by Shawn McGrath or North Station Sports
In a lot of ways, I want to be a LeBron James fan.
I pull for the Celtics first and foremost, but I’m a realist as well, and it’s not hard to see that, without a serious overhaul in the next year-ish, the team’s window to contend for a championship won't extend too much further down the road (Ignore this statement if Rondo continues to develop a jumper; his ability to hit open shots or hit FTs would be a game changer). The Lakers, on the other hand, are in a position to contend for the foreseeable future. Whereas with baseball, I stop watching if the Red Sox fall out of contention, if the Celtics ceased to exist tomorrow (bite my tongue, I know), I’d probably still watch hoops on League Pass a minimum of five nights a week. Thus, I want a player in the East to cheer for in the event that the C’s sun starts to set in the not to distant future. For a period of time, I labored to convince myself LeBron James was that guy. Just yesterday, Salma Mahmoud made a very good case on this site as to why, for many people, he is every bit that electrifying, compelling player. But I can’t root for him. It’s impossible.
There’s a whole laundry list of topics related to LeBron in the public consciousness of late: I tackled LeBron's rug-cutting escapades in another post, so let's start with the retiring of Jordan’s number, which has also inspired a lot of headlines. This is a multifaceted form of self-importance displayed by King James: not only does he believe he has the right to suggest other players give up their numbers (had he simply relinquished his own number as a tribute, I’d have been impressed; why the need to get on a soapbox), he shows either a) a lack of respect for two of two other all-time greats, or b) a poor sense of the league’s history. The idea that wearing the Greatest of All Time’s (Russell should rank somewhere in your top 5, but there’s no question about #1, unless you relinquished the bonds of reality) number is a faux-pas, but wearing the same digits as two players in Bill Russell and Julius Erving who changed the landscape of the professional game is mind boggling. Or maybe he plans to “honor” Russ and The Doctor at some point down the road in the same dubious manner.
The teasing/pulling back from the dunk contest was just poor handling of the situation: it’s like LeBron, in showing his enthusiasm for the competition, acted emotionally for a minute (like a real person, something we rarely see from the guy), only to realize “hmmm… I have absolutely nothing to gain here, but potentially a bit to lose if I’m shown up by the Nate Robinson’s of the league.” Maybe he’s just trying to stir up some drama so that he looks charitable. Regardless, this decision is either about ego, business, or some mash-up of the two. I can’t imagine Nike would be too thrilled with their main bread-winner if he was defeated by this year’s Gerald Green (Shannon Brown!?!) in the dunk contest, therefore, he’s going to disappoint a lot of the fans whose interest he’s piqued.
I’ll complement LeBron for one action that’s gotten some bad publicity lately, and it’s the thing he’s been most criticized for: walking off the court after the loss to the Magic in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. I care about guy’s conducting themselves the right way on the court: I really do. I care about players treating each other with respect, even in the heat of battle, but I’m not sure when the post-series-ending-loss-at-home-handshake entered the lexicon of NBA sportsmanship. Come on, it’s not as though we went on an F-bomb laced tirade in his post-game presser, or used his saliva as a means by which to gain a competitive edge. He was furious with himself for losing, and left the court. With all due respect to Nick, who cited Isiah’s relationship with Magic as a evidence of LeBron’s wrongdoing, this is the same Isiah Thomas who, in the ’91 Conference Finals, led his teammates off the floor with 7.9 seconds left in a Game 4 that clinched the Pistons sweep at the hands of Jordan’s Bulls. And you know what? Regardless of his latter day sins, Isiah was a winner. The disgust and thinly veiled rage LeBron displayed in walking off the court showed the kind of killer instinct I want to see out of the face of the NBA, as opposed to all the bullshit posturing that he’s so prone to. That’s the first glimpse I’ve gotten of a guy who could be a true, cutthroat, do what it takes to win kind of alpha dog, rather than just a superstar content to get paid and get his numbers. And by the way, a certain #33 walked off the court with time remaining in the '88 Conference Finals after losing to those same Isiah-led Pistons. We don't come down too hard on him around these parts.
LeBron James’ personality - or more accurately, the persona that we see in front of the camera, usually consisting of carefully worded jokes, effectively chosen cliches about his teammates - feels to me like the same kind of carefully crafted corporate product that we see from actors who go on late night shows trying to pimp their newest movie. I don’t feel for a second that I have any sense of who LeBron is, what makes him tick, or even if he’s a remotely good person. With the rise of Myspace, Facebook and Twitter, we’ve done a little bit of an about-face from the Jordan era, when the most visible star in the league was able to hide the fact that he was a) a ruthless son of a bitch and b) addicted to gambling. We’ve got unheralded access to the unfiltered thoughts of players which, while not always good for them (Michael Beasley can attest to this), is pretty constantly entertaining and occasionally insightful for us as fans. In some ways, it’s like a re-imagining of the relationship media members enjoyed with players in the 70’s, when having a steak and a beer before a night on the town was a common occurrence for beat writers and the players (and, in Tommy Heinsohn’s case, coaches) that they covered. This era is well covered in John Powers’ book The Short Season, about Havlicek’s last year in the league.
I’m not the kind of guy who likes gossiping about the personal lives of people in the public eye, but when a guy like LeBron, who so obviously loves the spotlight, goes out of his way to make statements and appearances that reveal absolutely nothing about him, I become a little bit curious, and a little big agitated. Outside of the walking off the court incident and the fact that he once smoked some weed in high school, the guy’s a blank slate. Say what you will about Kobe Bryant, but at least I feel like the guy’s a person: a shitty one, maybe. A phony one, almost certainly. But even so, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of robotic enigma that James does...READ MORE