argue that he doesn’t at least belong in the discussion for greatest ever.

Now, as a 27-year-old at the very top of one of the most high-profile professions in the world, people are going to start asking him the same questions they asked Tiger a decade ago. For many observers, the great tragedy of Jordan’s career was that he never picked a cause, never became associated with anything bigger than himself. Where Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing title for refusing to enter the Vietnam draft, Jordan’s most famous political stance was that “Republicans buy shoes too.”

As Ray Allen said in an interesting interview in 2011, entering the political arena would be one way for LeBron to differentiate himself from Jordan and possibly even surpass him in the public eye. However, becoming an activist isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Much of the backlash to Jordan’s refusal to weigh in during the 1990 U.S. Senate Race came from journalists, a group with generally liberal politics. But, given Jordan’s income, as well as the way he conducted himself during the lockout, whose to say he wouldn’t have supported the Republican candidate, even if he didn’t appreciate his campaign tactics? Personally, I’d be surprised if a savvy businessman like Jordan didn’t want his marginal tax rates lowered.

As Jordan understood, weighing in on something as polarizing as electoral politics would damage his ability to sell shoes. In that sense, protecting his personal brand was a fairly self-serving decision, but he was far from the only person who benefitted from it. When Jordan spoke, he wasn’t just speaking for himself or Nike or even the Chicago Bulls, he was speaking for the entire NBA and the game of basketball as a whole.

Unlike baseball, which once was America’s pastime, or football, which now is, popular perception of basketball is far more tied to the reputation of its star players. When Peyton Manning and Tom Brady retire, football fans will mourn, but it won’t have nearly the same impact of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s departures. When Derek Jeter retires, it won’t send ratings for the World Series plummeting.

Basketball is more popular than ever around the world, but it's still fighting to be the #2 sport in its home country. The sport will always attract elite 6’8+ athletes, but the battle for the hearts and minds of most other amateur athletes is far from settled. More than even Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard, the two players who will stand in his way for the next 5-6 years, LeBron has an entire sport on his back.

Obviously, as someone who primarily covers basketball for a living, I would prefer if it became the biggest sport in the US. In my mind, it has more entertainment value than football, baseball, hockey or soccer, but that’s an inherently subjective debate with no right or wrong answers. However, even if we ignore aesthetic value, there’s a strong argument to be made that it should overtake the other major team sports.

Of all my friends from high school, the ones who played basketball are generally in better shape now. There isn’t much hockey played in Texas and soccer, as Hank Hill once put it: “was invented by European ladies to keep them busy while their husbands did the cooking.” Of the three biggest team sports in the US, basketball is by far the easiest sport to continue playing once you leave school. Of course, flag football and slow-pitch softball leagues exist, but they hardly come close to pick-up basketball in terms of replicating the game experience.

Basketball, in general, is just a much more accessible sport than football and baseball. In our post-industrial society, where obesity is the single biggest health concern, that’s a big deal. Staying physically active isn’t just good for your physical health; it’s an essential ingredient for mental health as well. Basketball doesn’t ask its players to bulk up to weights that are completely unsustainable in civilian life. Anywhere in the country, you can take off your work clothes at the end of the day and play a game of basketball.

Over the last five years, through either work or school, I’ve been lucky enough to live in Dallas, Austin, Jacksonville, New York City and Barcelona. My daily life was fairly different in all five of those places, but the one constant in my routine was playing basketball. No matter where you are, it’s a common language and a way to become connected to a broader community, which is incredibly valuable in our increasingly atomized society.

I’ve made many of my best friends playing basketball. As a kid, playing the sport opened up my eyes into an entirely different world, to people and places in my own city that I never otherwise would have known existed. It’s no exaggeration to say that I would not be the person I am today without this beautiful game. At my gym, there are guys in their 60’s who still play a regular weekly game.  I can’t predict what my life (or the world) will be like in the 2060’s, but the one thing I can say is I’ll be doing everything in my power to play basketball.

I’ve worked in national politics, both on a campaign and as a journalist. It was a very disillusioning experience, to say the least. Which isn’t to say that no good comes from the political realm, but it’s definitely not the only, or even the best, way to make a difference. The only real way to change the world is to make your little corner of it better. In the broad scheme of history, no one man can stem the tide, or even really stand in the way, of the blind social inertia of billions upon billions of people.

LeBron James is an ambassador for the game of basketball, a game that can and does change people’s lives for the better. That’s a tremendous responsibility, and asides from one foolish primetime TV special, he’s handled the blinding media spotlight and the celebrity fishbowl that comes with it about as well as could possibly be expected. No matter what he decides to do with the platform he’s been given, what he’s doing already is more than enough to ask of anyone.

 

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