What Lebron James Can Teach Us About Educating Our Children

Lebron and Savannah James attend one of many award ceremonies

So did you watch the San Antonio Spurs near domination of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals series that ended recently?

Me neither.

Okay, truthfully, I’m a huge basketball fan and I tried to watch a couple games, but I can’t deign to call it “basketball” when there’s actually a rule against playing real defense.

But I digress. I’m actually not here to talk about basketball at all, really.

I’d like to discuss one basketball player in particular and the fact that this player’s name is today virtually synonymous with basketball talent is only marginally relevant.

I’m here to talk about Lebron James, and I happen to be interested in his mind.

I’m interested in the fact that Lebron James is a genius. More to the point and true to my education roots, I’m interested in what the rest of us can learn from the fact that Lebron James is a genius. It seems to me that this fact, and the story behind it, have much to say about how we educate and evaluate the young learners of today.


So first things first: yes, Lebron James has a high level of intelligence. Mike Krzyzewski, who coached James on the 2012 Olympic team, says that James is “not smart. He’s brilliant.” According to his coaches, he knows every position of every play his team runs and can break down film and make game plays like a coach.

James, and many other talented athletes, possess a form of intelligence that rarely receives mention, perhaps due to its relative abstract nature and near impossibility to measure. Shane Battier, a fellow Miami Heat player, references this intelligence when he refers to James’ ability to read several quickly changing shapes, spaces, and angles simultaneously in order to know where and how to send the ball in a wide variety of situations.

Part of this ability is likely attributable to James’ prodigious memory. “It’s a little like A Beautiful Mind,” Battier says. “He has a quasiphotographic memory that allows him to process data very quickly.” James’ memory serves to catalog the offensive and defensive tendencies of opposing teams so that he can more easily retrieve that information and react to it at game speed. He knows every position of every play in his team’s playbook and will sometimes finish his coach’s sentences.


Lebron James, who recently missed his chance to win his third NBA title in a row, is finally being recognized not only for his incredible athletic talents but also for his mental gifts; it was his physical gifts and basketball accolades that led people increasingly to recognize the multitude of factors that enable his prowess and his third straight NBA finals appearance, despite the routing his Miami Heat received, seemed to shed more light not just on his dunks but also his mind.

But what if Lebron James hadn’t grown up to be 6’8”? What if he hadn’t been blessed with a vertical leap of over 40 inches or a wingspan of seven feet? What if Bron Bron, as his mother used to call him, had never gone out for sports?

Would he still be a genius then?

If a tree falls in the forest…

Who can say what the future of short, unathletic Lebron would have held. After skipping school for half of fourth grade, Lebron went on to record a 3.2 GPA in high school, so it’s pretty up in the air. Maybe he’d have gone on to college and/or a steady work life; maybe he would have fallen prey to the socioeconomic circumstances in which his life began. Either way, we likely wouldn’t be talking about the brilliance of his mind.

All of this leads me to the point of this writing, an important question that I’m sure I’m not the first to have pondered: how many other kids are woulda-been geniuses like short Lebron?

How many other young people are a matter of inches away from sports superstardom, but, with none of their nonathletic gifts recognized, fall victim to less-than-desirable life circumstances, their geniuses never to be understood as such? How many other children still, children from homes across the socioeconomic sprectrum, have little to no athletic talent whatsoever and, with little recognition of their own innate gifts, never find a way to make school truly feel like home?

How many children show their genius in ways that are never picked up by a standardized test or graded with an A or even patted on the back? I can think of dozens of former classmates: the class clown types with wit sharp as tacks who never failed to deliver the perfect punchline; the kids we’d later understand to be “good with their hands” who struggled along through school until high school when they were finally able to take a class like shop where they were able to use their hands to show what they really knew; the best friends who didn’t even need to look at you to know there was something wrong and whose emotional IQ could soothe even your most most obdurate of foul moods.

So many of these brilliant minds never recognized for their brilliance and, even, told over and again they were failures.

You can draw your own conclusions from all of this. I’m not here to point blame. I’m simply calling on other mothers out there to consider these questions, both for how they might apply to your own children and how they apply to the larger world “out there.”

If your child is someone who can take a test and experience validation, your family is blessed. If, however, your child does not fall into this category, you’re far from alone.

Many of our children are fortunate enough to have a stronger support system than was afforded Lebron James in his younger days. How do we best use that support to show to our children their own brilliance when they don’t see it reflected elsewhere?

Furthermore, how can we build up the support systems of children everywhere? What can we as community members do to help the short Lebrons?

What can we all do to recognize and nurture genius in its many diverse forms?

4 thoughts on “What Lebron James Can Teach Us About Educating Our Children

  1. I believe in helping everyone (kids, grownups alike) identify and hone their unique gifts and passions. We all have them. There’s no use trying to force a square peg into a round hole. If we encourage our children to work hard and discover what’s special about them, I think that’s the right direction.

    1. Allison Bell Bern says:

      Agreed! (And let’s help make the holes as many shapes as possible, too 🙂

  2. Hi Allison, Thanks for this article. You make a fantastic point and one not so easy to “take” for super-busy moms. I have one child like “this”. I wouldn’t say she is a genius. She is highly atypical and has a hard time with the “testing” expectations at school. But my hubs & I have always seen that she has some very usual abilities unfortunately not ones that get much recognition.
    We asked that she be tested and “surprise-suprise” (not!), she did extraordinarily well in a handful of areas (spacial, visual), was on grade level in the academic tests (not reflected in her class tests results) and truly poorly in one of the attention dimensions. The one “bad” test explains all of her difficulties. And luckily it convinced the whole IEP team to really support her because she really has a great potential. It took us years to get there. It takes a lot of strength, determination and time to keep seeing and nurturing what no one else sees (or values) but I believe it is the best chance for atypical children to shine the brilliance they carry inside – because even if you are no genius, everyone has something special.

  3. He is one of my best and favorite players and I watch all of your matches and even follow you on social media. And that’s why I am in the basketball field.

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