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The Surprising Lebron Lesson in Capitalism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Adam Smith got it right. We human beings, given the chance, act out of our own self-interest. Lebron James proves that point but not for the reason you think.


In a story that took on epic proportions because of the slow summer news cycle, Lebron James chose the Miami Heat over the the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls, and even his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for one reason. Not money. Not championships and rings. Very simply, Lebron is looking for love not loot. And all the critics, who have skewered Lebron for the over-hyped way in which his free agency decision arrived, have missed this basic point.

If Lebron were merely looking for loot, or even for fame, he certainly would not have chosen Miami. He will end up with less salary there than from any of his other choices. If he were seeking the vainglory of championship rings, Lebron would have selected Chicago, which has a full roster in place with comrades like Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, and Joiakim Noah. After all, basketball is a team sport played by five men with a group of reserves to complement them. Chicago has that, and at present, Miami does not. The Heat now have a roster with just four players: Lebron, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Mario Chalmers. They have no fifth starter, and they have no bench. Their salary cap is nearly expended, so they have little money to find the additional parts of the whole. Teams win championships not threesomes. Just ask Wilt, Jerry, and Elgin.

So why in the world did Lebron James land in Miami? Love and family.


In April, I enjoyed a nine hour flight to Poland where I would do some teaching and also some sharing of my new book, Confessions of a Mega-Church Pastor: How I Discovered the Hidden Treasures of the Catholic Church. On that flight, I watched every movie that was available on the airline seat viewer. My final foray into obscure video came in the form of a documentary called More Than a Game. I had never heard of it, but nine hours is a long time and I was willing to watch anything.

The documentary chronicles the boyhood and development of Lebron James in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. As is well-known, Lebron never had a relationship of any kind with his father. In fact, it is unclear if the identity of his father is even known. I will not bother to comment on the lawsuit filed on the day of Lebron's free agent announcement by a man claiming to be Lebron's father and seeking $4M in compensation. How one would seek money from a child you never claimed or supported is beyond me, but I will leave that analysis for another time.

Nevertheless, More than a Game reveals the innocence and needs that the young Lebron experienced. His need for love, family, and direction were filled by a group of childhood friends with whom he formed such a close bond that they played youth league, AAU, and then high school ball together. Very little change occurred in that group. They bonded, and with the help from a few teammates' fathers, Lebron emerged as the best high school basketball player in America. However, he did not emerge as the leader. Other players in that childhood fraternity led the team; Lebron starred. And there is the crucial difference.


Lebron found family and home in that group. He found strong men who helped him along the way. Simply watching that film brought tears to my eyes because the Lebron of the documentary is a boy looking for love, not fame or success. On that team, Lebron did not have to lead; he merely needed to play ball well. His was an unusual role of the star whose performance is complementary. As a result, he found a bond that still exists to this day as evidenced by most of the friends who still surround him. That group from his childhood team IS his family. Lebron became who he is today because of a small group of people that became his family. We all want to be loved. Love and family are powerful motivators.

Lebron chose Miami because he can best replicate there that sense of family with his two close friends, Bosh and Wade. These three played together on the 2008 Olympic team. They bonded. More importantly, Lebron will not have to lead. Miami is Dwyane Wade's team. Lebron got enough mantle-carrying in Cleveland. The top dog role does not suit him well. Deep down, he prefers to draft behind the leadership of a stronger personality – his point guard in high school, and now Dwyane Wade in Miami. Lebron is Pippen. Wade is Jordan.

All this leads to two crucial points.

First, fathers play an indispensable role. It is no accident that lead dogs like Kobe, Jordan, and Wade all had strong fathers in their lives. Lebron did not. As a result, he is still emerging as a man. He is still just 25. He will find warmth and comfort in the presence of Dwyane Wade. He will find the love and family that he has not replaced since leaving Akron and receiving the mantle he was not prepared for in Cleveland.


Lebron was thrust into a leadership role at age 18, straight out of high school. He had no father to prepare him. Nor did he have a coach like Dean Smith or Tom Crean. His one consistent touchstone is that basketball family from his childhood, that band of brothers and a surrogate father.

Second, Lebron provides an important lesson in Adam Smith thinking. We act out of self-interest, which is not always measured in money. Countless employees decide every day to remain where they are or to take new jobs not for the money but for other reasons. Stability, less pressure, location, or a sense of value and affirmation just to name a few motivators. Self-interest is not necessarily the same as money, greed, or avarice.

Many leaders do not understand this point. Money does not motivate most health-care providers. Other reasons like mission or compassion do. Money does not motivate most immigrants. Opportunity, freedom, and hope for a better future do. And money certainly does not motivate Islamic terrorists. Mission and a perverse faith do. Self-interest comes in many forms. Money is merely one of those.

Lebron has money and fame; he is looking for love. He hopes to re-create in Miami what he had in high school, a family. The leader Wade and the paternal Pat Riley provide the nucleus of that family.

So to the critics of Lebron who see in him a greedy, self-aggrandizing ego, understand that Lebron's childhood poverty and wobbly family has created needs in him that could not be met in Cleveland or Chicago where he would have been asked to serve as the father giving love and leadership. Nor could his needs be met in New York where he would have been in a Cleveland-like role made worse by the glare and pressure of the New York media. Only Miami could offer a complementary role as a part of a loving family. True self-interest prevailed.


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