Monday, LeBron James celebrated what he calls the greatest moment of his life with the opening of his I Promise elementary school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The school is geared specifically toward at-risk youth — many of whom remind James of himself. ’Bron’s proudest moment arrives on the heels of perhaps his most transparent one.
It probably wasn’t James’ intention. But the four-time MVP sounded a lot like The Notorious B.I.G. in the teasers from his new talk show, The Shop (see below), set to debut on HBO on Aug. 28. Filmed in a barbershop setting, James is surrounded by fellow A-listers: Snoop Dogg, Draymond Green, Candace Parker, Odell Beckham Jr., Jon Stewart and Michael Bennett among them. The discussion ranges from Snoop Dogg’s unprecedented artistic longevity to James’ experience as an AAU dad — which comes with its share of arguing with other parents and, this weekend, dunking in layup lines with eighth-graders. It’s Stewart, though, who asks James how he deals with he and his oldest son sharing a name. James’ response was as sobering as it was instantly viral.
“I still regret giving my 14-year-old my name,” James said. “When I was younger, obviously, I didn’t have a dad. My whole thing was, whenever I have a kid, not only is he gonna be a junior, but I’m gonna do everything this man didn’t do. … Only thing I can do is give them the blueprint and [they can] take their own course with it.”
Yet, the keyword in LeBron Sr.’s quote is “still” — meaning it’s been on the three-time NBA champion’s mind for some time. The statement carries a multitude of emotions: love, fear and, as James mentioned, regret. And the kind of knowledge that only comes from growth.
On Jan. 22, 1997, less than two months before his murder, a similar kind of change was sprouting in The Notorious B.I.G. when he sat down with beloved ’90s music ’zine ego trip. Christopher George Latore Wallace was nearing his 25th birthday and was improving as an emcee when life was snatched from him in the early morning hours of March 9. Those closest to B.I.G. noticed a new maturity in him. Fatherhood undoubtedly played a role.
B.I.G. was already a father to his daughter T’yanna — living life without fear / puttin’ five carats in my baby girl’s ear — who was 3 at the time of the interview, and whom he adored and spoiled. He became a father again in October 1996 when CJ (Christopher Jordan Wallace) was born to him and his wife, rhythm and blues star Faith Evans. The happy part of their time together, B.I.G. lamented two weeks before his death. When asked in ego trip about the concept of patriarchy, in particular about raising a son with his name, B.I.G. said he viewed it as a reset on life after a bicoastal feud that left former friend Tupac Shakur dead and a car crash that left Biggie himself walking with a cane.
Negativity stalked B.I.G., seemingly from the moment Shakur was shot at New York City’s Quad Studios in November 1994, but the birth of his son proved a spiritual eclipse. “Chris can be whatever he want to be, really,” he said of his son. For B.I.G., the only way he’d leave CJ’s life was if someone took his. “I want that to be like my little partner right there. Put him on to everything.”
B.I.G. continued, saying he wanted to be the man in his son’s life to lace him with game. On life, on women, on sex, on any and everything a son could possibly want to soak up from his dad. “I want him to be able to always feel, ‘I can tell my pops anything ’cause that n—-’s just the coolest n—- ever.’ … I wanna be the n—-’s best friend more than anything. Whatever he wants to do in life is completely his choice.” B.I.G.’s dream is James’ reality. One that still allows for moments of self-doubt. I related to B.I.G.’s excitement in the ego trip interview the way I relate to James’ regret now.
James and I are not alike, athletically speaking. He could possibly go down as the greatest player ever. My claim to fame with basketball is twofold. I once purposely moved in the barber’s chair to get a bald head like Michael Jordan. My mom said I looked more like a lightbulb than His Airness. And a few years later I purposely got myself sick before a little league basketball game with the hope of having my own “flu game.” I didn’t score a basket, and I got benched for the entire second half.
But there are some other kinds of commonalities. We both grew up in single-parent households. We both grew up wanting to prove we weren’t burdened by (what we perceive as) a generational curse of no-black-man-in-the-house-to-teach-a-black-son-how-to-be-a-black-man. Seeing how much of a toll it took on Gloria (James’ mom) and Karen (mine), I feel confident in saying that neither one of us wanted to be the source of that kind of anxiety for another generation. And, truth be told, up until five years ago we both had no communication with our fathers. James’ relationship with his is nonexistent. I met my pops by happenstance shortly before Christmas 2013.
Unemployed at the time, I took a leap of faith and drove to Atlanta in hopes of landing a job with Inside the NBA. That didn’t work out, but on the trip home I began getting truly fluish and stopped in Salisbury, North Carolina, at my cousin Tiffany’s house. I was born in Salisbury. My parents divorced when I was 2, and Tiffany is the only one from that side of the family I keep in contact with. Tiff’s got a dope one-story house not too far off the highway with a guest bedroom that served as my quarantine unit. Tiff’s also my dad’s niece.
On the third day, when Tiffany was returning from the grocery store, she noticed her uncle, aka my father, pulling into her driveway. She panicked, thinking I’d hold a grudge against her for forcing a meeting on me. Until that point, I’d never truly cared about meeting him. It’s hard to miss what was never there. It was weird, though, because when I was younger, I had thought about what it might be like when we eventually met. Would it be dramatic? Would it be emotional? I never figured I’d be in bed recovering from the flu.
I wasn’t mad. At least, not anymore. I could tell he was nervous, which is likely why our conversation was so short. What do you say to a person you helped create but haven’t seen in more than 25 years? It’s hard to describe what I was. It’s a haze, really. He told me he loved me. I told him I appreciated that. It took 27 years for the meeting to happen, and it was over in less than five minutes. The next time I heard from him was about a year and a half later.
I was living in Los Angeles, about seven months into my ESPN job. My mom had told me that my father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I wrote a letter. First and foremost, it said I was praying for his health. And that I wasn’t mad at him — didn’t hold a grudge anymore. I wrote that what happened in the past was past — neither one of us could edit it.
He wrote back, thanking me for the prayers and telling me how proud he was of me. And that he kept track of my work online. I wrote back but never heard from him again. In my entire life, I’ve had two interactions with my father. I don’t blame him, totally. Communication is a two-way street. Thankfully, he did beat his cancer diagnosis.
So when James says he regrets naming his first son after him, I understand. James is a black kid from the projects in Akron, Ohio. His young life was spent wondering what it was about him that would make a father abandon his child. It’s why that Fresh Prince scene still moves him to tears — he was Will Smith. He thought that giving his child his name was protective, that it made Bronny safe from missing a father and having to wonder. James wanted to ensure that his kids’ reality featured no worries about when the next meal would arrive, or what house they’d live in this month. Unintentionally, though, LeBron Sr. placed a different kind of pressure on his son.
LeBron Sr. was only 19 when Savannah gave birth to LeBron Jr. Essentially, all three of them were kids. “I don’t buy into [the hype] too much. I got one thing to take care of,” he said in 2005 when LeBron Jr. was still an infant, “and that’s the Cleveland Cavaliers. I try not to get caught up in the league aspect of things.” Then came the dramatic championships — and championship losses. The Decision. The Decision 2.0. The Block. The stats. The MVPs. The political activism. The connections to pop cultural deities such as Jay-Z, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, Drake and others. James’ commitment to the young people of his hometown includes paying for 1,100 kids to attend college. And, today, there’s the opening the I Promise School, the culmination of 10 years of work by the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron’s Public Schools. James Sr. is thrilled, as it’s a very personal dream come true. That LeBron Sr. would become perhaps the greatest basketball player ever — and one of the greatest humanitarians that sports will ever see? Not even the grandest of prophecies mapped out that trajectory.
Given the life-changing qualities of James’ achievements both on and off the court, an often overlooked quality is his vulnerability. It’s a byproduct of his generation, specifically with regard to the “ghost” he’s chasing. James and Jordan are linked beyond just basketball. James’ statement about his children, while different in tone, mirrors Jordan’s 2009 Hall of Fame speech. “I think you guys have a heavy burden,” Jordan said of his three children, Jeffrey, Marcus and Jasmine. “I wouldn’t want to be you guys … because of all the expectations you have to deal with.”
Shareef O’Neal, son of Shaquille O’Neal, can relate: “[It] isn’t easy,” said the incoming UCLA freshman. “And to get all of this at a young age is a … challenge.” When James said he regretted giving his first child his name, it’s because he realizes the burden. If his son were named … anything … Brandon, Steven … Curtis … he’d still face pressure. As it is, the teen is called “Bronny,” perhaps to differentiate. But still, imagine the weight of being LeBron James, knowing the world likely will never give your son his full credit or judge him on his own merits, all because he shares one of the most powerful bonds a father and son could share — their names.
Bronny James and his younger brother, Bryce, entered the Cavaliers’ locker room 30 minutes after Game 4 of this year’s Finals. They entered with a group of friends, presumably teammates. I wanted to ask them how it felt having a dad many viewed as the best player in the world, who played arguably his best season but came up short — again. Neither son said much in the locker room. Bronny checked his phone and quietly joked with his squad. Bryce grabbed some food. Maybe they knew then it would be their last time in a Cavs locker room as part of the home team. But in the moments they did look at their dad, still draped in towels, and with ice strapped to his hands and knees, they were just two kids wanting to console him.
As LeBron Sr. walked to the garage in Quicken Loans Arena, his final time as a Cavalier, an entourage followed him. But beside him were LeBron Jr. and Bryce. Even in defeat they looked proud of their father. It’s odd, but I did think about The Notorious B.I.G. in that moment. How he was wasn’t afforded the chance to grow into fatherhood the way James has. He never got to see a younger version of himself grow into a man.
“I definitely want [my son] to learn from his mistakes,” B.I.G. said. “But at the same time I would never want him to feel like he would have to … do anything out of the ordinary for anything, because I’m here.”