Photo by Keith Allison
Do you remember what it was like to be twenty-something? How many mistakes did you make in your twenties? How many things would you take back if you could? Now imagine you have to live out your life, like it or not, on a world stage, while making all of these growing pains’ mistakes. Meaning, all of your work transgressions, and even some of your personal ones, become fodder for the entire world of print, television, and social media. How well do you think you would be able to handle it? Well, this is the life of LeBron James, and although he’s had a life that most people would die for, there are potential drawbacks to living LeBron, and over the last year James experienced those issues firsthand. He went from one of the most beloved sports figures living, to one of the most despised – from a King, to a court jester, from the beloved Michael Jordon, to the despised Tiger Woods.
The NBA finals have been over for two weeks now. The series is still fresh in our memories, yet enough time has passed to allow close examination of the entire LeBron James saga that took place this season. To understand how James became the most hated man in the NBA, all roads lead to last summer, July 8th in particular, and his ESPN special “The Decision.”
The negative reaction was immediate, Cleveland fans, the Cavalier’s owner Dan Gilbert, sports reporters, and the talking heads at ESPN all weighed in on his announcement. It is clear that he chose a poor way to announce his future plans. Okay actually he chose a terrible way. In fact, everyone who watched Lebron James hour-long self-indulgent narcissist-fest ESPN debacle “The Decision“ knows that it was a terrible miscalculation. The nation spent an hour wasting it’s time on something that only required ten minutes to announce, and twenty minutes to discuss. And yes the critics were right, he should have spoke to Dan Gilbert face to face to say goodbye to the Cavalier organization, however Gilbert’s offensive reaction afterwards, demonstrated the type of man James was dealing with in the first place. No wonder rumors have surfaced that they disliked each other when James was a Cleveland Cavalier. However, it is important to remember that ESPN and James were not the only players in this show. The entire nation was gripped in the unprecedented 2010 NBA free agency period. NBA teams were caught up as well. Several teams cleared cap space in a manner and urgency never before seen in professional sports. All the major NBA free agents were receiving major press and attention. Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, even David Lee were all sought after, but ESPN had their “Lebron watch” running daily, and his eventual destination trumped all. From the first day of free agency until the day he signed with the Miami Heat, Sportcenter, PTI, Around the Horn, Rome is Burning, and First Take discussed James free agency ad nauseam. James, ESPN, all other sports media, and the public bear some responsibility for the atmosphere that created ”the decision.” And while James deserves the most blame, ESPN deserved its fair share also, but didn’t receive any. Instead ESPN made money off of LeBron, both coming and going. On the show, and then the criticism of the show that they produced, and produced poorly at that.
The unfortunate side of it all, the public doesn’t remember its involvement and participation in the spectacle. The hatred Lebron received after the announcement was disproportionate to the act. He was free to choose his own destiny, to choose where he would live and go to work, just like any other American citizen, or any other NBA free agent. He was insensitive to the Cavs fans true, but the amount of hatred displayed during the season and playoffs in particular seemed ridiculous. Especially since these negative feelings came from fans all from over the country, and not just Cavs fans.
It is understandable however that the Cavalier fans rooting against Miami, were also ticked off by the Heat organization’s introduction of the new look team of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Only days after hurting them with “The Decision,” it was another over-glitzed, over produced, “look at me” event done in poor taste, and more importantly, the main reason that the casual basketball fan began to root against the Heat. However this was a Heat organization event, and the organization should take the “heat” for the debacle, not any player in general, and especially not James in particular. And if the players do take the blame, there were three players on that stage, and they should equally share any criticism. However, there hasn’t been a bad word said about Chris Bosh all year long, and hardly any vitriol directed directly at Dwayne Wade. This team has had many detractors, but when it comes to assigning blame to an individual Heat player, LeBron James is in a class unto himself.
By the time the NBA finals came, the main media story was the repeated failure of LeBron James in the fourth quarter of games. Does he have a killer instinct? Can he close out games? Does he have the “it” gene that Jordon and Kobe Bryant possess? These type of questions were all the rage on sports talk radio and TV programs. Either it was quickly forgotten, or easily overlooked, but James closed out games against the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics to get to the Heat to the finals. Granted, it is a “what have you done for me lately league,” but James mistakes were highlighted at ever opportunity, while Dwyane Wade’s were consistently overlooked. When headlines were made about Lebron and Wade making light of Dirk Nowitzki having the flu in game 3, it was actually Dwyane Wade who made the joke, not Lebron. James was only guilty of laughing at Wade, but took most the blame for the incident. If it was Mario Chalmers laughing at Wade when he made the joke, would Chalmers have made headlines? Or would the blame for the incident landed where it belonged, squarely on Wade‘s shoulders? The bias went even further. While Wade did carry the Heat at times, scoring the majority of the teams points in most games, he had key turnovers in the fourth quarter of at least two games, critical crunch time mistakes -just like Lebron James, not as many, but crucial still the same. In game 4, Wade failed to get off the final shot, a potential game-tying basket. He fumbled the ball and Mike Miller was forced to take a desperate air ball three pointer. In game 5 the Heat failed to score for almost the last four minutes of the game, and Wade had a critical turnover during that period. These key mistakes were overlooked in favor of the “bigger” story of Lebron James failure to score in the fourth quarter, but when it counted the big issue was that no one on Miami scored.
Looking past the hype of the NBA finals, and the fact that Miami made it there, the Heat were a flawed team, and ill equipped to win a championship. The Dallas Mavericks were a complete team, while this year’s version of the Heat, lacked a viable option at point guard or center and had a questionable bench. Has anyone really looked at this roster closely? Eric Dampier, Juwan Howard, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Mike Bibby were all shells of their former selves, while Joel Anthony, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Miller are at their best, solid role players. The Heat failure in the finals was a team issue, not a LeBron James failure to score in the fourth quarter issue. He did need to score in crunch time, but he Heat must improve their team quality and depth over the summer to take that final championship step.
On May 11th, after the Heat dispatched of the Boston Celtics and sent them summer “fishing,“ LeBron James explained why he joined the Miami Heat and apologized for “the decision” while he was at it. “I knew I had to go through Boston at some point. I went through a lot signing to be here and the way it panned out. I apologize for the way it happened, but I knew that this opportunity was once in a lifetime.” James may be young, and at times arrogant, but he is not stupid. LeBron went even further after the finals and posted a mea culpa on his personal website stating, “He has a lot to learn” and “a lot of work to do.” Now, let’s allow him to do that work and grow, just like every other twenty-something adult.
In this era of sports where stars commit adultery, get arrested for drugs, DWI’s, domestic violence, homicides, steroids, and HGH, James has always conducted himself with grace. LeBron is a responsible father, and has been in a long-term committed relationship with the mother of his children, he’s never been arrested, associated with drugs, thugs, or seedy situations. He has been a model teammate on every team he’s played for, and is an international ambassador for the NBA and the game of basketball. The young man has fallen on his sword, the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games, and he has apologized for past mistakes. I believe the basketball gods and basketball fans have received their pound of flesh, now can we allow the kid to just go play basketball? Really folks, when we choose our villains to root against, we could do a lot better than LeBron James.