LeBron James and the Monomyth
LeBron James is currently the best player in the NBA. His name is ubiquitous, though the most dynamic aspect of his story is cloaked by what he does on the court. We know the basics: Ohio boy who was a phenom at a young age, drafted right out of high school to Cleveland, lost at Cleveland and made the decision to go to Miami to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, won two championships, and finally returned to Cleveland where he’s playing now. What’s not immediately apparent is the arc of his story—that is, its shape. To bring it to light, consider Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, or, more colloquially, the Hero’s Journey.
Campbell is widely respected as a philosopher and theologian who developed the Monomyth after years and years of studying how various cultures and religions told stories—from ancient Greeks all the way to modern man. His conclusion, the final version of the Monomyth, simplifies the characteristics of an effective story and shows that those characteristics are consistent regardless of religion, race, time, or ancestry. The basics of the Monomyth are shown below in Campbell’s own diagram, which describes how a protagonist proceeds through a story:
Fig 1: from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Josephy Campbell, 1949
I won’t bother explaining the details of Campbell’s Monomyth because of the myriad possibilities that lie within each step. It’s only important to establish the beginnings of this model in order to understand how it relates to LeBron James’s own arc.
Campbell’s simplification of storytelling is nothing short of brilliant. But I’m going to use an even more simplified version that was perfected by TV writer and comedian Dan Harmon (The Sarah Silverman Show, Community, Rick & Morty, Harmontown). Harmon’s version of the Monomyth (note: this version follows a clockwise rotation, whereas Campbell’s goes counterclockwise—a moot difference) takes it one step further and makes it so numbingly simple you can apply it to nearly anything and develop a compelling story. His model looks like this:
Fig. 2: Harmon’s Circle
The numbers correspond to guidelines for the protagonist:
1. You (A character is in a zone of comfort)
2. Need (But they want something)
3. Go (They enter an unfamiliar situation)
4. Search (Adapt to it)
5. Find (Get what they wanted)
6. Take (Pay a heavy price for it)
7. Return (Then return to their familiar situation)
8. Change (Having changed)
The protagonist goes on a journey around the model that ends up creating a story that is easily accessible and identifiable as the Hero’s Journey. It’s a proven model (watch any episode of Community and you’ll see multiple iterations) in both the world of fictional storytelling and now, with the help of LeBron James, the sporting world.
So let’s apply Harmon’s version of the Monomyth to what LeBron James has done with his NBA career:
1. You: LeBron James was born and raised in Akron, Ohio; won high school championships handedly; and was then drafted by his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, with the number one pick in 2003. He won the Rookie of the Year award with season averages of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. He was the alpha dog of the Cavs and in the coming years would win his share of MVP awards, Olympic gold medals, and other honors solidifying his superstar status.
2. Need: Cleveland’s upper management—owner, GM, President of Operations, etc.—did little to build a team around LeBron, leaving the bulk of the performance to him. The Cavaliers’s regular season play was often phenomenal, but the postseason turned out to be a challenge. During this period of LeBron’s career, he and the Cavs reached the NBA Finals only once and were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in four games. LeBron made his fortune through sponsorship and brand deals aside from his NBA contracts. He had the riches and individual accolades, but he didn’t have what he really wanted: a championship.
3. Go: LeBron had played with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—two stars in their own right, with a smattering of All-Star selections between them—on various international and Olympic teams and became close friends with both of them. So much so that the trio structured all their contracts to expire just in time for the 2010 free agency period. The NBA was taken aback when the three decided to team up in Miami to create a super team. LeBron presented this choice to the nation in a move with shockingly little tact: he held a one-hour TV special on ESPN where he made the announcement that he’d be leaving his hometown of Cleveland. The special was a self-indulgent mess and the media and Ohio pounced on him—a memorable clip of a fan burning a #23 jersey circulated quickly. Fans across the nation joined in and felt that what LeBron was doing was cowardly. They made the argument that he was taking the easy route to winning instead of toughing it out on a team where he was the alpha dog. LeBron’s image took a huge hit everywhere except Miami. In Campbell’s model this is LeBron crossing the threshold of adventure.
4. Search: LeBron had always been the revered superstar no matter what he did, whether in high school or in the NBA. He was an incredibly charismatic and appealing presence and harbored no ill will toward anyone. He was generous with his fans, with charities, and with really anyone he met. This wave of hatred toward him was definitely a new experience. He was casted, for the first time in his life, as the villain of the NBA. Wherever Miami traveled, he was welcomed with a chorus of boos and vitriol. Sports pundits took shots whenever they could and seized the opportunity to question his capacity to be an effective leader. A favorite storyline was whether LeBron could handle not being the alpha dog with Wade and Bosh both skilled enough to hold equal claim to the role. All this attention surrounding Miami brought out the best in other teams, making any game against Miami worth watching.
LeBron’s response was to embrace his new role. He used everyone’s criticism as motivation to play harder, better, faster. He adjusted his game to Wade’s and Bosh’s and reestablished his role as the alpha dog, putting up phenomenal numbers across the board: 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7 assists per game with 51% shooting from the field. LeBron would later describe his approach to villainy as playing “angry.” He had a chip on his shoulder that neared resentment, and it showed on the court. The friendly LeBron who joked and laughed with his teammates was gone and replaced by a much more determined version.
Miami got out of the Eastern Conference as the two seed and made it to the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Dallas Mavericks, 6-2. Diehard NBA fans know that the trend to winning a championship is to first lose in the finals. Exceptions of course exist throughout history, but this being the second time LeBron has lost in the finals (with different teams, mind you) only helped shape him for where he was headed.
5. Find: In Campbell’s model this is the meeting of the goddess, where the hero meets the person who has the thing he desires. The hero experiences a type of weightlessness and soars through the cosmos, grasping an understanding of the universe and its laws. Apotheosis occurs, and the hero assumes supernatural abilities to aid him on his journey home. Harmon’s version is much more grounded, and the hero simply finds what he’s wanted—could be love, a new friend, maybe even a good grade on an exam. Or, if your LeBron James, an NBA championship. This is why he came to Miami—to win—and he finally does. Twice.
6. Take: With his newfound place in the stratosphere of NBA greats, LeBron begins his return journey up the Monomyth. (He has only traveled downwards thus far, which is considered the easier part of the journey.) The year after the second championship, the Miami Heat make it to the finals and lose, decisively, to the San Antonio Spurs—an old yet savvy team. LeBron’s time in Miami was fading, and the window for winning further championships there was being taken away from him—Dwyane Wade was only getting older and more injured; Bosh was clearly missing the limelight of being the go-to guy and wanted more money; the Heat’s salary cap situation was strained.
7. Return: LeBron decided to opt out of the remaining year of his contract with the Miami Heat. This was expected, as it made sense for him to restructure his deal to prepare for the soon-to-be increased salary cap (projected to be about $10 million more by the ’15-’16 season) and the impending lockout that’s going to occur when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is opted out of and renegotiated in 2016. But what he did after opting out was unexpected: he signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a two-year deal. LeBron was going home.
8. Change: LeBron has learned a thing or two about being a person, a player, and a winner. He’s bringing this new knowledge with him to Cleveland, to a team with zero experience in the playoffs without him and that hasn’t posted a winning record since he left. He has undoubtedly changed as a player, becoming far more efficient on the floor and learning what it takes to grind out a championship, not once but twice. That’s all well and good, but if he can apply this power to his new/old team has yet to be seen. As I write this, the Cavaliers are hovering around the .500 mark in a very weak Eastern Conference. He sat out two weeks with a back injury and is having troubles getting on the same page with a new, very green coach, David Blatt.
In Campbell’s Monomyth, this is the hero returning home to bestow the boon he received from his journey upon his people. LeBron’s people are both the fans and his teammates. Whether he can bring them a championship will be the defining chapter of his hero’s journey.