LeBron James builds legacy off the court

HOUSTON — LeBron James was coming. He was leaving behind the pageantry and politics and the legacy talk and the comparisons to Jordan and all the other noise of the NBA All-Star Game to come here, to a Boys and Girls Club not far from downtown, where he would continue to stitch together a legacy utterly separate from the one he’s crafting on the court.

More than 100 kids were lined up and seated on chairs and bleachers, clad in green shirts with LeBron’s name stitched across them and that look of childhood anticipation only the innocent can conjure up. When the door opened. LeBron, wearing a Heat hat, walked in and waved. The place went absolutely nuts.

“Look at those shoes!” a little boy seated just to my left screamed. He turned the girl next to him, pulled on her shoulder, frantically. “Look! At! Those! Shoes!”

I looked at those shoes. All-Star Charles Barkley Nike’s. Cool, sure, but just shoes, and this kid was going berserk. Then I looked at him. He was bewildered, exhilarated, utterly beside himself. And I realized — perhaps too late, perhaps not — that there are two sides to LeBron James’ legacy.

One of those sides is the one in which he’ll be pitted against Jordan, against Magic, against all the basketball greats. When he has stepped away, we will all talk and argue and try to figure out where exactly the greatest player of this generation ranks against the greatest players of the generations before him. In this realm of who LeBron James is, and what he is about, we will weigh his stats, his play, his affect on the game, his championships, his failures, The Decision, his ability to be graceful with fame and responsible with his role in the game and all the others things that now mark his NBA legacy.

I have strong opinions on this. I covered his first season as part of the Big Three. I lambasted him for his arrogance and immaturity and how it affected his on-court performance. And now, two years later and from a distance, I’ve come to believe he has grown and matured and that those things have helped make him a champion.

But there’s that other legacy, too, the one that hits home on a non-sports subject that strikes me all the time: The fact that how a person does at their job has no correlation whatsoever to how they do at simply being a human being. Some of the most talented and successful sports journalists I know are among the worst people I know. And some are among the best people I know. This is true in all things: In sports, in music, in acting, in high finance, in coaching, in politics, in whatever it is you do for a living, in whatever it is anyone does for a living. Being a good person or a bad person is not the same thing as being a good steward of a country, or a company, or an NBA team, or whatever office one happens to work in.

There is success. And there’s being the best person you can be.

That’s a legacy that matters, too, even for LeBron James. Even if he broke Cleveland’s heart with the callous casualness of a young, unsure, out-of-touch superstar.

LeBron was here, now, at this Boys and Girls Club — when he could have been anywhere in Houston with absolutely anyone he wished — for a reason that goes beyond basketball. For the past seven All-Star Games, he and Sprite have worked together to refurbish a Boys and Girls Club in every host city.

This one gleamed with a new, beautiful basketball court, resplendent with the best and newest of everything. It was on this court that young children danced in front of LeBron, and gawked at him with stupefied joy, and showed off a basketball routine, and whispered, and saw up close the greatness in their midst. Seeing a man on TV is one thing. To know him up close, to be inspired in person, is something else entirely.

A sophomore from a local high school got up and talked about dreams, about promises, and it was clear as she spoke — nervous, inspired, happy, shocked — that the futures of these kids had in at least some small way been fused to what will become the memory of LeBron telling them he was rooting for them, he was here for them, he was among them because he’d chosen to be.

“This has been a real passion of mine . . . I do this because of you guys,” he’d said when he arrived. And now they were speaking to him, first through the high-school student, who rattled off dreams of several young people: “Victoria wants to be a singer. Miguel a veterinarian. Chris a police officer.”

Then through the several younger kids who followed her, reciting their own pledges before the best basketball player on earth: One girl to never give up on herself, another to be a good example for her peers, a boy to create a better future . . . to be good . . . to believe . . . to be decent . . . to keep trying.

It was powerful stuff, most of all because LeBron actually watched, as enthralled by the moment as I was. When he moved into the crowd — after a group photo in which he sat next to the little boy who’d first marveled at his shoes, his eyes the size of basketballs as King James said hello — the kids jumped from their photo-shoot poses.

They hovered, they screamed, they rushed in. I have seen famous men, polite but firm, move through such a melee because one cannot do it all. There comes a point where there are only so many frantic fans and captivated audiences you can take before you have to get going. LeBron, instead, held his hand up and tried to greet every one of them.

“What up, little man?”

“What up?”

“Love what you’re doing!”

“Great job.”

“What up?”

Still, there was a boy hanging back, too shy and too scared and too hopeful to push into the crowd, and I saw him, as reporters tend to. We stand back and watch it all, write it all down, try to see the bigger picture, and so we often catch the stragglers as the rest of the world misses them. When LeBron saw him, and cut through the crowd to him, I was as stupefied as anyone else in the gym.

“How you doing?” LeBron asked, and he reached out and grabbed his hand, a forced high-five. “What up? Hey.”

I have not always been kind to LeBron, nor complimentary, though I stand by those columns and believe every word of what I wrote. Two years ago, whether by immaturity or sadness or the adjustment of going from universally beloved to wholly loathed, he was not a basketball player who should have gone un-scrutinized, nor, at least if you gave Cleveland it’s fair shake, a guy who should have gotten a free pass.

Yet here, now, he was certainly a good man. In this moment he absolutely was. These were not the antics, even the kind antics, of a star going through the motions. Reporters and children can usually see through the BS. We all saw a LeBron who wanted to be here, lending whatever meaning his fame and success can have to kids who need to be reminded they can have great futures. Does this mean he’ll be a good teammate or NBA player or steward of the game in a day, a week, a decade? Does that even matter?

A few minutes later, when he and I sat down for a quick one-on-one talk, I was struck at once by how much he’d changed since my time in Miami. He was calm. He was comfortable in his own skin. The first thing he said to me he’d said many times, two years ago, but I have little doubt this was the first time I’d ever heard him say it when he actually believed it to be true.

With all the talk of Jordan and legacy and remembering people for what they’ve done on the court, I’d asked him whether he’d be remembered for moments like this along with his basketball prowess.

“I hope they remember a lot, that this is what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s not about what you do for yourself while you’re in power. It’s about the lives and the impact you make while you have the opportunity to do it.”

Then came the part that struck me as underscoring a new LeBron.

“I don’t do this for people’s approval of my basketball game, I don’t do this for people to say, ‘LeBron’s doing it for this or for that.’ I don’t really care what people say. I have a passion for it.”

He did it, he said, for himself. A far cry from the guy two years ago who struggled under the self-inflicted wounds of someone craving adoration and getting hate instead.

“I play the game at a high level and I want to be the best of all time for me, not for someone else’s criteria,” he said. “And that’s the same as what I do off the floor as well.”

I asked him about the kid in the back, the shy kid he’d gone to, and he perked up. Yes, he’d noticed him. Of course he had.

“I seen him, I seen him,” LeBron said. “I never had an opportunity to be around somebody of the caliber that I’m on right now, to be that shy or to be the kid in the back. I grew up in a small town, we never had guys come around where I was like, ‘Ohhhh, man.’

“Everything that I’ve seen, my old man was on television, (I was) like, ‘Ohhhh, that’s Michael Jordan,’ or ‘Ohhhh, that’s Batman,’ or ‘Ohhhh, Transformers.’ Those were my heroes. So those were my inspirations.”

That, too, struck me as absolutely true. LeBron had not had heroes in his life to spur him on. So, faults and all, he’d chosen to try and be one from time to time in places like this. That doesn’t excuse his other issues. Just as those other issues don’t nullify good works like the ones at the Boys and Girls Club, and the real impact they can have on kids’ lives.

I don’t know if LeBron James will end up as the better player than Jordan. Don’t know if he’ll keep being this dominant giant of the game, or shrivel a little or a lot again in some future playoff series. I don’t know if he’ll be an egomaniac on the court, or a great guy, or somewhere in between. I know he was a complicated, imperfect person who earned most of the criticism directed his way his first year in Miami, just as he earned every single accolade that comes with the championship he carried the Heat to last season.

Jordan is the greatest of all time, certainly for now, and by most accounts not the nicest man on earth. Does it matter? Should it? Should we — sports writers, fans, casual observers — care about off-court niceties or otherwise when evaluating the giants of our age? Churchill was a drunk and saved Western civilization. Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk, too, and a corrupt politician who happened to save the union. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a man who defied the hatred of an entire country in defense of a wronged people, no matter his personal peccadilloes.

Whatever LeBron’s faults — or, for that matter, professional success, given it is just sports — they are minor by comparison. I don’t yet know how to balance them. I just know, sitting with LeBron on Saturday, watching him and then talking to him, I liked him a lot, here, now, far away from basketball, where he cared so much for these kids that he’d chosen to give them something good to remember.

“It’s the inner kid in me,” he said. “First of all I’ve got two kids at home, 8 and 5. But it’s the inner kid in me, too. I wish I did have — if I had something like this —” he looked across the brand new court — “when I was a kid, I would have gone crazy.

“This right here, this is like an amusement park for a kid,” he said. “It’s just the inner kid in me. I understand what a lot of these kids are going through. Most of the refurbished courts we do we do for underprivileged kids, underprivileged people, they don’t have much. A lot of families don’t have much. I was that family. Me and my mother, we didn’t have much growing up. I didn’t have the ability to wake up and go outside and play basketball outside of my doorstep. I understand in my mind a lot of what they’re going through.”

So let’s agree on this: Michael Jordan is, right now, the greatest basketball player of all time. But LeBron James, hoping, as he told me, to change that, is perhaps the most complicated. Great to children. Awful to Cleveland. An all-time choker. Until he wasn’t. Wildly unlikable. Until he’s not. He is fame, success, talent, failure, betrayal, loyalty and our mixed-up views of all these things packaged into the kind of fame and success that in America today tends to warp everything.

Hate LeBron. Love him. Be like me, and think that he’s come a long way, become not just a talent to celebrate but a person to root for, a reminder that we can all grow and change. Whatever your take, accept that he is some parts you do not like and some you should — including the part that took him to see these kids Saturday, and why he went.

“That their dreams can become reality,” LeBron said. “You know, don’t let no one tell you, don’t let no statistic, don’t let no one tell you that the dreams that you have at night can’t become a reality. I’m one of them. I had dreams as a kid playing in the NBA. Flying through the air like Michael Jordan. Making the crowd go crazy. Hitting the game-winning shot. I had those dreams, and what helped me is my little league coaches and teachers did not close that book for me, they didn’t close that dream for me. And once they did that I was like, ‘Ok this could be a possibility.’ “

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.