The Hero‘s Journey of LeBron James: Part 2

Why LeBron James is the quintessential Campbellian hero of our time.

(Continued from Part 1)

Act II. Initiation

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: “Now finally out of his comfort zone the Hero is confronted with an ever more difficult series of challenges that test him in a variety of ways. The Hero needs to find out who can be trusted and who can’t. He may earn allies and meet enemies who will, each in their own way, help prepare him for the greater ordeals yet to come.” -Christopher Vogler.

Immediately after LeBron decided to “take his talents to South Beach” it seemed like anyone with even a cursory interest in basketball had an opinion on his exodus to Miami. There were those who never rooted for him and would have disapproved of his decision regardless. There were those who saw Miami’s improvement as a threat to the Celtics and attempted to mask it with sanctimony. (Like “The Sports Guy” Bill Simmons who bitterly blamed LeBron’s poor choices on his lack of a father figure.) There were also many who understood LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland from a career perspective but still criticized him for televising the break-up on a live-TV event on ESPN. (Lost in the hoopla: “The Decision” actually raised over $2 million in charity.)

And then there were the NBA Jam Nostalgists: the group of fans and pundits who believe the game had peaked somewhere in the mid-’90s. They unfairly labeled almost every current player (except maybe Russell Westbrook and a few others) as “soft” compared to the older generations. They impugned any new star’s talent or accomplishment — and LeBron was no different. Their main argument against him was that Michael Jordan (considered by them to be the “G.O.A.T” or “Greatest of All Time”) didn’t switch teams after continuously losing to the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the late-80’s. Jordan stuck with the Chicago Bulls franchise until they eventually outgrew the Pistons and became champions. This group of fans accused LeBron of taking the easy way out because he joined Dwyane Wade and former Toronto Raptors star Chris Bosh in Miami: two players from the same draft class who were supposed to be his competition, and not his teammates. To them, LeBron acknowledging that he needed help was cowardly, and not brave. (Full disclosure: I was a member of this club but gave up membership years ago.)

In the hero’s journey, this is also when a character named the Shapeshifter reveals itself. A friend of the hero that becomes an adversary or even an enemy. Think Gollum from The Lord of the Rings novels.

With that, it’s fair to say LeBron’s first season (2010–11) with the Miami Heat began under a great deal of scrutiny. He would face a level of hostility that no player had previously experienced in the NBA — maybe ever in American sports. Videos began spreading on social media showing distressed Cavaliers fans burning LeBron’s #23 jersey as if he was an exiled traitor of the kingdom he once helped build. To fan the flames of fever even higher, Cleveland Owner Dan Gilbert penned an open letter to Cavaliers fans before opening night announcing, “If you thought we were motivated before tonight to bring the hardware to Cleveland, I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our “motivation” to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels.” ( ̶G̶o̶l̶l̶u̶m̶ Gilbert penned the letter in comic sans font. You couldn’t make this up.)

LeBron was now public enemy №1 of Northeast Ohio and for the first time in his life, he wore the proverbial black hat. And it affected his approach to the game. No longer was he the smiling, jovial, playmaking phenom that fans came out in droves to root for. He was now their villain and it forced him to play to the crowd like a Roman gladiator. It was a role he reluctantly came to accept because in his mind: why continue to argue with the fans when they only see you as the bad guy anyway?

Bryan Cranton’s Walter White dons the black hat (AMC Networks)
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: This is where the hero finds himself in the heart of his journey, inching closer and closer to the object of their desire. At this stage, the hero will enjoy big victories, as well as disheartening setbacks.

There’s nothing more intense in sports than a rivalry between two franchises playing in the same conference. By forcing teams to face each other multiple times per season, it naturally creates a familiar hatred between them — especially with those who are jockeying for top position. Sometimes, the rivalries are built on the pride of a city, like the New York Yankees vs. the Boston Red Sox, or built on two super-teams annually fighting for reign supreme, like the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins since the 1960’s. But then, there are the rivalries that aren’t really one at all, but instead just the lopsided dominance of one team over the other.

Before joining together, no other team frustrated Miami’s new Big 3 of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh more than Boston’s Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce Pierce, and Ray Allen. On their last two trips, the Celtics either defeated Lebron’s Cavaliers or Wade’s Heat before reaching the NBA Finals. And it was Lebron’s final loss to them in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals (EFC) that ultimately drove him to Miami.

In Voglerian terms, the Celtics could be classified as the “Threshold Guardians”, a group of characters that act as obstacles to test the hero at crucial turning points in his journey. Think Bruce the Shark from Finding Nemo or the lotus eaters in The Odyssey.

Cut to the 2011 ECF, where LeBron has his own Big 3 to battle against the Celtics’. LeBron felt with the aide of Wade and Bosh that now was his best chance to finally get past Boston and avenge the losses of years past. (To quote many a hackneyed movie trailer: “This time it was personal”.) And they played like it. Wade took much of the scoring load off LeBron which allowed him the freedom to focus more on playmaking, rebounding, and defense, including guarding the Celtic’s best scorer in Paul Pierce. Their connection was close to perfect and it demonstrated precisely what lacked for LeBron in Cleveland. The two vibed off each other like a couple of jazz virtuosos sharing notes in a smokey Manhattan lounge. Boston had little response to their all-around effort and barely put up a worthy fight. The Heat easily won the series in five games.

After the final buzzer sounded, the moment of accomplishment seemed to overwhelm LeBron, sending him fell to his knees in tears. He realized he had finally conquered the one team that always stood in his way. This was a critical turning point in his path to victory.

Or so it seemed…

LeBron after defeating the Celtics in 2011 (Getty Images)

Winning the 2011 Finals against Dallas Mavericks would not just make LeBron a champion, but it would also clap back to the doubters that he was right all along — that it was Cleveland that held him back from winning and not his lack of leadership.

With the series tied at 2–2 in Miami, LeBron and Wade strutted into Game 5 full of confidence and bravado, giving off the impression they weren’t too worried about their opponent. (They even not-so-subtly mocked Mavs’ sharpshooter Dirk Nowitzki for admitting he had a fever during Game 4.)

Before Game 5, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle decided to make a few risky moves that ultimately paid off: he inserted back-up point guard J.J. Barea into the starting lineup to play alongside Jason Kidd, giving his team a much needed offensive boost to start the game. Carlysle also deployed a zone defense (instead of defending one-on-one, players covered a specific area or “zone” on the court) for a longer period of time than in previous games. This maneuver stifled the usually in-sync Heat offense and left Heat coach Erik Spoelstra baffled for the rest of the series. LeBron was conspicuously confused on the court and by all measures, had the worst playoff performance of his career. The Mavs eventually defeated the Heat four games to two and the presumably symptom-free Nowitzki was awarded the MVP. LeBron had yet again failed on the game’s biggest stage.

The light our hero saw in the cave was nothing but a fleeting flash. This will be the time when their endurance is tested the most. Think Dorothy entering the Wicked Witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz.

8. The Crisis: The critical moment where we learn if the hero has the courage and resiliency to pick himself up after a devastating setback.

The immediate aftermath of losing to the Mavericks in 2011 was a personal rock-bottom for LeBron. In his words, it was “…the worst week I ever had. I hate losing.” Coming to Miami was supposed to make him a winner and mute the doubters, but instead amplified all the same questions that followed him there: Is he clutch enough? Does he have what it takes? Will he ever win?

Heat coach Spoelstra (a protege of Pat Riley) knew Miami’s offense had to change, but even more importantly, LeBron’s style of play needed an upgrade for them to win. To use a 6’8, 260-pound athletic wonder who possessed such a high basketball I.Q. only as a perimeter player was like having the keys to the Batmobile but only driving it every other Monday. Spoelstra felt his team needed to utilize LeBron’s strength and passing ability from the low-post area — a spot on the court LeBron notoriously avoided. The thinking was if a team decided to play him one-on-one from the low-post LeBron would simply overpower his opponent and get an efficient shot close to the basket. Double team him and LeBron would willingly find the open shooter. It was the ultimate catch-22 that opposing NBA teams hoped the Heat never realized. (And it only took LeBron’s most humiliating defeat to make him see its benefit.)

During that prolonged offseason (lasting until December because of the lockout), LeBron reflected on Spoelstra’s new idea and about what changes he needed to make. It led him to Houston Rockets legend Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a two-time NBA champion from the 90’s who had now become a Pei Mei-esque mentor to current NBA stars.

Olajuwon was one-of-a-kind player who had the power of a center and the footwork of a guard. He even had his own move appropriately dubbed “The Dream Shake”.

Olajuwon accepted LeBron’s request and invited him to stay at his home in Houston. There, Olajuwon would find in LeBron a willing student eager to learn the nuances of his mastery. And Lebron would find in Olajuwon a teacher not only capable of guiding him on the low-post but also on his inner journey to be a champion. As Olajuwon said later, “What I work on the most is the mentality. When you come here, we are not big men. We are not trailers. We are sports cars. Speed, quickness, agility.” After several days of working in The Dream’s gym, LeBron was ready to drive his new self to the Heat’s shortened training camp in early December 2011 and show Coach Spoelstra he was ready for the challenge.

9. Seizing the Reward: This is what the kid left his world to find, the reward that will permanently transform him into the hero he was destined to become.

For all of his individual acclaim as a player, LeBron had yet to prove he was capable of leading his team to an NBA championship. It had been eight years of scrutiny and disappointment, and for many athletes, enough pressure to destroy their confidence forever. (See: Ronda Rousey.)

LeBron entered the 2011–12 season on a mission to show everyone (and prove to himself) that he was a better player. Right from the start, the league witnessed an array of post-moves straight from the book of Olajuwon. LeBron lived on the left side block all season long and controlled the game with quick and aggressive acts to the basket. The league’s best wing-player was now also its best post-player and made his Heat squad virtually unguardable. They stormed their way through the regular season (with a 66–16 record) and the first two rounds of the playoffs. But in the ECF, Lebron and the Heat once again found themselves matched up against a familiar foe. (The Threshold Guardians are back for one last fight!)

Going into Game 5 with the ECF series tied at two, the Celtics had been playing like a proud but aging fighter landing haymakers right before the bell. They knew their window was closing. Down the stretch of Game 5, Paul Pierce simply outplayed LeBron and taunted him on his way back to Boston. He was sure they close out the series in Game 6 because he knew, better than any other player, of LeBron’s history. The Celtics hoped the old LeBron showed up for Game 6. The old LeBron who shied away from the game’s biggest moments. And like clockwork, sports fans and media expected a LeBron meltdown. It was as if they were already reading him his death rites on his flight back to Boston.

But the old LeBron didn’t land at Logan Airport.

LeBron walked onto the court for Game 6 at the TD Garden in Boston with a focused stoicism no one had ever seen from him before. Gone were the pre-game dance routines and handshakes with his teammates. He barely showed any emotion. It was as if he realized this one game would decide who would be writing the rest of his story. And from right from tip-off, LeBron was determined to be the solo author.

Direct drives to the basket. Twenty-foot fadeaways from the corner. Put-back dunks. Pull-up threes in transition. Chase down blocks. Every move LeBron had in his repertoire (to use a Marv Albert term) was used on the Celtics that afternoon. His play oozed with an icy quality. Each time the Celtics hoped to build momentum, it was LeBron who made sure to stop it. He torched Pierce for 45 points (shooting an astonishing 73% from the field) and grabbed 15 rebounds. It was the game of his life up until that point and also a new beginning. Afterwards, even Celtics coach Doc Rivers had to admit that a new LeBron emerged from the visitor’s locker room, telling the media, “I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron, that he doesn’t play in big games. He was pretty good tonight.”

This time, there really was no turning back. The Heat would defeat the Celtics in seven games.

In the NBA Finals the Heat would play against the young and talented Oklahoma City Thunder. Outside of Game 1, the series failed to be competitive and showed the Thunder’s Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were still not ready for the stage. They were outmatched by the older but wiser Heat team, and the series ended in five. LeBron was awarded his first-ever Finals MVP.

After an eight-year struggle, LeBron could finally also hold the Larry O’brien Trophy in the air and declare to the world he was a champion. But even more importantly he would also know what it truly meant to become one.

LeBron holds up the championship trophy (Miami New Times)

In many of the ancient epics, the story reaches its first climax when the hero battles his biggest fear and wins. On the surface, the victory may bring an actual, tangible object the hero can parade around with. But holding The Holy Grail is merely a catalyst for a personal metamorphosis inside the hero. It’s how this victory changes the hero’s character that is most meaningful.

End of Act II.