College football’s recruiting rodeo wraps up on Wednesday with National Signing Day, that exalted occasion when the nation’s best high school football players declare where they’ll be going to college. These announcements are mini-Decisions, televised on ESPNU, laden with props, and often featuring a version of LeBron James’ famous declaration from July 2010, “I’m going to take my talents to …” When wide receiver Malachi Dupre told a national TV audience that he was matriculating at LSU, he noted that there were “a lot of places I could have taken my talents.” Last month, highly rated defensive tackle Gerald Willis III announced, “I will take my talent to Gainesville, Fla.—Florida Gators,” while Devante “Speedy” Noil said, “I will take my talents to [Texas] A&M.”
In the days after The Decision, when James was pilloried for abandoning Cleveland, “take my talents” was viewed by many as a telling embarrassment, a sign of an ego run amok.
Now, more than three years later, the phrase has become a versatile part of the American lexicon. It’s a popular rap lyric, a synonym for masturbation (according to the wordsmiths at Urban Dictionary), and the go-to joke for job seekers on LinkedIn (“I would thoroughly enjoy taking my talents to an organization with a larger reach”).
For high school athletes, “take my talents” is an unironic signifier of athletic accomplishment—a way to align themselves with the greatest basketball player of the 21st century. Though today’s talent-takers were clearly inspired by The Decision, LeBron wasn’t the first basketball star to say those words. In 2005, high schooler Louis Williams held a press conference to announce, “I’ve decided to take my talent to the NBA draft this year.” And back in 1996, 14 years before LeBron went to South Beach, a nattily attired, teenage Kobe Bryant said, “I have decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA.”
Bryant seems to have been the first to use “take my talent” in the basketball press conference context. The phrase, though, wasn’t new to sports. Before Kobe, athletes didn’t say it to indicate they were moving on to the next stage of their careers. Rather, it was used as a threat against ungrateful employers. In response to trade rumors in 1988, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jesse Barfield told the Globe and Mail, “If they don’t want me I can take my talent elsewhere.” Four years later, in the midst of a contract negotiation with the Minnesota Twins, Kirby Puckett said, “If I’m meant to be here, I guess I’ll be here. If not, I’ll take my talent somewhere else.”
Highly placed white-collar types, too, talked about taking their talents to various places as far back as the 1980s. In 1986, the president of Washington D.C.’s Children’s Hospital told the Washington Post, “I need to take my talents, which I think people think are substantial, to other places.” In 1993, a former editor of the Daily Mirror wrote that his ex-employer was concerned “that I would immediately take my talents to Rupert Murdoch.” A year after that, the general secretary of the biggest Quaker community in the United States said upon resigning, “I’m getting on with my life. I’m a capable, talented executive, and I intend to take my talents elsewhere.”
And nearly 80 years before LeBron James, famed novelist Agatha Christie wrote the following in 1922’s The Secret Adversary: “When I was a boy I heard a famous murder trial. I was deeply impressed by the power and eloquence of the counsel for the defence. For the first time I entertained the idea of taking my talents to that particular market.”
So don’t blame LeBron James for “take my talents.” Like many popular phrases, its origins are hard to pin down, and its meaning evolves as new generations adopt it as their own. Forget South Beach. From Agatha Christie to a Quaker general secretary to Kirby Puckett to a British newsman to Kobe to LeBron to Malachi Dupre, “take my talents” has been around the English-speaking world a couple of times over.