by Derek Neal
In the first round of this year’s NBA playoffs, Austin Reaves, an undrafted and little-known guard who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, held the ball outside the three-point line. With under two minutes remaining, the score stood at 118-112 in the Lakers’ favor against the Memphis Grizzlies. Lebron James waited for the ball to his right. Instead of deferring to the star player, Reaves ignored James, drove into the lane, and hit a floating shot for his fifth field goal of the fourth quarter. He then turned around and yelled, “I’m him!”. The initial reaction one might have to this statement—“I’m him”—is a question: who are you? The phrase sounds strange to our ears. Who could you be but yourself? And if you are someone else, shouldn’t we know who this other person is? Who is the referent of the pronoun “him”? Perhaps because of its cryptic nature, “I’m him” is an evocative statement, and it has quickly spread throughout sports and gaming culture. In a 2022 episode of “The Shop,” Lebron James himself declared “I’m him.” On YouTube, there are numerous compilations with titles such as “NFL ‘I’m Him’ Moments.” If you search the phrase on Twitter, people use it in relation to sports, music, video games, and themselves. But what does it mean, and where did it come from?
An internet search turns up a few articles explaining the history of this statement. Apparently, a rapper named Kevin Gates was the first to popularize the phrase when he titled his 2019 album, I’m Him. In this instance, “Him” acted as an acronym for “His Imperial Majesty.” We could then understand people saying, “I’m Him” to be saying something along the lines of “I’m the king.” This expression would function much like another sports saying, “the GOAT,” meaning “the greatest of all time.” But I think there is more to it than this. Since Gates used the term, no other examples have used “him” as an acronym.
In Gates’ press release for the album, he wrote: “All of those negative connotations the world puts out…I’m him. All of those positive connotations the world puts out…I’m him as well. This is the new Kevin versus the old Kevin. It’s a celebration. It’s a rebirth. It’s redemption. I’m overcoming who I used to be in order to be greater.” Gates seems to be saying that he is the world, or that he is above worldly concerns and is unaffected by them. In either case, there is clearly a spiritual dimension to Gates’ words, indicating that being “him” could also be understood as being God.
A YouTube video that increased the popularity of “I’m him” adds more evidence in this direction. In the video from March 2022, a man named JiDion goes bowling with a coconut. The purpose of the video is clearly to troll people, and the funniest sequence in the video is when he is kicked out of a bowling alley for the second time. He tells an older woman—the apparent de facto leader of the alley—that he knows what it takes to average a 280 score: “You gotta be him. I’m him.” When the woman hears the word “him,” her eyes widen, and she seems possessed by a sort of uncontrollable rage. “You are not him,” she says. Then she holds a finger to the sky, emphasizing her point: “You are not him. You are not HIM!” At this moment, another man begins to usher her away, fearing what might happen next. The woman has clearly taken JiDion to mean that he is God. But JiDion is quick to correct this misconception. “No, I’m not him,” he says, pointing upwards. “I’m just him,” he continues, and points down to his phone. I’m not God, he’s saying, I’m just a person—I’m me. “You’re an idiot,” the woman says, and walks away.
“Him” could mean a king, a god, or it could mean “that guy/dude/man.” In sports, it is common to express that someone is “that guy,” or “that dude,” which could mean something like “the one you’ve heard about,” “the one whose reputation precedes him,” or “the one you have to watch out for.” When that dude shows up, he could say, “It’s me, I’m him.” Mark Jackson, one of ESPN’s color commentators who will be on air for the NBA Finals, likes to say, “Mama, there goes that man,” whenever the game breaks for commercial and a replay is shown of an impressive play. That man is “him.”
The key point in all three explanations—king, god, or that man—is that in each instance, the player becomes someone else. He is no longer himself, but by virtue of his play has transformed into something greater, someone that may be beyond a mere mortal, if only temporarily. The first time I heard this phrase, I was reminded of Robert Oppenheimer’s translation of a line from the Bhagavad Gita, when he said, in relation to the creation of the atomic bomb, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Both statements strike our ears as unusual and poetic—“I’m him” because of the strange combination of subject and object; “I am become death” for the same reason, but also because of the verb “be” in the place of “have.” In each case, we are surprised that the identity of the speaker is revealed to be someone or something unexpected—him or death.
The context surrounding the line from the Bhagavad Gita makes this clearer. At this moment in the epic, Arjuna is about to enter battle against an opposing army that includes members of his family and friends. He hesitates. Then the god Krishna, acting as Arjuna’s charioteer, reveals his “universal form” to Arjuna. He changes from his humanlike form into a being with “unlimited mouths and unlimited eyes,” a form “difficult to see because of its glaring effulgence, which is fiery and immeasurable like the sun.” After revealing this universal form, Krishna says the famous line, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people.” When Krishna says that he is death (or time, in some translations), he also changes physical form, revealing himself to be the supreme god Vishnu. Something similar happens when a basketball player says, “I’m him!”
While not literally changing form, this is the effect created on us as spectators of the sport. An athlete becomes, fleetingly, a god. Hans Gumbrecht, in one of the few books I know of that analyzes sport aesthetically, makes this claim. In describing the Olympics in Ancient Greece, he cites the hymns of Pindar to show how the reason thousands of Greeks would travel days and weeks to Olympia was because “being in the immediate presence of athletic greatness meant being close to the gods.” For the five days of the ancient Olympics, spectators were “in the presence of Zeus himself.” According to Gumbrecht, it is no coincidence that the Olympics took place in the same location as the Temple of Zeus; in fact, the Olympics were not just a sporting event but also a religious ceremony, and Gumbrecht continually insists that a distinction should not be made between the two. It is relatively common to hear sport compared to religion, both positively and negatively, but these arguments rarely realize how correct they are: sport and religion are two sides of the same coin, both developing historically out of our capacity for play. At some time in the past, sport and religion would not have been distinct activities. During the Olympics in Ancient Greece, “every four years, for a short span of time in this very specific place, religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.”
While being a god is great, it is temporary. Austin Reaves may have been “him” for a week or two, taking the title from Lebron James, but the Lakers were then eliminated by the Denver Nuggets, and his title was relinquished. I’m reminded here of Simone Weil’s comments on force in the Iliad: “the force in their possession is only a limited quantity…the truth is, nobody really possesses it.” To control force in the Iliad is to be favored by the gods and to have the aid of the gods. When Hector kills Patroclus, it is because Apollo guides him. When Achilles kills Hector in return, it is because Athena helps him. When an athlete or a warrior does something that seems beyond the limits of the human, we must resort to otherworldly explanations, while also remembering that one only has “force on loan from fate.”
When the NBA Finals begin on June 1, there will be a few prime candidates vying for the right to say, “I’m him.” The first is Nikola Jokic, the Serbian center for the Denver Nuggets. He has won MVP in two out of the last three seasons and plays basketball in a way that practically no one before him ever has, orchestrating the team’s offense, pushing the ball on the fast break, and doing ballet moves in the low post, all while being over 7 feet tall. The second is Jamal Murray, a guard for the Nuggets who has the ability to score in flurries and is possessed of a supreme self-confidence. In Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Lakers, Murray hit four consecutive three pointers in the fourth quarter. After the fourth, Murray backpedaled down the court, pointed to play-by-play announcer Mike Breen, and in a case of life imitating art, said Breen’s signature play call—”BANG!”—that Breen uses whenever a player hits a crucial jump shot. The next candidates depend on the Nuggets’ opponent, either the Miami Heat or the Boston Celtics, who face off in Game 7 tonight. If the Heat win, it will be Jimmy Butler, a player who has already earned the nickname “Himmy” Butler for his clutch playoff exploits. If the Celtics win, it will be Jayson Tatum, a rising star in the NBA who occasionally falters in big moments, but who will have the possibility to shed this reputation. So, who will be “him”? Let the gods decide.