Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The psychology of "The Chosen One"

I make no claims of clairvoyance. I make no assertions of a fundamental understanding of the human brain. I am simply an observer, an analyst of the world around me. I observe the way crows commune and combat over food outside my window. I observe the way people order their meals, the way they tousle their hair when they're nervous. I listen to how people talk to one another, zeroing in on inflections and emphasis in an attempt to unlock the deeper meanings of often-meaningless words. I try to peel open the human brain as its gears are crunching forward to make some sense out of behavior. It's why I became fascinated with primatology in college, behavioral science at its core, and why I've continued that fascination and study into my post-graduate life. Thanks Dr. Calcagno, this one's for you.

It is with all that warped, twisting mentality in mind that I witnessed "The Decision," the pitiful self-destruction of new Miami Heat superstar LeBron James on national television, using a group of underprivileged kids from the Boys and Girls Club like a human meat shield. Or should I say, witnessed the human reaction to the self-destruction. I chose not to watch the media's and LeBron's pathetic attempt to shamelessly squeeze the last bit of attention out of NBA fans. I chose not to participate in the hot, sweaty melting of sports news and reality TV "entertainment." I chose to watch "The Simpsons." Homer is funny. Ironic. Brilliant even. LeBron James is ironic and funny too, but only because of his complete lack of self-awareness.

I didn't want to experience the nuclear bomb of "The Decision," however, I wanted to live through the fallout. I wanted to surface, hours after the explosion wearing a kickass gas mask and some combat boots I snagged from the Army Surplus store in preparation for LeBron's implosion, to look at the wreckage, to hear the angry cries, to see the bewilderment and the mind-blowing, dumbfounding reaction that such an utterly-stupid decision had on the sports community.

But the more I sat with the events of "The Decision," the more I realized that my reaction couldn't be knee-jerk. I didn't want to just toss myself into the aftermath, pick up a gun and start pumping bullets into the man that pushed the button (with a hefty nudge from ESPN). LeBron had already destroyed himself. I just wanted to find out why.

I think there's a lot to be said about the psychology of athletes. Teams hire sports psychologists to keep their minds sharp and focused, or in Ron Artest's case, to keep it functional within a standard society. Sports psychology has resurrected careers, saved them from going down, and even built one coach, Phil Jackson, into one of the most-decorated front-men in the history of professional sports. Psychology is incredibly important, even from the standpoint of a team, where good teams can overcome improbable odds to exceed expectations and their own physical limitations. LeBron James' psychology, specifically, has left me in awe for the last few years. Why does he still act like a child? Why does he care so much about his image? Why does he want so desperately to be loved and adored?

And yet, at the same time, why doesn't he want to do it alone?

It's all in a nickname. That's right. A nickname. When Kobe Bryant gave himself a nickname, people laughed and guffawed. Nicknames aren't chosen, they're given. If you don't like it, well tough cookies. That's the way the old school worked, and, frankly, it was a helluva lot more fun when athletes didn't have to create their own personas (Mark Fidyrich was "The Bird," he didn't create it ...) and were given their nicknames because of who they were and what they represented. But for Kobe, he gave himself the alter-ego "The Black Mamba," named after the world's deadliest snake, as a way to motivate and focus himself. He gave himself something to try to become. A goal.

When asked about his nickname, Kobe said, "The mamba can strike with 99 percent accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession. That's the kind of basketball precision I want to have."

And he's done that. Five championships later, Kobe Bryant has become his own prophecy. He's lived up to his name and accomplished his goal. He's become The Black Mamba, the ruthless killer of the NBA. If he hadn't won those championships, if he hadn't lived up to his own self-billing, this easily could've been about him. But it's not. He chose the nickname because of his personality. He chose the nickname because of what he saw in himself, what he wanted to become. He wanted to be great, he wanted to be the champion, he wanted to leave a wake of bodies when he was done winning rings. His nickname was born out of ego, sure, but it was born out of desire too, the desire to be truly great.

But what about LeBron? LeBron gave himself a nickname too.

"The Chosen One."

Hmm, the chosen one. Years ago, fans, broadcasters, and writers used to give sports stars their nicknames. It still happens on occasion now, usually from some overzealous ESPN anchor elbowing for attention on the midday retread of Sportscenter, but it's becoming less and less common for players to "earn" a nickname. Players like LeBron, who work, from the time they're in high school, on crafting some infallible image, supported by yes-men too scared to tell them to suck it up and learn how to shoot a jumper, create their own images now, away from the eyes of criticism, away from the judgment of history. Michael Jordan didn't create "Air Jordan," he was that. He wowed us with aerial feats and his unprecedented ascension to the top of the basketball pantheon. He didn't call himself "Air Jordan," he just was.

LeBron, fragile ego obviously battling years of mass-media attention and the sneaky puppeteering his so-called friends were performing on him, called himself "The Chosen One" when he walked into the NBA. But looking at the psychology of the nickname, it's easy to see why, years after being drafted by the Cavaliers and putting together the pieces of Cleveland's oft-broken heart, he so shamelessly and incognizantly smashed it to pieces on live television.

"The Chosen One" isn't about hard work. "The Chosen One" isn't about overcoming insurmountable odds. "The Chosen One" isn't about winning at all costs; a ruthless champion who strikes fear in his opponents. It's a boy with a silver spoon in his mouth, a paper king pushed to the throne by snake-tongued thieves from his past, collecting riches off of the oblivious hero. LeBron doesn't want to be the king, despite his other ironic nickname, he wants to be loved, he wants to receive the gifts of the many, he wants to bask in the glory of his mere renown.

That's not a champion, that's a chosen one, a medieval prince in-bred into royalty.

Alternatively, a "chosen one" is supposed to be someone destined for greatness, someone with an innate, righteous path toward ultimate heroism that supersedes reality. The chosen one is often the leader of the futile, the revolutionary who frees the impoverished and oppressed and becomes more or less ideology. Not a person, just a concept, a name, something to believe in. Neo in "The Matrix." Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings." Other nerdy characters from other nerdy movies that I'm too embarrassed to now reference.

But chosen ones don't choose themselves. The name speaks for itself.

For LeBron James to choose himself to be the chosen one tells me everything I'll ever need to know about his ego, his character, his fears, his friends, and, ultimately, his failure. Perhaps the best investment the South Beach Heat can make this summer is a sports psychologist.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on Lebron. I think that the general public bears responsibility for co-creating the egoism of star athletes.

  2. I'm from Akron, Ohio; I also happen to be Dr. Calcagno's sister, and my sweet brother sent me your article. LeBron has always said that he is a lucky man to be Chosen by his god to play basketball as well as he does. And while doing so in Cleveland, he has given and given back to his hometown and mine in ways financial and spiritual. I'm sad to see him go. But if you could do doctoral work at Harvard or Princeton or Stanford or Columbia, would you stay in Chicago? Lebron had to go to become an even better player, and perhaps a better man.
    Sally Calcagno

  3. Thanks so much for your comments, Sally. I actually agree with you that people should go where they feel they can achieve the greatest success. And I think, under different circumstances, LeBron could've handled his departure without stabbing the city that made him in the back. It was that type of obliviousness that led to the hour-long airing of "The Decision" that really fueled my interest in taking a deeper look at the psychology of the decision, the man, and athletes in general. I don't fault him for leaving, I do fault him for the way he left, and I think it says a lot about his mentality and his personality.

    But yes, I do accept your invitation to do my doctoral work at Harvard.