Jennifer A. Marshall: In politics, as in basketball, pride marks the road to destruction

Published: Tuesday, June 28 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The professional basketball season began with a limelight-seeking all-star dominating the coverage. It ended with the most valuable player of the NBA Finals shirking the cameras to savor victory in solitude.

Last summer, sportswriters dusted off the word "hubris" to describe "The Decision" — LeBron James' infamous ESPN special announcing his departure from the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers (which had plucked him straight out of high school) to join the Miami Heat. This summer, "humble" was the term for Dirk Nowitzki, named MVP of the six-game series after his Dallas Mavericks upset the favored Heat.

Nowitzki, a mild-mannered German, toiled for 13 years in Dallas to reach the NBA championship. It's a lesson in character and humility that resonates from the basketball court to the court of public debate. Nowitzki, now listed among pro basketball's greatest players ever, ran off the court in Miami immediately after the Mavs' triumph in Game 6.

"I had to get a moment," he told ESPN. "I didn't actually want to come out for the trophy, and the guys had to talk me into coming back out."

Contrast that attitude with LeBron James' "strange and saddening television spectacle," as the Wall Street Journal's David Roth described it last July.

"Players change teams all the time," Rick Telander wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. "But no player has ever done it with (this) pomp, phoniness, pseudo-humility and rehearsed innocence."

The diagnosis from Fox Sports columnist Mark Kriegel: hubris.

We typically hear the term when Shakespeare or Greek tragedy is the subject. Hubris is what brought down courtiers and kings. And indeed the story of the NBA star who goes by the Twitter handle KingJames has the marks of a classic tragedy.

As another King James text put it in 1611: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

If Americans' reaction to how James approached the 2011 NBA Finals is any indication, they still overwhelmingly believe that proverb 400 years after the first English translation of the Bible — the King James Version.

The near-universal revulsion at such self-absorption seemed to say: It's not about you. It's about a game. And the game is about testing the human spirit to see what it's made of. In other words, character counts. It matters even for larger-than-life sports icons, movie stars and politicians.

That call for character in public figures is a good sign amid the enormous civic challenges we face as a nation. From restoring the family to tackling the debt crisis, they require sober, sustained, hard work. Today, four out of 10 children are born to single mothers. That fact will cast a long shadow down the course of their lives, limiting their chances at success and happiness.

As Chuck Donovan put it in a recent Heritage Foundation paper: "No nation can afford to be neutral about the substantial impact that such dislocation imposes on the well-being of future generations and the resulting effects of spurring the growth of government and slowing the economy."

Every child born in America inherits a $200,000 share of the national debt. That burden, too, will affect the trajectory of their economic well-being, and that of generations to come. We need leaders who steward facts well, in ways that illuminate rather than cloud public understanding. We need public officials who refuse to posture and instead take the risks to tackle the issues at hand.

In other words, we need politicians who recognize it's not about them.

It's about America. And America is about a set of founding principles that have made this nation strong.

That outlook is a mark of the character that distinguishes a statesman from a politician.

The month between the anniversaries of D-Day and the Declaration of Independence is a good time to recall and revive our long-standing allegiance to character and self-sacrifice. In this republic, character ought always to be king.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of "Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century." (Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.)

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