Sometimes creative and thoughtful sports writers have the opportunity to fire on all cylinders by interpreting athletic achievement (or failure) through the lens of transcending themes of human experience. Such opportunity came to the NY Times’ Marc Tracey this past week writing on the story arc of LeBron James, the star forward of the Cleveland Cavaliers who pulled off an astonishing win last Sunday to cinch the N.B.A. championship.
To briefly summarize: James grew up near Cleveland demonstrating an out-sized athletic ability, in Tracey’s words, an “unmatched collection of basketball talents — bullet speed, freight-train size and beautiful mind.” He was “raised by a single mother in Akron, finding father figures in basketball gyms and siblings in his teammates, to whom he always preferred to pass the ball and whom he always kept close.” He wound up playing for the home team, as it were, in Cleveland, a local hero, but bereft of a championship after several years. So he took off for the Miami Heat in 2010, leaving in his wake a blistering critique of abandonment and betrayal. But after securing a couple of wins in the Florida sun, James returned home to Ohio in 2014 and, just two years later, managed to lead his team to a dazzling come-from-behind victory which will be long-remembered in the annals of sports greatest moments.
Tracey does a fine and appropriate analysis of this inspiring story by likening it to themes related to the hero’s journey – a path of discovery of one’s authentic self by leaving home, having important adventures, and finally realizing, in the words of Dorothy after her adventure in Oz, “there’s no place like home” after all. Who could not be swept up in the consuming emotional response? Honestly, I know it’s only a basketball game, but as Tracey notes, those whose eyes and hearts are wide open will feel resonance in the deep and sensitive places in all of us, places that matter most of all.
In a season of awful news and disrupting politics, I found this story a small ray of light and a reminder that each one of us has our own life arc – our own story of leaving home on our way to discovering who we are, and whose we are. Tracey notes that “after Sunday night’s game, James reportedly insisted on three portraits: one with his mother, Gloria; one with his coterie of close friends, some of whom he has known since childhood; and one with his wife and their three children — on Father’s Day.”
I’m reminded of T. S. Eliot’s reflection: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I should add, this seems the hallmark of what spiritual maturity entails. And I should further add, while James’ story, for the moment, climaxes in a triumph, a failure can suffice just as well, if not more so.
Consider that many of us reading this piece follow after a mentor who, upon leaving home, wound up on a cross of all places, only to discover at last his truest self. Of course, this also means that no failure has the last word. Home, capital H, is the last word. At last. And forever.