Say “role model” and the mind’s eye pictures a young person looking to be like an older person at the top of their game. I held this conventional view before I fell into role model reversal mode thanks to basketball phenom LeBron James. His MVP performance against Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals completed my conversion. And at age 75, old enough to be James’ great-granny, I’m wanting to emulate him.
So what is it about this 28-year-old that wins my admiration? For starters, his passion, perseverance and practice. After he and his Miami Heat took a 113-77 shellacking by the Spurs, did LeBron make excuses for a poor performance? No, he laced up those sneakers and worked on his jumper.
I’m old enough and experienced enough to know the trio of Ps is fundamental to success whether trying to make it in basketball or broadcasting, the field I backed into decades before LeBron was born.
Like LeBron, I grew up in Akron. Unlike him, nobody called me names when I left town after high school in 1956 to study nursing at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. Twenty years later, the ABC News brass, faced with a walkout by on-air folks drafted me, then a secretary, to pinch hit for a striking anchorwoman. And ta-dah — I became the accidental anchorwoman, and had a 30-year career, first as a general assignment reporter, morning show host along the way and, finally, anchorwoman, again, for real.
For too long in my broadcasting career, I resisted practice; watching films of myself (yep, we shot 16mm film back then) or reading scripts in front of a mirror was for egomanics, not reporters. Or so I thought. It took a while to accept the performance (read: show biz) aspects of TV reporting.
“I’ve been shooting layups since I was 8 years old,” LeBron has said more than once in those post-game press conferences after one of his sterling performances. We’re lucky, if like him, we discover our passion early. In my case, I never dreamed as a little black girl that my interest in people and wanting to hear their stories evidenced a passion for reporting.
I’ve learned on my own and LeBron shows it to be true: Passion, perseverance and practice are pieces of the whole. Building muscle in one strengthens the others.
Then there is LeBron’s team play. Again I learn from him. He distributes the ball to his teammates despite the chorus of critics who praise his “unselfish” play if the Heat win and fault him as “not aggressive enough” if they lose. Meanwhile, a confident LeBron keeps on passing to D Wade, Ray Allen and the rest. Me, I’d be tempted to tell the Monday morning quarterbacks to “bug off” or worse. Now, when habitual naysayers offer unsolicited advice, I’m trying to stop and think: “What would LeBron do?”
Given James’ youth and the constant scrutiny of him and his game, I marvel at his composure and tough skin.
He certainly needed both to withstand the barrage of invective and name-calling — some of it incited by the media — and the threats from fans who gleefully set his No. 23 jerseys on fire in 2009 after he announced The Decision. You would have thought that by exercising his free-agent option and taking his talents to South Beach, LeBron not only left the Cavaliers, but joined the Taliban.
It takes courage to think independently, to stand up to the world. Of course, it helps to have the support of people who see something special in you and nurture it through our adolescence. It’s that village people speak of, what LeBron had in his grandmother’s home and among the folks who looked out for him in and outside the classrooms and gym of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
In this age of rushing on to the next big thing, I’m impressed when LeBron talks about being present in the present. D Wade, too, in his turn at the podium after the Finals victory elaborated on this bit of wisdom: All we ever have is this moment, free of the glory (or the anguish) of the past or the future.
Before and after the champagne dousings, LeBron spoke proudly of his journey, “I’m from Akron, Ohio, and I’m not even supposed to be here,” reminding me that where you come from — single parent, low-income household, tough part of town — the physical place counts. But there’s also the space cleared by people who came before. Remembering includes replenishing those roots, building a gym or hosting a bike-a-thon, doing whatever we’re able, when and where we can, smoothing the way for those who follow us — both literally and figuratively.
So, thanks, LeBron, for showing me you don’t have to be perfect or old to be a role model.