Kleos vs. Nike: Understanding LeBron’s career through the lens of Michael Jordan

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” ~Confucius

LeBron has recently made comments about the state of his team, suggesting that the Cavaliers, as currently constructed, do not have the means to win another title. While some people, including the always derisive Charles Barkley, have suggested that Lebron should quit whining and just compete with the team he has, I’ve found his honest remarks refreshing.

To review his comments, click here: http://ballislife.com/lebron-says-its-been-a-sy-2017-the-cavs-need-a-fg-playmaker-after-latest-loss/

For the folks that found his comments, not only sulky, but offensive to the spirit of competition and basketball, you’re missing the entire point of LeBron James and his career. He loves basketball, and he loves glory, but he doesn’t necessarily love competing.

This paradox is a strange, uncomfortable, and uncharted place for the greatest talent the game has ever seen to be in.

As spectators of sports and former athletes, we’re used to competition being the driving force of playing the game, or at the very least, that playing and competing are inextricably linked. Competition helps us measure ourselves, understand ourselves,  and understand the world around us. Competition gives us a safe place to let out our primal tendencies and safe place to fail.

But LeBron James isn’t super interested in victory or competition; he’s obsessed with Kleos, or the Greek term for glory. Glory and victory might seem synonymous, but they are very different. According to lore, the Greeks were so interested in Kleos, or their name living on, that were willing to die for it. They would complete heroic deeds, but not for the sake of competition or to taste victory, but because they understood that it was necessary in order for others to sing their praises.

In this regard, LeBron is more like an ancient Greek hero than a Modern-day American one. More on the Modern-day American Hero later.

While LeBron loves playing basketball, his eyes have always gazed upon a loftier prizes thant NBA Championships. LeBron wants to be a global icon and a billionaire, a person that people regardless of class, race, culture, geography, and sports savvy will remember for years after he’s passed away. He once said, “The first time I stepped on an NBA court, I became a businessman.” For him, basketball is just the avenue to achieve his macro-goals.

For more proof of LeBron’s quest for Kleos beyond hoops, check out this very recent article from ESPN: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/18686205/the-second-chapter-lebron-james-career

LeBron is the most talented basketball player we’ve ever seen. When he plays, his brand of ball is both ballet and brute strength, unselfish perfect passes and relentless drives to the hoop. He is the player basketball fans always wanted: there were no holes in his anatomy, no holes in his game, and he could play every position on the court. Spectators froth at the mouth when he touches the ball. But for LeBron this praise and fandom has never been enough because he hadn’t won a championship, so in order to get the glory he demanded, he created his own super-team in Miami even if it meant becoming a villain. When his title chances seemed to be drying up, he decided to come home and become a hero again. Two unprecedented moves for a player in his prime. Because of these moves and other entrepreneurial decisions, one can’t help but feel he changed the way NBA competition happens and how to obtain on-court glory. LeBron seemed to always be asking: What can the game do for me?

To fully understand any argument, it can not happen in a vacuum but within context, so the best way to understand LeBron is through the lens of America’s most famous sports hero: Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan loves basketball. He loved the game so much, he had a “for the love of the game” clause in his contract, stipulating he could play basketball anywhere, anytime he wanted. While several top players take games off to rest (a practice I believe in), Jordan would not play NBA basketball unless he was granted this incredibly rare clause in his contract. But while Jordan loved playing basketball, he loved  competing more. He loved Nike, or the Greek word for victory. He built his career, and Kleos of being the G.O.A.T. by being the most ruthless competitor of all time. That’s not to say that Jordan wasn’t a savvy business man, capitalizing on his on-court success, but that was never his primary focus. Victory was. By taking a micro-view, and focusing on competition rather than glory, he built his legacy, brick- by-brick, the way most people would hope they’d focus on their goals.

For examples of his legendary competitiveness, check this out: http://thechive.com/2014/08/05/18-insane-examples-of-michael-jordans-competitive-nature-20-photos/

Remarkably enough, Jordan is also the once-in-a-generation talent, and once in-a-lifetime competitor, who also had an underdog origin story. An idea that probably seems almost unbelievable now. Part of the Jordan mythos is that he was cut from his high school varsity team as a sophomore. Furthering his legend, when Michael Jordan hit the game-winning shot to lead the University of North Carolina to a National Championship, he wasn’t even regarded as the team’s best player. That honor went to James Worthy. Even fellow teammate Sam Perkins was arguably a better player at the time. All in all, that Tarheel team had 12 of its 14 players drafted by NBA teams.

Jordan continued to be an underdog throughout the beginning of his NBA career. It was widely accepted that no player would ever be better than Larry Bird or Magic Johnson until Jordan forced minds to reconsider. People thought you couldn’t win a title with a shooting guard being your best player. Jordan proved critics wrong six times over.

For these reasons, the love for victory and the underdog mentality, Jordan has embodied the American Action hero. No matter the daunting odds, Jordan seemed to come into every situation like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJ7z5CUsrbk 

In that way, Jordan’s accomplishments demanded glory. After all, to the victors go the spoils. LeBron tried to obtain glory the other way around.

LeBron’s rise to fame was far less subtle and gave him no wiggle room as an underdog. He was anointed the “Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated during his junior year of high school.In high school, LeBron was already friends with Jay-Z and several NBA basketball players.

Check it out! http://www.si.com/vault/2002/02/18/318739/ahead-of-his-class-ohio-high-school-junior-lebron-james-is-so-good-that-hes-already-being-mentioned-as-the-heir-to-air-jordan

Then, he joined forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami, in order to assure he’d win at least one title, and the Jordan comparisons slowed. When LeBron lost to a Spurs team in 2014, all Jordan comparisons silenced. LeBron had been given every edge to succeed: superior physique and athleticism, supremely talented teams, and an easier path to the finals in the Eastern Conference. While Jordan had to go through historically great teams, like: Bird’s Celtics, Ewing’s Knicks, Reggie’s Pacers, and Isiah’s Pistons just to make it to the Finals.

LeBron knew his brand, and thus Kleos, had taken an unsalvageable blow. So LeBron, being the businessman that he is, regrouped and re-branded. He had to answer the following question: If I can’t have a résumé that is greater than Jordan’s, how can I still obtain his level of glory? LeBron had to figure out a new angle. Enter his move back to Cleveland.

LeBron had one Ace-in-the-hole left to play. Become a hometown hero. Bring a championship back to Cleveland, the first in 52 years, and you achieve something Jordan never did. In fact, Jordan is still desperately trying to win a championship for his hometown, but this time as an owner.

You see, LeBron knows his overall stats will be similar enough to Jordan’s to measure up in that regard. And most talking heads already neglect the context in which LeBron won his first two titles. LeBron knew this would happen. Years down the line, people don’t remember how championships were won, they just count how many were obtained. LeBron might never catch Jordan in the ring department, but winning a title for his home town, puts him on the Mt. Rushmore of basketball players. A permanent seat with Jordan and basketball immortality. In short, he obtained Kleos.

While these players took different paths, they will both inevitably reach the same destination. Some argue that LeBron’s path was easier. Others argue his path was innovative, one that has and will influence players in the future. Why couldn’t the path just be the necessary one for him to obtain what he really wanted all along? Glory by any means necessary. He’s not the basketball hero we wanted, but he might be the perfect basketball hero to represent this generation of fans in the most honest way.  And Maybe that’s why he’s been so hard to embrace. We want to be like Michael Jordan, but if most people are honest with themselves, they would’ve taken LeBron’s route. That’s a truth we’re not comfortable with.

I’m pairing this meditation on LeBron’s legacy with arguably the most popular beer from Karbach Brewing Company, the Hopadillo IPA, because of their similar story line. In Texas, Karbach was seen as the great hope of the Lone Star State. Karbach had a beer for every taste. From safer Hefeweizens and lagers to experimental sours, aggressive IPAs, and incredible barrel-aged beers. In it’s early five-year history, Karbach was on pace to become a heavyweight and a legend in the craft beer community. A company who made exceptional beer, grew in size and stature, and would throw a middle finger at big beer across the country while making them shiver at their incredible sales portfolio. In essence, they would earn Nike and Kleos the old-fashioned way.  lebron-blog-post

Then, on November 3, 2016, the owners of Karbach sold their company to the Darkside of breweries, Anheuser-Busch. It appears that Karbach was much more interested in kleos, than in grinding out victories and fighting the good fight against all odds.

The Hopadillo is a standard American IPA, brewed with German Magnum, Chinook, Amarillo, Citra, Simcoe, and East Kent Goldings hops. The nose offers a sweet, malty, and earthy mixture of hops. While the initial taste is bitter, earthy, and slightly dank, hitting most of hop characteristics, this beer finishes with a sweet, caramel backbone. The Hopadillo does leave a slightly sticky or resinous feel on the palate, but it certainly is not an off-putting amount. With the overall hop profile of the beer, mixed with a great but not overbearing malt backbone, paired with a relatively low ABV for an IPA (6.6%), and an incredible logo and name, this beer had the chance to be the Stone IPA of the South, but Karbach wanted to change the process and still keep the glory. It is an incredible go-to IPA if you want great beer and don’t care about the narrative, but if the path traveled matters just as much as the destination, as it seems to with people who discuss LeBron in the context of Jordan’s NBA, this beer might leave you somewhere south of satisfied, wishing for a beer that did it like Jordan.

Cheers! Prost! Salud!



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