Whenever I show up at a toy store trying to buy a small plastic figurine of a hero, the pickings are slim. “I don’t want the clay feet,” I tell the attendant. “There’s a couple of Roger Federers in the back,” he replies.
These days, the hubris comes standard. It’s listed on the box.
And it’s providing an interesting lesson in the difference between heroes and stars. In all the catcalls after LeBron James’s defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki, it’s become excruciatingly clear that no one is disappointed in James because they saw him as a hero to be emulated. He was simply an exceptional player with a case of the galloping hubris.
Athletes were once role models. Now they’re shoe models.
“Judge me by how I play the game,” they doggedly insist.
Maybe this approach is somehow more just. Why should someone be expected to be virtuous just because he can run a three-minute mile?
And the current system is hardly conducive to producing role models. Take a 16-year-old boy with demonstrably exceptional skills and start calling him the Chosen One, and if you’re lucky, you wind up with LeBron James. If you’re unlucky, you get Darth Vader.
There is a modern mania for telling everyone that they are the all-singing, all-dancing light-filled centers of the universe. My grasp on the physics of the situation is somewhat shaky, but I would venture that this can’t be true.
But this can have pernicious results.
Just look at LeBron James. He’s the picture that comes on the side of the box of self-esteem, as a warning for what happens when you overdose.
“What do you mean, no one admires our athletes any more?” we say, watching his protracted Decision Special. Nonsense! They’re just as admired as ever. It’s just that they are doing most of the admiring themselves. Consider the Egotistical Spectacular known to most of us as LeBron James. His Twitter handle is @KingJames. He once texted a compatriot an invitation that began with “Yo, this is King James.”
And that’s what made it so captivating.
“I haven’t seen this much hubris since a strange man flew past me in a very poorly constructed wax chariot,” I yelled, pounding the arm of my chair as Dallas swept to a 105-95 victory. “He actually believed his own press releases!”
You didn’t even have to know about sports to know about Mr. James, the Ego That Also Happens to Play Basketball.
I thought hubris was reserved for people who stole golden fleeces from islands and failed to return them. But if you want a tale of the fall of an idol, look no further than Game 6 of the championships. You believe you’re a big tree? You fall hard.
This overreaching is characteristic now. Get into certain professions and people seem to think it’s a job requirement. If your reach does not exceed your grasp, reach farther! Being an athlete is all about pushing past human limitations. But the greatest limitation is not the Achilles tendon but the clay feet.
In ancient Greece, being a hero meant that you were probably going to die horribly after overreaching toward the gods.
This hasn’t changed, but now the overreaching takes the form of incriminating text messages with pictures of body parts best left unseen, or the insistence that you are God’s Gift to All of Us coupled by an implosion in the fourth quarter.
And we watched almost — gleefully.
“Formerly we used to canonize our heroes,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “The modern method is to vulgarize them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable.”
James’s fall has inspired laughter and ire from fans and casual viewers alike — but few and far between are the people who would claim James is their hero. That’s the price of all this. We learned the hard way with Tiger Woods, one of those mythical Samsons whose playing skill seemed to stem from his probity. Drive an SUV into a tree and your probity emerges somewhat dented. “Forget athlete heroes,” we think, sighing. “Let’s go get our inspiration from cops and firefighters and especially fervent Zumba instructors.”
Besides, as James reminds us, it’s difficult to worship someone who clearly has a monopoly on it himself. Fine, we say. You no longer have to be better. You just have to play better. And when you fail, cue the catcalls.