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LBJ & LBJ: Connected by an Acronym

A ramble on the similarities and differences of a President and a king.

Now that the dust around the NBA Finals has settled, and both teams have gone home to their respective families (well, except for Matt Barnes, Derek Fisher is with his family), I felt like this was the perfect time to unleash this silly article. See, I recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fantastic biography of Lyndon Johnson, which only furthered my fascination with the former President. Contrast this with the NBA Playoffs, which was never fascinating. Until Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

LeBron James carried his team to a win over the most egregious superteam ever assembled. Somehow, the Warriors made Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two All-Stars, look like the Bad News Bears coached by LeBron “Morris Butterfield” James. The amount of talent on Golden State was insurmountable, especially because they played like a damn team. But James, for one game, surmounted it. He did the impossible. Stopped the perfect playoff. Only to be decimated in the next two games, but it still rings in my mind how monumental of an achievement that was. Last year’s comeback was legendary, but this losing effort showed just how good he is.

Both LBJs have such interesting leadership styles. Both dominated the water cooler talk around their respective arenas of society, and both are compared to their predecessors in ways that would make smaller men crumble. In this wacky paper/thinkpiece/ramble, I try to look at their leadership styles and abilities. How they’re different, how they’re similar, and how successful they were. LBJ to LBJ.

The first and striking difference between the two is their level of follower involvement. While Lyndon Baines Johnson and LeBron Basketball James both are singular talents, they approached their use of talents in very different ways. LBJ 1 used his talent to separate himself from the pack, including his own team. His unique persuasive abilities and tendencies made him stand alone atop the mountain. He used his talents to pass bills, sway the public, and dominate those around him. Even his own team was completely at his mercy. He desired complete control over every situation, which meant wresting power away from others, including those on his staff, in order to secure the best possible outcome.

LeBron, on the other hand, spreads his talents around. He, like President Johnson, is a generational talent in his field. But LeBron’s talent is augmented by his generosity rather than control. James is one of the best passers in the league, but more importantly, he is a willing passer. He constantly cedes his control, possession of the ball, to his team. This doesn’t dilute his talent, only enhances it. By passing so often, not only do his teammates play harder and more cohesively due to an expected reward (shooters shoot), LeBron is often able to manipulate plays through the threat of passing. A penetrator as lethal as James should have the paint packed in on him every single possession. But the defense can’t get away with that against LeBron. The second that help arrives early or cheats inside against him, the ball is already in a teammate’s hands. So while LeBron is a completely singular talent, it is enhanced through his ceding of control rather than seizing of control.

That isn’t to say that they don’t have differences. They both thrive in one-on-one situations. I know I just spent a paragraph arguing that LeBron is a willing passer and uses it to be better, but shut up, let me finish. Those attributes augment his complete domination of one-on-one situations. James can always get to any spot on the floor he wants, which often means the rim, with one defender on him. His passing just puts him in that situation more. Now, he’s not Michael Jordan or Kevin Durant in these situations, but Lyndon Johnson wasn’t FDR or even Harry Truman at times. He was, however, a maestro at backroom politics. His time as Senate Majority is arguably the most effective the Senate has ever ran. The first civil rights bill in 100 years was passed, to go along with a bevy of highly-regarded laws and bills regarding subjects from highways to foreign aid. All of this was accomplished due to Lyndon Johnson’s total domination of his co-workers. In group settings, like on the Senate debate floor, his personal touch and charm was neutered. So he did away with unlimited debate and practiced his politics in offices and committees. His innate knowledge of what each Senator wanted, needed, and could be persuaded by gave him the upper hand as soon as he walked into the meeting, and his imposing personality didn’t hurt either. The point of this is, he bent people to his will consistently over his 20 years in Washington, much like LeBron has spent a career taking anybody to task who wanted it.

They both dominated the venues in which they participated. LeBron has OWNED the East since Dwight Howard’s Magic blew up. He has been to the NBA Finals for 6 straight years. There have been pretenders to the throne, such as Derrick Rose’s Bulls, Paul George’s Pacers, and recently Isaiah Thomas’s Celtics. But none of them have summited James Mountain. It has been his conference. Every team facing him is geared towards stopping him and his own team is completely geared towards helping him. The system is rigged to stop him and his own team is rigged towards him. Lyndon Johnson himself did much of the rigging. As the Senate Majority Leader, he spoke much of his official functions into existence. Determining which Senator gets which office became his responsibility. Appointing certain committee chairs moved to his office. Bill scheduling passed through him. He made the system work around his gargantuan presence rather than fitting into it. As President, he expanded the function of the executive office more than any President since FDR (though Ronald Reagan is close). He wormed his way into bill-making as the Commander-in-Chief, crossing fuzzy ethical boundaries and passing more significant legislation in a short period than any other President. The biggest example that he dominated his office? He waged a war without even asking Congress. That is tough to do.

We’ve talked a lot about how President Johnson and LeBron differ or concur in terms of the instruments they wield and how they wield them. But the biggest difference is in the men themselves. Lyndon Johnson was an absolutely fascinating personality. His smile or scowl would lighten or darken any room he was in. His personality was as big as his ego, and his 6’5 frame seemed to fill any container he was put in. The biography goes into great detail about how he was trapped between his Texas self and what he (or, more accurately, his mother) wanted to be. He would cuss out his staff, speak gruffly, tell tall tales. He was an individual of great initiative and power, and regarded those that didn’t have either in the same quantities with disdain. James is much more democratic. His personality is firm but affirmative. He gets along with all of his teammates, and almost all regard him as a true professional. He is approachable, affable, and amorous with those around him. His ego is as large as it needs to be, but he does not have “Mamba Mentality”, or the need to be the absolute man. James is respectful to everyone in the organization, and can give away credit freely (unlike Johnson). He is as low-key as you can get for someone of his stature within the NBA. Even his reaction with opposing stars is muted, even friendly. He and Kevin Durant had dinner together before they faced each other in the Finals (Heat-Thunder edition, not Cavs-Warriors edition). These men were polar opposites at their corps. One was a swaggering statesmen, a titan that needed everyone to know that he couldn’t be felled. The other, a respectful ruler, a ball player that liked to regard himself as only that. He leads his team, but then talks to the same people as friends after the game. Both people accomplished much, and one could argue that they are both products of their times.

President Johnson and King James share an acronym, and frankly, that’s it. Well, ostensibly. At first glance. But when I finished the biography during the peak of the NBA playoffs, my brain decided to web the two together as best I could. So this is the result. I hope someone other than me got something out of this, because it was cathartic to dump this out of my brain.