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In Defense of LeBron James

The past two weeks have probably not been the best fortnight of Lebron James' life. And yes, he's brought that upon himself. But here's what I really don't understand: What did LeBron James do that was so terrible?
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The past two weeks have probably not been the best fortnight of Lebron James' life. And yes, he's brought that upon himself. The shenanigans surrounding "The Decision" last summer were a self-inflicted wound.

He's a superstar who teamed up with other superstars, guaranteed a championship and fell short while playing well below his normal level in the finals. You might say he choked. Like it or not, he'll be answering for that for at least the next 12 months (is there a player who needs the NBA to avoid a lockout more than LeBron)?

And he didn't try to be diplomatic when he said last night,

"All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point."

Needless to say, he's being vilified for those statements today.

LeBron's a fantastic player. I am confident that he will win one or more championships and do so before the Cavaliers win one (despite owner Dan Gilbert's dumb vow to the contrary). The sports world has mistaken its notion of good character for ability to perform in the clutch before (see Rodriguez, Alex. 2009). But, whatever. As I said above, he fell short on the biggest stage and there's nothing he can do to make that go away until and unless he wins a ring.

But here's what I really don't understand:

What did LeBron James do that was so terrible? Seriously. I don't get it. I am a Knicks fan (con-"Dolan"-ces accepted). I wanted LeBron to come to New York. I thought it was a mistake that he didn't, selfish rooting interests aside. I wasn't alone, of course, in thinking that, in some ways, he couldn't win in Miami, even if he won. But what is really so offensive to people, outside of Cleveland, about King James?

For a generation now, we've heard a non-stop litany of complaints about the selfish, spoiled athlete, who hogs the spotlight, thinks only about himself and how much money he can make, doesn't care about winning and disrespects the game. Of those central charges against the modern athlete, all of which, to repeat, have been made over and over again in every conceivable media outlet, of which is LeBron James guilty? He took less money to play in Miami than he would have made in Cleveland. He certainly could have put more in the bank on and off the court in New York. Of course, LeBron is incredibly wealthy. But he took less money than he could have and selfish, greedy modern athletes supposedly don't do that (and sports owners certainly don't, as a rule, do that).

Money aside, LeBron's decision to join Dwyane Wade in Miami ensured that he would have to share the credit if his team won more than he would have had he gone to any other team that was a plausible suitor. Whatever else one can say about this decision, how does that square with the modern athlete's supposed singular craving to hog the spotlight and take all the credit?
On the court, the single biggest criticism of LeBron is that he's too unselfish. That can be frustrating. It might, at times, reflect poor decision-making. But in what way can it possibly be argued that, in terms of his conduct on the court, LeBron James plays selfishly or disrespects the game of basketball?

Sugarcoat it all you want -- the fact remains that superstar black athletes, in particular, walk a tightrope. If LeBron James had called out a teammate the way Dirk Nowitzki did Jason Terry after game three, the sports talk universe would have been aflame. Superstar black athletes face acute pressure to be perfectly humble yet never shrink from the moment. They are to be selfless, but must constantly assert their will. They should be unfailingly cooperative with the media, candid and honest without ever being impolitic. They must express, at all times, their deep gratitude for the opportunity they've been given, even as their owners have license to act as if their own wealth is a divine right.

As for LeBron's remarks last night, who among us diehard sports fans can really deny that there is some truth in what LeBron said? That we project a disproportionate amount of our emotional energy and need for definitive judgment onto the sports world -- teams and players? LeBron was frustrated. He had just lost the championship. He didn't play particularly well. He's been brow-beaten for a year and especially in the past two weeks. And he responded by offering a peeved but perfectly valid insight about the nature of sports fandom. I know, I know, we don't actually want our athletes to be candid. We only want them to tell us what we want to hear -- to affirm all of those silly sports pieties about how teamwork and selflessness and heart and effort and will triumph over raw talent and bad character.

For one moment last night, LeBron decided not to play along. Personally, I'm not offended. I just wish I had something to do tomorrow night, now that there's no Game Seven.

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