LeBron: The Archetype of the Alpha Dog
The dissection of the hero. The glory of The King.
by Sandy Dover / @SandmanSeven
One day, we’ll all look back and wonder what we were thinking in our criticism of LeBron James. The many years that he had spent toiling in northeast Ohio didn’t win all of us over (but it did win most of us in his glory years). And so, his move to Miami was seen as something “less than” and beneath a man of his ability. We all weren’t on one accord about his greatness and his need to align with a greater squadron of talent (and we still aren’t on one accord) to fulfill what he sees as his destiny.
In November 2010, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, academician/writer Chad Pemberton, (via Facebook) about the alpha dog archetype and how LeBron has simultaneously defied and fulfilled that chief role. It was the beginning of our beloved 2010-11 season, when doubt about The King was in full effect and the new car smell of the Miami Heat was still odorizing the knife-thick air of admiration and disapproval. Below is the more significant portion of our discourse.
Chad Pemberton: People romanticize the notion of an “alpha dog”. I think people tried to cast him as that type of player (and I’m not sure he has that genetic make-up as a player). That being said, I don’t think that’s a mark against him, either. We risk making ourselves look like fools when we try to compare every great player to MJ.
Sandy Dover (SLAM): You mean LeBron? I think he’s definitely an alpha dog, but just of a different sort.
CP: I was referencing LeBron. He’s not an alpha dog in the traditional, romanticized sense. People associate an alpha dog to MJ, Kobe, players of that mold.
S: He’s not an assassin version of that form, but almost like the “Master Planner”, to take it to comic books.
CP: He’s a different breed of “alpha dog”.
S: Certainly, and I like that he is who he is.
CP: Me too. But most people only acknowledge the “assassin-esque alpha dog”. There’s something endearing about the caveat that he said, “all I want is championships.”
S: It was hard for me to criticize him for that.
CP: To me, that was the ultimate selfless act. He sacrificed his legacy for the greater good. Isn’t that what we want out of our athletes? (I always thought so.)
S: I think Americans (and Western society) have contributed heavily to that archetype and it hurts the unique qualities of players like LBJ.
S: It’s all a sham, the notion of the archetypal “hero” in sports, especially basketball, because the game and players are so dynamic.
CP: Basketball is the ultimate team sport.
S: It is, and it’s so lenient that individual players can create their own energy that overtakes the other 9 on the floor, it’s all very interesting in analysis.
Part of the problem in the way that LeBron is viewed is that the archetypal hero that is aforementioned is imagined as messianic or even Superman-ic. LeBron’s heroics are not bound in the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. His hero is by nature one who assists and fills the void—LeBron’s hero is an equal opportunist. To understand this, we have to think about where his basketball lineage lies. It lies in the role of the point guard. It is truer to him than any other role on the hardwood. He stands 6-9+ and he’s 265-or-so pounds; he’s larger than most people see in their entire life in person. He’s enormously gifted and built, not unlike the Man of Steel, but his instincts aren’t solely to catch the falling girl or pound away in fisticuffs with a great villain. LeBron is wired to attack in a variety of ways and to empower, and when absolutely necessary, to pound away at the opposition, but to demand that he change his heritage as a player at our say? Take away my keyboard and my Liqui-Mark Note Writer pen and paper, or my dumbbells and my Nike Trainers, or my art pencils and sketch pad, and you’ll see how much I like that, too.
As King James stands to be clothed in a redemptive cape and crown woven and welded of fan appreciation and ascend into the order of annual threats to the NBA throne in the 2011 NBA Finals, recognize that he who we once called “The Chosen One” is showing us that he can be whatever he needs to be. LeBron is the reverse of what Gary Oldman spake in “The Dark Knight”: LeBron may be the hero that we as fans and followers of the game need, but not what we deserve right now. Only in spite of the need, we hunt him anyway, and he persists in his resistance; resistance of injury and resistance of his share of heel-graspers by the masses, and he’s shown that “he can take it”. As he’s continued to show that he’s likely the most talented player on the planet with the Miami Heat, note that even in his occasional displays of hubris and pretension, he still seeks to play with a greater good in mind, knowing that his plethora of gifts can serve more than singularly dominating the ball. He’s learning how to be what he’s meant to become, still. 26 years of life is certifiably grown, but still young, and young enough to keep processing the caveats of what it means to lead.
Leaders are prompted with the task to do whatever it takes to meet the goal and see it through successfully. 2007 showed he could, 2009 showed that he couldn’t do it alone, and 2010 showed that he was weary. He is weary no more, and we should be rejoicing that our hero is up to the task. Our entertainment is significantly lessened without him, as is our game, and so, instead of judging him based on the binding traditions of his role, we should look upon him and be thankful that even in his greatness, he was willing to be something that he really didn’t want to be in the first place—the villain.
“Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
As LBJ’s fellow Roc Boy, Kanye West, amended the statement in his VH1 Storytellers concert, he’s chillin’.
Sandy Dover is a author, fitness enthusiast, and SLAM web columnist and print contributor whose work has been featured and published by US News, Yahoo!, Robert Atwan’s “America Now,“ and now in Buckets and Playmaker magazines. You can find Sandy frequently here at SLAMonline and at Twitter and Facebook as well.