It’s been almost 11 months since Lebron James made his ill-fated “decision” on national television where he broke the hearts of Cleveland, disgusted most die-hard NBA fans, and forever put an asterisk on his legacy. While many, including Lebron apparently, thought those sentiments would just blow over eventually, clearly they have not. With his team just two wins away from the NBA title one might expect that much of the anger and hatred towards the King would have subsided. But if Twitter posts, Q ratings, and sports talk radio are the barometers, there’s just as much hatred for Lebron as there was last July, perhaps even more. That’s unusual for an athlete who is the best in his sport who is playing an integral role in his teams’ path to the championship. So what is he doing wrong? And can he fix it?
Without question, the taste of The Decision still does not sit well with most fans outside of South Florida. Although the self aggrandizing hour long charade on ESPN and the spurning of Cleveland garnered much of the headlines, it wouldn’t have all been so objectionable had we really believed that there was a “Decision” to be made. Brett Favre has had more press conferences than the President and contrary to popular belief, Lebron wasn’t the first guy to leave a team for a chance to win a title – Shaq did the same thing when he left Orlando for LA. What still stings is the fact that we as fans were duped into thinking that Lebron actually considered the Bulls, the Knicks or staying in Cleveland. As more reports came out that it was clear Lebron, Wade and Bosh put this in motion almost two years prior, we as fans felt ridiculous for spending so much time and energy on the Lebron sweepstakes. It’s one thing to pull a fast one on other owners, but heaven help the athlete or celebrity who purposely misleads the public.
Worse, while Lebron has admitted that The Decision was a mistake, he still hasn’t made a full mea culpa. While it might be a case of too little too late, a public apology for leading fans on and acknowledging what we all know – that he and Wade and Bosh were teaming up no matter what – would go a long way to repairing his image.
ON COURT ANTICS
But it’s not just the decision that irks many about Lebron. His on the court gloating and preening do not resonate with a generation of fans that I grew up with. As a Michigan native, my idols growing up were Barry Sanders, Steve Yzerman and Joe Dumars – guys who always looked like they had been there before, and never would have considered showing up an opponent publicly. Now I’m not naïve enough to think that sports still operate the way they did in the 80’s and 90’s – celebrations, trash talk, etc. are all part of the game. But there is something that doesn’t sit right with the best player in the world (and let’s be clear, that’s what Lebron is), celebrating like he’s the 12th guy on a college basketball team who scored his first point on an alley-oop. When you’re as good as Lebron is, EVERYTHING you do on the court should be expected. I’m not saying he shouldn’t celebrate the big moments, but let’s make sure they are the big moments. A last second 3 pointer to close-out a 7 game series counts; a breakaway dunk to extend a lead to 12 does not. Part of Jordan’s greatness is that he always expected to make the shot, be the guy, and win the game. And while he certainly celebrated when he won, he knew when it mattered and when it didn’t. Lebron still doesn’t get what’s worth celebrating. And if you need any evidence, the way in which he acted after the Heat took out the Celtics in the second round is a perfect example.
While we’re on the topic of Lebron’s on-court demeanor, I’d like to remind Lebron that he is capable of fouling another player, getting a shot blocked without being fouled, and traveling. From the way he responds when a ref doesn’t give him the call he likes, you’d think they’d slept with his mother (too soon?). Lebron’s incredulous response to almost every whistle that doesn’t go his way is another reason nobody north of Fort Lauderdale is rooting for him. I’m not saying Lebron shouldn’t get the star treatment when it comes to calls – that’s par for the course when it comes to the NBA. And he has every right to work the refs from time to time. But every time a call goes against Lebron, you can be sure that the next shot on-camera will be Lebron with his hands on his head, a confused look on his face, and a half smile/half scowl hidden by his mouth-guard. Even the best players make mistakes, but from watching Lebron you’d never think he is fallible. All eyes are going to be on Lebron no matter what, he doesn’t need to do things to draw extra attention to himself, especially when he’s acting like a pouting teenager.
WE NEED A MOMENT
When an athlete makes the leap from great to immortal, it usually involves a signature moment that is seared into our minds for eternity. Those moments usually lead to championships, and together, they create a memory. And even if that player is unlikeable as a person, if the moment is awe-inspiring, we will let our grudge go to acknowledge what has been accomplished. When it comes to basketball, Jordan had his hand changing layup over the Lakers and his shoulder shrug against the Blazers, Magic had his baby hook, and Bird had his steal. Lebron had his 48 point game to take out the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, but without the title, it didn’t make the leap to iconic status. Maybe it’s a last second jumper, or an incredible 4th quarter outburst, but Lebron needs to find his moment en route to a championship. Do that and even his most ardent critics will have to be silenced, and may even be forced to sing his praises.
LET YOUR GUARD DOWN
If Lebron is fortunate enough to have his “moment” this week or next, let’s hope he follows it by letting us peak behind the curtain and see the real Lebron, instead of the protected image he’s had since he was the anointed one at age 16. Remember, Lebron was the first high school star that garnered real television ratings while he was still in high school, and unlike most young phenoms, he’s actually lived up to the hype. But the downside to that is that Lebron has been in the spotlight since he was a junior in high school. He’s learned to carefully craft an image of who he is, or more likely, who he thinks he should be. He is notorious for his inner circle of friends from Akron who both manage his life and his career. They protect him, promote him, and surround him. And sadly, that’s led to a corporate image of an athlete we don’t really know. Almost everything about Lebron seems contrived or staged, and nothing seems genuine. In the age of media access we live in, it’s almost shocking that nobody really knows the real Lebron. I can’t entirely blame him, as I’m sure he learned at a young age that his talents were special, and that he needed to be concerned about people looking to take advantage of him. But that wall he puts up to protect himself also isolates him from the fans and the media. He’s never standoffish, but he rarely seems friendly or willing to share what he really thinks. Lebron doesn’t have to be an open book, but even if people don’t agree with what you think, they’ll like you more if you have the guts to say it, and defend it. Instead of telling people what he thinks they want to hear, Lebron needs to take down his wall and tell the world what he really thinks.
If the title doesn’t happen for him this year, it will happen for him soon. He’s too good for it not to. But winning a title by itself won’t give him the image he wants, and it won’t make people like him. That’s going to take some work on the court, and off. If Lebron is willing to make some fundamental changes to his approach, he can have it all. Otherwise, he may end up being the best player in the league with the least amount of fans.