LeBron James: Forever Alone

by Kevin Daly:

“In this fall…this is very tough…in this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”

There are only a few times in sports that I will always remember “the moment”: Landon Donovan’s injury-time goal in the United States vs. Algeria game in the 2010 World Cup; BOONE!; Adam Vinitari’s field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI; Plaxico’s catch in Super Bowl XLII; Abby Wambach’s header against Brazil in last year’s Women’s World Cup quarterfinal, amongst others.  For me, and for millions of other NBA fans, the Decision will always be one of those moments.

I have been a LeBron hater dating back to his Cleveland days.  I hated the preordained “King James” title and all the hype that surrounded him – even if it was hype over which he had no control.  I hated the way he could take over games with his unbelievable combination of size, speed, and skill, yet fail so often with the game on the line.  What I hated most were the Jordan comparisons.  I was not lucky enough to see Jordan in his prime, but I know that he had a “killer instinct” that LeBron could not seem to muster.  While LeBron would pass in any situation, Jordan refused to defer to anyone once he seized the moment.

Regardless, the vast majority of people loved the Chosen One.  He was the most complete player since Magic Johnson, capable of doing anything on either end of the court, and probably the most unstoppable and electrifying force on a fast break – ever.  Just as importantly, he acted as the only feature performer on a stage of Zydrunas Ilgauskases, Eric Snows, and Anderson Varejaos, night in and night out.  The result?  He lived up to the hype and made a dead-and-buried, mid-market franchise not just relevant, but marquee.  What made it even better was that the Cavs were his close-to-hometown team.  The two seemed to have an inseparable union, one that would or would not result in a championship for the long-suffering sports town.

Wally Szczerbiak - Not exactly the help that LeBron needed in Cleveland (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

At the same time, he needed help – real help, not just Mo Williams, Antwan Jamison, and a decrepit Shaquille O’Neal disguised as “stars.”  He made his fellow players better, but the ceiling of role players is only so high, and the inability of the franchise to secure Amare Stoudemire in 2009 – or any other star for that matter – ended up damning the team come playoffs, time and time again.

LeBron’s isolated status throughout his career was the elephant in the room that no one seemed to acknowledge.  In that one sentence revealing his imminent departure, he turned his back on the small market, his home, and on what he was supposed to be.   Fans (myself included) and sportswriters everywhere called it betrayal, greed, and running for help.  He was supposed to reject the false promises of ruling MSG or of joining other stars in other cities and stay as the 1-team guy who would someday win a championship for his hometown Cavs…somehow.  As Jordan said himself, it was a move that he  never would have made.  LeBron’s disinterest in the Jordanian model showed America that being the heir was never on his mind, just on ours.

Amongst the most striking features of the Decision’s aftermath was the anger channeled toward the 25-year old who surrendered Jordan’s 23 for 6 after the 2009-2010 season.  For people from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, their bitterness over getting spurned by the former King of Kleveland quickly masqueraded as a sense of pity toward the “real” victim: Cleveland.  While James was merely exercising his rights as an unrestricted free agent, he broke the unwritten vow of marriage with a superstar’s home city.  His declaration of the divorce on national television only added more fuel to the critics’ fire – a lot more.

The result?  LeBron become the bad guy.  Unlike Tiger Woods, whose previously immaculate aura had been eradicated in the first half of the year due to poor decisions in his personal life, LeBron’s almost instantaneous role switch – from beloved hometown hero/superstar to league villain – happened because he decided to neglect the “popular” option and make the “easy” choice – something that we never want sports heroes to do.  Rather than gun for a championship that every person and his or her mother would  approve of with the only team he had ever known, he eyed many championships with the help of others.

Since joining the Heat, his new villain status has been accompanied by a new tendency to scrutinize his weaknesses.  Unlike in Cleveland, he has teammates in Miami that he trusts with the game on the line.  Regardless, every decision to pass at the end of games further labels him as “deferential” and “afraid,” rather than  “unselfish.”

While it’s something we probably don’t think about much, as sports fans, we often demand athletes to prove us wrong.  As an underdog, Jeremy Lin is a perfect example of this: we love the guy because no one could have predicted his rise.  There were too many reasons that should have kept Lin from ever stepping onto an NBA court, yet didn’t.  He defied everyone’s perception of him being a fringe NBA player, largely due to his undrafted status, collegiate background, and, yes, ethnicity.  On the same note: we challenge LeBron to prove us wrong and to do what he hasn’t done in the past: demand the ball when the team is down by 2 with 10 seconds left – not just have the ball placed in his hands – and find a way to get the job done, without anyone’s help.

Clearly, since LeBron joined the Heat, millions of fans have resorted to judging him as I did when he was on the Cavs: looking at the nonexistent trees, instead of the enormous forest.  In other words, he could score or assist every point, grab every rebound, steal every bad pass, etc.  Yet, if he didn’t produce in those last few seconds, as was the case in the most recent All-Star game and last week’s Heat-Jazz game, he gets labeled as a failure.  This is all coming at a guy who never wanted to be the villain.  He tried embracing it this season, but every small misstep lands him in one hell of a firestorm.  He hears the critics and the cynics, and recently tried to please people by leaving the possibility of a return to the Cavaliers open, but he only made things worse for himself.

One thing’s for sure: he will never be Jordan.  Even if he wins a championship this season, there will be something new to hate about him.  Heck, it may even renew the zeal with which people scrutinize his every move, as he will be demanded to deliver 4 or 5 more Larry O’Brien trophies.   It’s only because he is LeBron James – a guy who everyone expects more and more from – that he has only won 2 MVP trophies.  This year, he is having one of the finest single seasons in NBA history, yet no one seems to be talking about it – let alone care.  If he was anyone else, Kevin Durant would not even be in the MVP conversation but, because LeBron is who he is, Durant may end up running away with the damn thing.  Whether or not this happens, I have finally learned to appreciate LeBron for what he is.  For whatever little things he doesn’t do – like take over the game when everyone demands him to, or make the pass rather than take the final shot – he is the best player in the world, and has only been rivaled by Kobe for the title over the past 8 seasons or so.

Expect to see more of this when James finally wins a championship

When LeBron James finally wins his elusive first championship, it will be overdue vindication for one of the game’s all-time greats.  I don’t know if I’ll be happy for him.  I know the city of Cleveland won’t, nor will New York, or Boston, or whatever team loses in the Finals.  Millions want to see him fail, and when he finally finds success, unless he takes (and makes) the shots that matter, he will be greeted with clamors over what he had not done.  But that’s ok, because then he will be happy with the type of player he decided to be.  Even if no one else is.