In a lengthy interview with Chris Broussard for ESPN the Magazine, LeBron James gave wide-ranging and illuminating insight into his worldview. The questions were well-asked by Broussard and thoughtfully engaged by James.
The whole interview is worth reading, but my riff revolves around how “King James” is actually molding into “Prime Minister James.” Kings control and coerce. Prime ministers manipulate and assuage. It’s the difference between an iron fist and a guiding hand.
Broussard’s question about the “killer instinct” provokes the most revelatory response from James and leads us to the parliamentary difference:
Ahh. I’ll just put it this way, man. There are different ways to hunt. I watch the Discovery Channel all the time, and you look at all these animals in the wild. And they all hunt a different way to feed their families. They all kill a different way. Lions do it strategically — two females will lead, and then everybody else will come in. Hyenas will just go for it. There are different ways to kill, and I don’t think people understand that. Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way. Everybody wants everybody to kill like MJ or kill like Kobe. Magic didn’t kill the way they killed. Does that mean he didn’t have a killer instinct?
Violent imagery aside, this is a very nuanced answer. In fact, I don’t think LeBron James is a believer in the killer instinct at all. Yes, he’s using the phrase, but the meaning he affixes is subtlety, and distinctly, not the killer instinct.
To get to the heart of that difference, consider what Bob Cousy wrote 40-some years ago in his book, The Killer Instinct:
I’m no longer so proud of the killer instinct. It may be the drive that makes a superstar in sports, sells a product or wins a war. But it can do more than blow away an opponent. It can kill the moral sense, the happiness of a family, even the man himself. It is not an instinct I can get rid of. It is something I must live with as best as I can.
Cousy was a man who’d won several NBA titles, an MVP, and was a perennial All-Star, but he points out that the killer instinct, as the name implies, can prove fatal; and not just to opponents on the court. The instinct can mortally wound relationships with teammates, friends, family and even the self.
Just last month, Cousy opened up on the loss of his wife recently and still harbored regrets on his devotion to the killer instinct:
“I was busy playing a child’s game,” Cousy said last week, sitting in the living room with daughters Marie and Ticia. “I thought putting a ball in a hole was important. Looking back, I should have participated more in the lives of my family.”
LeBron James most likely hasn’t read Cousy’s book – few people have. He likely hasn’t seen the article discussing the loss of Cousy’s wife. Yet, he still subtlety channels the critique Cousy laid out. The bravado of the killer instinct requires unwavering belief in one’s abilities and (more alarmingly) the correctness of all your decisions – even if the outcomes aren’t great and leave behind scorched earth.
Mistakes were made, deal with it.
Instead LeBron expresses fear of failure. He dismisses the notion that he should take over a game in the clutch by taking every shot. He openly credits his teammates for their brilliance. He admits that he doubted his jump shot in the Finals. He had to adjust and re-examine himself.
Sorry, I made a mistake, but I’ll fix it.
The nonchalance of Michael Jordan’s killer instinct is nowhere to be found. No doubt, that instinct is what made Jordan the great basketball player he was. But it’s safe to say it also led to many of his personal problems we now lament. Cousy held a similar drive, and suffered similar consequences for years, before finally fighting back.
LeBron James refuses to let that instinct cage him and ruin his relationships with teammates and family. Yes, he wants to win. Yes, he’s willing to work hard to make it happen. However, his perspective clearly includes the help, opinion, and existence of others:
“I hope people will see that there are different ways of winning. And I win by … I don’t want to say doing it my way. I am doing it my way but not in a selfish way. I want to win by having fun and having a brotherhood around me where we all have the same goals…”
A regal King James imbued with killer instinct would view these lowly people as obstacles, or use them as pawns, toward his individual path to glory. Outgrowing and moving beyond royal prerogative, Prime Minister James is doing just fine working alongside his brothers for a higher common goal.