The first time I met LeBron James was not quite three years ago at the TD Garden in Boston. He was fresh off The Decision and sitting just off the court several hours before his first regular-season game as a member of the Miami Heat. A swarm of us reporters were hovering, waiting, wanting answers.
“Man,” he said, as a Miami Heat employee shooed us away, “I’m a fish in a fish tank. How fast can I swim?”
Not fast enough, it turned out. Not at first. That tank he’d created for himself meant every person in America would peer in and see through the distorted waters of his new, post-Cleveland persona something different than they had before: A villain. A spoiled kid. A bad guy. A misunderstood, unfairly maligned star. An incredibly talented athlete who in one moment turned himself from an icon into the butt of a million jokes. Take your pick.
A lot has happened since that first day and over the 34 months that have followed. I went from one of his staunchest and most vocal critics to a deep believer that the turmoil and mistakes of that first year in Miami carved him into a better person and champion.
LeBron has gone from ridiculed and loathed, from a guy at the center of an argument about whether or not he would fail in big moments who then failed in the biggest, to a two-time champion with a refurbished rep.
I’ve argued repeatedly, in my columns and on radio, that his first year in Miami and all the difficulties that came with it changed LeBron. I’d seen the anger and discomfort rolling off him after The Decision, I’d seen first-hand the frustration and off-balance approach to his critics, and I’d unloaded in one column after another. I called him “petulant,” “spoiled,” a “choker” and more. Then he collapsed, I left Miami, and from a distance I watched what looked a lot like LeBron emerging from his failure in the 2011 NBA Finals.
From an occasional encounter and the unreliable vantage point that comes with following someone from afar, I thought he was transitioning into a likeable guy. I thought he was becoming a story about growing up and learning from mistakes. But I wasn’t quite sure. Not until two weeks ago, when I walked into his old high school in Akron, Ohio, and had an extended one-on-one conversation with him at his charity event.
Tuesday night, on Fox Sports 1’s “Fox Sports Live,” you can watch that interview and judge for yourself whether his new image is the result of an internal change or from better managing all those external forces. In our conversation, LeBron and I talked about Johnny Manziel and the pitfalls of fame, about his legacy and his next Decision, about his relationship with Cleveland and his pursuit of Jordan’s greatest-of-all-time legacy, about the critics like me and his views of them, and his charity work and a lot of other deep and not-so-deep stuff. His take on who he believes to be the top three NBA players of all time was particularly fascinating. But it’s the criticism that always colors time with LeBron, especially for me, and that talk struck me as candid and revealing.
Being routinely criticized isn’t fun. Rich and famous athletes don’t like it. Media personalities, say what they will, don’t like it. Readers and fans, even if it comes from one retort on Twitter, don’t like it. It’s in our nature to want to be liked, to be accepted, to be seen in our best light by both those we know and, if strangers are paying attention to us, by those we’ll never meet.
That, as much as anything, is what makes LeBron James such a fascinating case study. We have watched a young prodigy wrestle not just with his pursuit of greatness but also with growing up under those harsh lights of fame and expectation: Every mistake, every failure, every success, every moment of decency and immaturity. The meaning and lessons of LeBron James, 10 years into his NBA career, are as much about handling fame – externally and internally – as they are about basketball.
As a guy who stands by almost every negative thing I ever wrote about LeBron, let me also say this: I believe we can all change. I am beyond thankful that my life lessons and humbling mistakes, the things that shaped me into the guy I am today, didn’t happen with all of you watching. I’d bet the same is true for most of you, too.
Childhood fame, of all the peculiarities of modern American culture, might be one of the most difficult things to navigate.
And so, after LeBron stood up and left our interview, after that long, nuanced, intelligent conversation, I finally felt like I could answer the question with confidence: That yes, absolutely, he had changed. That he was a different guy than the one I knew from his first season in Miami. That he really is worth rooting for.
Folks in Cleveland may think that’s a cop-out, and I get it. Fandom comes with its own set of rules and loyalties, and they can distort how we see things.
Folks in Miami may think I’m just catching up to history – trying to scoot away from that critic label as LeBron’s successes mushroom – and I get that, too, for the same reason.
But I’ll let LeBron answer the question himself. What he said when I asked him if I and critics like me were wrong or right reinforced for me why he’s the most interesting person in the game: Because a talk with LeBron James about himself is a talk about introspection, outside forces and how one guy deals with fame.
What I saw during my conversation with LeBron James was a guy who has changed, who now faces his critics and choices head on, who’s funny and smart and interesting, and who takes the right things seriously and the other things with the right amount of humor.
Those things – and that change – are well worth rooting for.