As a huge fan of the Miami Heat, my heart was broken twice this summer: First, when the team was overwhelmed by the San Antonio Spurs to lose the 2014 NBA finals, and again when Lebron James announced he is leaving the team to return to his home, Cleveland, to play for the Cavaliers. Despite these disappointments, though, I believe that losing Lebron has much to teach us about dignity in the face of adversity, leadership and forgiveness— all important themes for peacemakers and peace educators.
First, throughout his years in Miami, and in particular during the 2014 NBA finals, Lebron James was the model of nonviolent response during incredibly tough moments. When Indiana Pacer Lance Stephenson tormented James physically and mentally, even at one point blowing in his ear in an attempt to get a rise, James responded by devoting himself to his game, playing harder but not retaliating physically. This is the type of resistance used by famous peacemakers like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.— it is not ignoring the affronts so much as channeling them into even greater commitment to the goal.
Second, Lebron James has modeled leadership on and off of the court. In addition to his obvious prowess with the basketball, he has helped catalyze renewed interest in using sports as a platform to challenge injustice. When African-American teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, James and other Heat players led the way in protesting racial stereotyping and racial profiling by donning hooded sweatshirts while posing for team photos. No athlete was more outspoken in criticizing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racism and demanding action by the NBA. Further, James has been an important financial supporter of Boys and Girls Clubs and has contributed more than a million dollars worth of computers and athletic gear to disadvantaged youth through his Lebron James Family Foundation.
Third, Lebron James is demonstrating the importance of forgiveness in his return to Cleveland. When he left in 2010 to play for the Heat, Clevelanders reacted poorly, burning his jerseys in effigy. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wrote a scathing letter in which he called Lebron “selfish,” “heartless,” and “callous” and referred to the decision as a “cowardly betrayal.” Gilbert guaranteed that his team would win an NBA title before the Heat, which of course did not happen. This letter even stayed on the team’s website for the last four years, only to be removed days before James’ decision to return to the Cavs. Despite this nastiness, however, Lebron James has been nothing but gracious and forgiving as he has explained his decision to return home. In his essay for Sports Illustrated, he commented only on the importance of family and roots, modeling the sort of forgiveness peace educators seek to inculcate.
In sum, I will miss seeing Lebron James in a Heat jersey as much as every other fan of the team. But I admire him for his values, his leadership and the gifts he shared with Miami. And, in another important reminder for peacemakers, I am viewing this change not as abandonment but rather as a chance to rebuild, to grow in a different direction, and to highlight that one individual is not a team.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.