Can I get a witness?
It’s no accident Nike Inc. chose that particular word, witness, to splash across T-shirts and billboards in the worldwide marketing of LeBron James, who returns to Cleveland tonight for the first time since leaving as a free agent.
Witness has a religious overtone. Makes sense. We do, after all, worship our sports stars. In keeping with that theme, let’s use James’s return as the starting point for an awakening.
It’s time to think about what’s important, what matters. And, no, a college football playoff and the need for expanded replay in baseball don’t qualify.
A teenage James was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as The Chosen One, or Chosen 1, which is emblazoned across his V-shaped back. He became a dunking deity at an early age, answering to no one, accountable to no one, fawned over by everyone. Almost everyone, that is.
Four years ago, long before James became Judas to fans of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the Rev. Peter Matthews stood before the congregation at the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland and asked for witnesses, too. He begged for believers, for converts to a new way of thinking, one that questions why the side of a downtown office building should be devoted to a billboard promoting you know who.
Matthews used the pulpit to let loose on the hero worship of rock stars and athletes, our high priests. These are the unquestioned recipients of love, affection, admiration. Why, Matthews wanted to know, is it not enough to sit back and enjoy the abilities of an athlete like James. Why do we have to make it more than it is, bear witness to it?
The people of Cleveland have run the gamut of emotions with James, whose Miami Heat are doing more bickering and explaining than winning in the early going. The believers feel betrayed. You can bet they’ll boo. They loved, and now they loathe. The question is this: Did any of us learn anything? Do we still deify athletes?
It was worth a phone call to Matthews to find out if, four years later, his sermon still needs to be heard.
“Even more so,” Matthews said. “We have to put things into context, not only who we worship but at what altar we find ourselves worshipping. We worship athletes because it’s easy, as opposed to hard work and sacrifice.”
James, Jeter, Vick
The love affair goes back to Rome and the Colosseum, which, by the way, didn’t require personal seat licenses. Gladiators provided an escape. Same as, say, James, Derek Jeter or Michael Vick, who lures even Matthews’s wife and mother-in-law to the television set.
“They’re not about Michael Vick’s throwing prowess, but how nice he looks in those pants,” Matthews said. “The fact is we pay athletes millions to provide a sense of fantasy. That’s our fault as much as anybody else’s.”
Yes, it is. We, the flock. The followers and the fawners. Can I get a witness?
Some in Miami actually cried the night James went on ESPN, E for entertainment, and announced his decision. With reactions like that -- all for a guy who can put a ball in a hoop -- who can blame James for thinking that he could walk across Biscayne Bay, let alone openly question a coach or insult an entire fan base by ripping their hearts out on national TV.
You have to wonder how many people in Cleveland prior to The Decision went to church and prayed for James, the kid from nearby Akron, the hope and franchise savior, to stay with the Cavaliers.
Matthews won’t be manning any pulpits on Sunday. If he were, though, he said he’d probably focus on the parable of the prodigal son.
The more Matthews spoke, the more I wished he could deliver this sermon at center court tonight, maybe even during halftime. Sure beats some guy twirling 15 Hula Hoops at once.
The prodigal son is the story of a young man who asks his father for an early inheritance, which he wastes on an extravagant lifestyle. The young man finds himself in dire circumstances and, upon remembering his father, recognizes his foolishness.
“He came to himself,” Matthews explained. “We, as a culture, have to come to ourselves and place importance on that which is really important.”
That message, by the way, isn’t aimed at James, who is simply a byproduct of the fawning. It’s aimed at fans everywhere, those who elevate a teenage basketball player, quarterback or shortstop to mythic status, who revere without question.
Watching Matthews deliver that message on center court would be some halftime show, indeed.
Now that’d be something to witness.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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