As Chicagoans well know, sports icons often stay entwined with the towns where they became legends. No one can separate Michael Jordan or Frank Thomas from Chicago. Would Brian Urlacher and Ryne Sandberg be smiling down from every hair-replacement billboard along the Kennedy if marketers hadn’t calculated that their time with the Bears and Cubs, respectively, made them Chicago icons?

And then there are more complex cases. “Cleveland and LeBron is a tempestuous relationship,” says playwright Rajiv Joseph, a native of that city and an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. “It had a divorce, it had a remarriage, it had another divorce. He left, which we hated him for; he came back, which we loved him for; he won the only championship in my lifetime, which we really loved him for.”

LeBron James looms large over King James, Joseph’s new play, which will have its world-premiere staging at Steppenwolf this month. (Originally scheduled for May 2020, it was pushed back because of the pandemic.) But while his name is in the show’s title, the basketball star doesn’t appear as a character.

Instead, the story focuses on two Cleveland fans, played by Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti, who are brought together as young adults by their shared love of the game. We follow them across four scenes, “which, in the structure of the play, coincide with a particular moment in LeBron’s relationship with Cleveland,” says Joseph. Yes, one of the scenes is set against The Decision, the live ESPN special James booked in Cleveland to announce he was taking his talents to the Miami Heat after seven seasons with his hometown team. (It, of course, backfired spectacularly.)

Glenn Davis
Glenn Davis plays a Cleveland sports fan in the new Steppenwolf production. Photograph: Lawrence Agyei

Joseph, 47, is interested in how fandom, and the overanalysis and trash talk that go with it, can serve as a lens through which friendships are focused. “The play in some ways grapples with the notion I’ve had throughout my life that sports acts as a sort of language for some people. Sports is really just an entertainment form, and yet it means so much more to so many people, including myself. And for these particular characters, it’s become their way of communicating their affection and disdain to each other.”

King James is inspired by Joseph’s friendship with Davis. Their relationship isn’t anything like the one in the play, he notes, “but it’s the idea of how sports integrates its way into a friendship.” The two met in 2009, when Davis was cast in the Los Angeles world premiere of Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama and eventually transferred to Broadway. “During tech rehearsals, we would scurry out to the closest bar to watch LeBron in the playoffs, even though Glenn is a Bulls fan,” Joseph says.

“What Rajiv does really well is expand our sort of common knowledge [of a subject], what we think the thing is,” says Davis, who was appointed co–artistic director of Steppenwolf alongside fellow ensemble member Audrey Francis last year. “Men in Western culture, particularly, can come together around sports and express themselves very fluidly and very openly and easily with one another. Then in their personal, private lives, you see them become stifled, or have an inability to excavate a deeper knowledge of self and desires and wants. But you walk into a bar or a barbershop and see two guys ready to go to blows over whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time. That’s what Rajiv is really exploring here.”

That and the one-sided role our icons play in our lives. Joseph, who now lives in New York City, describes his relationship with James as “the most complicated and extensive and profound relationship I’ve ever had with an athlete.” Even so, Joseph says, “he obviously doesn’t know who the hell I am. That’s when it became clear that I wanted to write a play about this.”

Details King James Mar. 3—Apr. 10. Steppenwolf Theatre. Lincoln Park. $20–$88.