Ah, comeuppance. How we love it. Sure, we hate the Miami Heat, but we hold a special dark place for LeBron James. He backstabbed. He bragged. He sought to stack the deck to win a championship -- and bang, it all backfired. How delicious.
But the lasting, deep hatred of James is uncalled for and unjustified. Sure, we love our villains in sports. If you’re a Boston Red Sox fan, you hate the New York Yankees. Cheer for the Washington Redskins, and you just love to see the Dallas Cowboys humiliated. Dallas Mavericks fans certainly had reason to revel in the Heat’s dismay after the Mavericks’ Game 6 victory yesterday, clinching the National Basketball Association title.
But since “The Decision” to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, the derision for the basketball star is something deeper. Why? He has been in the limelight since his freshman year of high school, when he was barely 15 years old. For a superstar of his magnitude, he has been engaging, classy, polite, interesting, thoughtful, open.
He has never been accused of a crime -- no drunken driving, no assault, no abusing a girlfriend, no groping, no rape, no slurs. Considering the temptations that have surrounded him, the fact that his biggest scandal before departing Cleveland was wearing a Yankees hat to an Indians game, James has been extraordinary and exemplary in his behavior.
So what did he do wrong?
He handled free agency poorly, I guess. But it was a no-win situation. James was attacked for the way he let other teams court him. Instead of James visiting the various cities, the owners of the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Mavericks and Clippers had to come to Cleveland to present to him. Gasp! What hubris, the columnists said. But was it?
Could you imagine the reaction if James had decided to tour New York, for example? You would have the politicians and glad-handers crawling out from every crevice to wine him and dine him and present him with keys to the city. There would be traffic jams and accusations of special treatment and all that other sideshow noise.
And when James ultimately chose to go to Miami, what did the columnists scream? He couldn’t win on his own, so he teamed up with other superstars. What a coward! Michael Jordan would have never done that. Well, we don’t know what Michael Jordan would or wouldn’t have done in that situation. We know that Larry Bird won his championships with teammates like Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge. We know that Magic Johnson played alongside Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper and, let’s not forget, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the greatest scoring center in the history of basketball.
Should James want less?
And suppose he had. If James had chosen the opposite -- playing with less-talented teammates -- the columnists would have called him an egomaniac who cared only about individual stats. The fact that he was willing to sacrifice money and scoring statistics for titles in Miami was somehow looked upon as selfish.
As for taking interviews with other teams that he may or may not have had serious interest in playing for, well, what’s wrong with that? If a friend is being recruited by various companies in various cities, do you fault him for hearing all parties out? Do you fault him for choosing a new company if he believes it will make him happier or more fulfilled? Of course not. So why not do the same for James?
The naysayers will, of course, correctly point out the stupefying idiocy of “The Decision” TV special and the over-the-top, preening Heat pep rally that followed. Yes, James should take a hit for the first one. A 25-year-old made a bad decision on “The Decision” or was given bad advice. As for the rally, I don’t know what public-relations genius came up with that peacock-strutting parade, but he or she should be fired. I doubt it was James’s idea.
Either way, these mistakes don’t rise to the level of the virulently unforgiveable.
Finally we get to Lebron’s failure to perform in the clutch. Funny. I heard that about Dirk Nowitzki for 12-plus seasons, particularly after 2006 when his Mavericks team blew a 2-0 series lead to the Heat. And I saw a pretty impressive LeBron James take charge in the fourth quarter of these same playoffs against the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics. That’s not to say his fourth-quarter play in the Finals wasn’t perplexing, but there is more to this criticism than that.
Even more to the point, I dare say that no other player in the history of the NBA -- not the great Michael Jordan, not even Kobe Bryant when he was accused of rape -- had to deal with the venomous ill-will and malicious pressure put upon James this season. He put on a brave face, but you could see the bewilderment. He changed teams and went from one of the game’s most beloved figures to the most vilified. When you look at the why, it was really unjustified. It had to stun. It had to hurt, and yes, it had an effect on his game. That, too, doesn’t make James a bad person. If anything it shows that he’s human and the cruel words did wound.
Our hatred of James says something about us as much as it does about him. And that something is not really very nice. Face it, James is now 26. Remember what you were like in your mid-twenties? Yet we act like the strictest and most withholding of parents.
I’m all for taking athletes down a peg when they deserve it. But please, let the punishment fit the crime. What James did is worthy of an eye-roll and some criticism, sure, but not universal, eternal condemnation. Let’s step back and out of ourselves, and appreciate him for what he is -- a great, if not yet legendary, player.
(Harlan Coben is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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