In a sports-crazy country, superstar athletes are often seen as celebrities and larger-than-life characters. Their decisions are scrutinized and over-analyzed, their achievements are lauded, and their mistakes are magnified. And boy, do they make some big mistakes.
From Kobe's sexual assault trial to LeBron's unnecessary "taking my talents to South Beach" debacle, NBA stars are just as prone to having big slip-ups as anyone else. But while the negative backlash can be overwhelming, how the athlete "bounces back" will be what ultimately defines his legacy.
Think back to 1996. Seven years before LeBron James took the NBA by storm as a No. 1 pick out of high school, a lesser-known high school phenom went 13th in the 1996 draft. Just some brash kid from Philly named Kobe Bryant.
Remember teenager Kobe, the guy with the big afro and even bigger head? Bryant took a lot of bad shots. He was a bad teammate and seemingly an incurable ballhog.
Fast-forward a few years and we have Kobe Bryant, budding superstar, the NBA's mega-villain and the guy who couldn't share the limelight with Shaq in L.A. Then came the big sexual assault trial in 2003, after which he admitted to infidelity in his marriage on national TV. He lost some sponsorships and he lost fans. Impossible to come back from that, right?
Actually, Kobe grew up. A lot. He rededicated himself to being a family man, he matured as a player and a teammate, and worked harder than ever on his game. Bryant is revered around the league as a feared competitor and one of its smartest, best-spoken players. Even fans who still hate Kobe have to respect the way that he approaches the game. It's amazing what a few good years can do for your image.
Well, LeBron hasn't lost any major sponsorships yet, but if he continues to go down this road he just might. Polls have already shown that he's lost the approval and trust of the American public.
LeBron isn't a high school kid anymore. He can't afford to keep making immature mistakes such as the fake coughing episode during the finals. It's time for everyone to move on from "The Decision," though. It's not about what LeBron's done, but what he does from here on out that will define his career.
And the best thing that he can do is shut his mouth and go to work. Sound like anyone? Kobe does a lot of talking, but he also backs it up with his play. If you're going to hold your team accountable, you have to lead by example as well.
Kobe adds new wrinkles to his game each year. Anything that he feels is a weakness, he'll dedicate an entire offseason to making sure it's a strength. Sure, he's naturally a great athlete, but he works tirelessly at maximizing his potential to be great.
LeBron, on the other hand, already has the best combination of physical gifts in the NBA. At 6'8", 240, LeBron ranks among the fastest and strongest players in the league. He was a full-grown man in terms of body build by the age of 17.
He won three high-school state championships in four years and was anointed the "greatest high school basketball player of all time" and "the Chosen One" even before he stepped foot in the NBA. Being great at basketball is effortless to LeBron; maybe that's why he hasn't put more work into developing a go-to move or making more free throws.
LeBron wants to pretend like he can embrace the role of super-villain. His attitude seems to be hey, if nobody likes me, so be it. But everyone loves a feel-good story, even LeBron, and my feeling is that he is getting tired of all the hate.
Plus, LeBron he has always stated that he wants to be a global icon as well as a legendary basketball player. As a global icon, you have to reach out to a wide fanbase, and LeBron is actually driving away his fanbase with every distasteful word out of his mouth.
In this scenario, he can take some cues from none other than Kobe Bryant. Kobe knows that nothing makes the critics go away faster than winning, and that's what his focus is and has always been. He doesn't go out of his way to seek attention, or talk about being a global icon. Bryant knows that winning makes all of those other things—popularity among fans, marketability and likability—fall in line.
Most of all, LeBron has to want to be one of the all-time greats. In terms of pure talent, he's already there in the discussion of greatest of all time. But if he wants to carve out a truly unforgettable legacy for himself, he's going to have to win multiple championships, not just talk about it.
What's he missing, exactly? Well, let's flashback to Kobe's rookie season, when he airballed three crucial jumpers in a playoff series that the Lakers ended up losing. What stood out most was that he had the audacity to take big shots despite being a rookie, and also handle the responsibility and blame that came with missing them.
Even at 18 years of age, Kobe separated himself with his willingness to risk it all for the chance to win. "Kobe was the only guy who had the guts at the time to take shots like that," said former teammate Shaquille O'Neal. Think anybody's saying that about LeBron?
Truth is, as much of a feel-good story this year's Mavericks were for the NBA, the Heat were supposed to be crowned this year's champions. Except that when it came to the biggest stage of all, the man who was supposed to be the Heat's biggest star didn't show up.
As the Heat started sliding and Dallas gained more momentum throughout the series, James seemed to shrink from the moment. One of the lasting images from the 2010-11 NBA Finals will be LeBron passing the ball off to lesser teammates despite having wide-open looks at the hoop. To be considered one of the true greats, he's going to have to want the ball in his hands at those crucial, season-deciding moments.
At only 26, LeBron has more than enough time to reinvent his image and his career. Can he regain respect and popularity with multiple championship rings? Will he ultimately be remembered as the NBA's greatest player of all time, or a supremely talented underachiever? Only time will tell.