The Vindication of LeBron James
The time has come to, if not forgive LeBron James, then at the very least to forget.
If what you hear in the background sounds like somebody gagging, it is indeed myself, forced to ingest some of my own words.
LeBron James and I co-wrote a book together called Shooting Stars. We were not friends, but we certainly were not enemies. And yet my criticism of him on Twitter and numerous radio shows was withering in the epic self-immolation of how he handled his free-agency spectacle last year. Just when you thought his self-indulgence and me-me-me-ism couldn’t get any worse, it inevitably did, culminating in the single-worst hour of television in a long history of putrid ones, The Decision on ESPN.
It was on the show, televised live last July, that James revealed his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat to form a superstar triad of him, fellow free agent Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. What should have been a 10-minute press conference went on interminably. The only thing worse than interviewer Jim Gray being the nasty chia pet he usually is was watching him trying to be nice. When James tried to display his gratitude to the Cleveland fans, he was so detached as to seem dangerously medicated.
I felt betrayed by James—that the affable and down-to-earth person I had done the book with was a fraud. During the season, when the Heat played as we all hoped they would, James and Wade and Bosh seemed on separate planets, I wrote a column for The Daily Beast saying that James did not know how to handle pressure.
I still feel what I feel about his free agency. But James’ performance in the NBA playoffs has reaffirmed that athletes, unless their actions off the field involve violence, should only be judged on a single criterion—the way they play.
James has involved the constellations of Bosh and Wade and other teammates at the right time without the incessant need to be the man.
All this role-model stuff has always been garbage and ramped-up sportswriter libretto. As Kate Buford pointed out in Native American Son, her superb biography of Jim Thorpe, the mythic role of the athlete stretches back more than a hundred years to the tales of Frank Merriwell and his personification of the athlete as “selfless, smart, noble….” But even in the early 1900s the myth was false, Buford noted; athletes for such holier-than-thou institutions as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were openly recruited with financial inducements, regularly missed class, and got a share of the gate receipts depending on how their team did.
In the realm of the basketball court, James has been superb. In a sign of his maturity, he has not gone out and tried to create a personal highlight reel for himself. His play has been far more Magic Johnson than Hey-I’m-Magic, a perfect “sense of where you are” to borrow the title of John McPhee’s book about future senator Bill Bradley as an All-American basketball player at Princeton. His statistics, not including last night’s first game of the finals between the Heat and the Dallas Mavericks: 26 points per game, 9 rebounds, 5 assists.
He has taken over at the right time, involved the constellations of Bosh and Wade and other teammates at the right time without the incessant need to be the man, made needlepoint passes at the right time, hit the boards at the right time. He also has hit clutch shots down the stretch (never mind that little trifle I wrote about pressure).
The most stunning part of his game has also been the least flashy, his defense. In the final seconds of the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Chicago Bulls, he matched the National Basketball Association’s most valuable player, point guard Derrick Rose, as if they were literally choreographing the same dance steps together. Despite Rose’s speed, he could not shake James. The shot Rose took in Game 4 was slightly off-balance. The shot he took in Game 5 was blocked.
This, and only this, is what James should be celebrated for. The waves of fans who still hate him need to give it a rest. The fans of Cleveland in particular have to seriously get a life. They were right in feeling terribly shunned. But it’s over now. The continued whining has become noxiously pathetic. And how good a sports town is Cleveland anyway when the Indians, first in the American League Central by five games, have an average attendance in the bottom five of Major League Baseball?
Cleveland is Cleveland and will always be Cleveland. If a moving crew entered in the middle of the night and switched Cleveland around with Milwaukee, or Kansas City, or Indianapolis, nobody would know the difference. LeBron James certainly felt that way. He had no obligation to stay.
Given the perverse trajectory of the celebrity culture—build up to tear down—I think there are very few out there willing to change their minds about him. Not surprisingly, some of it may be racially based. In the aftermath of The Decision, the feelings about him among blacks shifted from positive to more of a neutral stance, according to a ProBasketballTalk column on NBCsports.com. In the measure of his negative “Q” rating, there was virtually no change at all, from 14 percent to 15 percent. Among whites however, James’ negative rating jumped from 24 percent to 44 percent.
Whatever the reason, people will watch the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks with the stale prayer that James chokes when it counts the most and leads the Heat to defeat. If last night is any barometer, the naysayers will go empty. James, named the player of the game in a 92-84 win in Game 1, had 24 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. He was four for five from the three-point line, including two crucial shots at the end of the third quarter. He was there to aid and abet when Wade got hot in the fourth quarter. On defense he helped neutralize the usually explosive Jason Terry into a woeful 12-point night. Just like the series against the Bulls, he was pitch perfect.
During his career James has not killed anybody while driving drunk. He has not hit anybody. He hasn't sent a picture of his dongasaurus over a cellphone to a woman who wasn’t his wife, and he isn’t married anyway. He acted like an idiot at one point in his life. Indeed he did.
Just like the rest of us.
Which is why you still hear the sound of somebody eating something.
Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.