April 17th, 2017. The NBA playoffs are about to begin and LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of our generation has activated Zero Dark Thirty-23 mode on via his Twitter handle. In other words its that time of the year when LeBron goes completely “DARK” from social media platforms such as Twitter, SnapChat, FaceBook etc. until the end of his playoff journey.It’s an annual ritual, which he has followed religiously since 2012 (The results aren’t shabby. He won his elusive first NBA championship ring that year and has since followed up with 2 more). Zero Dark Thirty- 23 activated. #StriveForGreatness
Zero Dark Thirty- 23 activated. #StriveForGreatness— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 17, 2016
It made sense when he first decided to go on a social media fast 5 years ago. James, for the longest time, has been the poster child of the new age hyper-connected athlete; raised in the era of smartphones, YouTube channels, heated post-game analysis and advanced analytics. Word is that he extremely self-conscious off, among other things, his receding hairline, bodyweight, and statistics.
But there is one thing LeBron cares about above all else; his place among the game’s greats (He has on many occasions expressed his desires to be on the Mt. Rushmore of Basketball i.e., to be among the 4 best players to play the game when he retires).
Back then in 2012, it didn’t seem like the script was going to play out the way he had envisioned. LeBron came into the league with unprecedented hype and with it came scrutiny of his ability to live up to it. James had come up short time and time again on the game’s biggest stages up till that point prompting many naysayers (such as the obnoxious Skip Bayless from ESPN’s First Take) to troll him on social media. With each misstep, the mongering had become louder and louder.
He isn’t MJ (Michael Jordan).
He doesn’t have the clutch gene.
He doesn’t have the “Killer Instinct”.
He doesn’t have the heart of a champion
LeBron’s name had become synonymous with what was wrong with the too rich too soon professional athlete of the new millennia. James penchant for consuming copious amounts of news feeds, social media post and countless opinions about him from the so-called experts only made things worse. Once, during an exit interview, he brushed off members of the press, proclaiming that at the end of the day they would still have to go back to their (miserable) lives while he would continue to be LeBron James.
By acknowledging and arguing with his critics he was allowing them to get under his skin and affect his game. People admired his talent and game but even the most hardened LeBron supporters began to question his mental makeup.
And that’s when he finally did it. Right before the start of the NBA playoffs in April 2012, he unplugged. No more Tweets or Facebook post. No more tuning into ESPN to hear the rumblings about his latest shortcoming from the so-called “experts”.
When the media stopped reflecting him in all his narcissistic glory, LeBron had to stop looking at the proverbial mirror for validation.
Being UnLike Mike
LeBron’s move (to cut off social media) made sense to me. It must have allowed him to tune out the unnecessary noise and let his play do the talking. What really caught my attention (and in case you haven’t realized it by now, I have a huge man crush on LeBron) was his newfound love for reading books. LeBron finished the Hunger Games trilogy during the 2012 playoffs.
My first reaction was like; Hey, shouldn’t he be using his precious time towards something more directly related to basketball like practicing free throws?(Something, which he has notoriously been bad at from the beginning of his career)And if he really just wanted to read then there were better books out there in the self-help category like Paul Sullivan’s Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t or Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, considering his shortcomings on the game’s biggest stage.(It seems like the entire world surrounding LeBron; Fans, sports-psychologist, friends and former greats of the game had a suggestion for him ).
Only recently, when I became interested in concepts of core masculinity was I able to comprehend LeBron’s newfound love for something that wasn’t directly related to him trying to become better at basketball (or anything for that matter). Corporate America and Nike had taught him from a young age that salvation lied in his ability to “Be Like Mike” (Michael Jordan, his boyhood idol and by acclamation, the greatest ever to play the game of basketball). It was a noble idea. It was flawed too.
You see Michael Jordan, THE BRAND was built by Corporate America to sell shoes in the post-industrial age of consumerism. LeBron’s biological father abandoned his mom and she had to raise him alone.
The idealization of Michael – THE ICON as a “Father Figure” was inevitable; especially after LeBron’s own talents had become evident in his adolescent years. Michael, the person was far from the ideal he was projected to be. He would gamble late at nights (accumulating debts which ran into millions), punch his own teammates in practice and used any sort of perceived slights from others as grudges to “get even”..
Michael himself never idolized anyone. Michael worked really hard to become better but at the very core, he never saw himself as broken who needed fixing. His belief in himself never wavered and he most definitely never allowed the opinions of others to influence him. In short, Michael was his own man.
LeBron had craved Jordan’s presence as a mentor to guide him during his struggles. But Jordan, perhaps insecure of LeBron infringing upon his own legacy as the greatest ever, never bothered to reach out to him.
LeBron needed to loose his infatuation with Michael and to see him for what he was; a ruthless competitor who was only interested in looking after his own. Besides, LeBron’s own two sons were growing up too. James didn’t have the luxury anymore to resolve daddy issues with his biological father or his idealized projection.
It was time to slay them both.
He didn’t need to overthink ways to ‘doll’ his game up to look “LIKE MIKE” in the eyes of his critics; On the contrary, it was time to roll up his sleeves; to dig down and get dirty.
By disconnecting from social media Lebron was able to create space for silence in his head (Step number 1). By retreating to the world of fiction he was accomplishing step number 2. He was building an archetype. He wasn’t just Lebron, a self-obsessed multi-millionaire athlete. He was now channeling Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games and her journey. LeBron showed up in those playoffs with an unwavering presence to the task at hand.
- He resisted the urge to showboat by pounding his chest or flexing his biceps after making spectacular plays.
- He stopped trying to win useless arguments with his critics.
- He kept his composure and refused to mentally check-off during clutch moments.
- He even refrained a teammate from celebrating too early.
LeBron, version 2.0 was not an immature boy trying to prove his manhood. He had finally learned how to harness his emotions by grounding himself to a worthy cause; a successful chase of an NBA championship. And that’s my version of how LeBron James reclaimed his masclunity that summer.