Heat’s LeBron James expresses desire to play in NFL game before he retires
LeBron James’ lengthy flirtation with professional football has added yet another chapter, as the four-time NBA MVP said Friday that he would like to crossover to the National Football League, even if just for one night.
“I wanna play one NFL game before it’s over,” James wrote during a Twitter question and answer session with fans.
The love affair between James and the gridiron dates back to his schoolboy days in football-crazed Ohio.
In Sports Illustrated’s first cover story on James, dated Feb. 18, 2002, Grant Wahl writes that the country’s most-prized hoops prospect had talked his mother into letting him continue playing on his high school football team.
LeBron may be the reason for the hysteria, but he isn’t your typical high school hoops phenom. For the last two years, in fact, he has risked career-threatening injury as an all-state wide receiver on the St. Vincent-St. Mary football team. At first Gloria refused to let LeBron play last fall, but after the 22-year-old singer Aaliyah died in a plane crash last August, he persuaded her to let him play. “You’re not promised tomorrow,” LeBron says. “I had to be out on the field with my team.” Though LeBron did break the index finger of his left (nonshooting) hand, he helped lead the Irish to the state semifinals.
Although James later gave up football and entered the NBA straight from high school, he has long said that he would have attended Ohio State University, one of the country’s dominant football powerhouses, had he gone to college. While attending a September game in Columbus, Oh., James said that he loves football “more than basketball” during an interview televised by ESPN.
In a 2009 commercial for State Farm Insurance, James calls football “my first love” before announcing that he would sign with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. The ad depicted James catching passes, blocking field goals and dunking the ball over the goalpost.
During the NBA’s 2011 lockout, James joined fellow NBA player Nate Robinson in exploring the NFL landscape. James asked one NFL writer on Twitter about the deadline for signing with an NFL team, while Robinson told Slam Magazine that he “might go play football” if the lockout dragged on.
A noted fan of the Dallas Cowboys, James attended a September game between the Cowboys and the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium. Before the game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told 105.3 FM in Dallas that he wished James played tight end for the Cowboys.
“I hope to see Lebron,” Jones said. “I just wish I could suit him out.”
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant also vouched for James’ football abilities.
“I think it would take him probably about a good two weeks to get very acquainted with football, knowing what he’s supposed to do,” Bryant told ESPNDallas.com in August. “I think that’s all he’d need with his physical ability. I’ve seen a little bit of his highlights from high school. He’s got the hands, he can run the routes, he’s fast enough. He could play in this league if he put it all together.”
James’ best football position has been a matter of some debate. Tight end and wide receiver usually get mentioned first, given James’ 6-foot-8, 250-pound listed measurements and his high school experience. NFL writer Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com has argued that James might also work well as a pass-rushing defensive end.
Joe Theismann, the former quarterback of Washington’s football team, even suggested recently that James could be a signal-caller.
James told the site at the time that he thought he could have made it as a quarterback if he had selected football over basketball at a younger age.
“I have the ability,” he said. “I can see and read plays. I study a lot, so I know defenses and things of that nature. So I would have been pretty good if I had decided to go for it.”
The timing of James’ most recent comment is interesting, even if by pure coincidence. The Heat enter the 2013-14 season in search of their third consecutive title, and James has the opportunity to secure a third consecutive Finals MVP award. Bulls legend Michael Jordan announced his (first) retirement in October 1993 after leading Chicago to three straight titles and winning three straight Finals MVP awards. Jordan then briefly pursued a career in professional baseball, chasing his own childhood love for the sport as well as his father’s dream that his son would be a Major League Baseball player.
When Jordan walked away from basketball the first time, he said that “the desire just isn’t there” because he “[didn't] have anything left to prove.” His agent David Falk later said that baseball was “like an adult fantasy camp” for his client and that Jordan was pursuing the sport for “the fun and challenge.” Jordan has said in interviews that he gained a new mental strength from his baseball struggles, and that he finally acquired perspective on his basketball abilities by stepping away from the game.
James’ comments on the subject of football — brief and wistful as they are — don’t necessarily suggest that he would pursue the sport for the reasons Jordan eventually sought refuge in baseball. Indeed, with Jordan’s Greatest Of All Time legacy hanging over his every move, James seems as locked into his NBA standing as ever.
But as with his other regular object of flirtation, the Slam Dunk Contest, there could come a point in James’ life where football becomes a subject of both love and regret. Imagining a retired James reflecting on his career, you can’t help but think that he will wish that he had actually participated in the Slam Dunk Contest, instead of just talking about it and making commercials about it. In that same vein, an unscratched football itch is only going to fester, not fade.
The NBA could face a lockout in 2017, at which point James would be 32 years old, with roughly $200 million in NBA salary in the bank, and possibly five championship rings on his fingers. At that point, the risks that troubled his mother all the way back in high school would be essentially erased. His legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats would be secure, and he would still be in prime athletic shape. Logistically, James could get in at least one game by early September, months before training camp during a lockout-shortened season would theoretically begin. With the connections and star power to land a contract at a moment’s notice, why not approach the summer of 2017 as a field trip into the NFL?
Why not engineer a sports media universe meltdown that would rival Jordan’s 1993 press conference? Why not enjoy the peace of mind that would come with knocking that “one NFL game” dream off of his bucket list when the league and the players union waste everyone’s time battling it out in the boardroom? Remember, as a wise philosopher once noted: “You’re not promised tomorrow.”