You’re Forgiven, Lebron

November 2, 2010
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Lebron with Miami Heat teammates

I haven’t been very nice to you, LeBron James.

I savored your post-Decision fall from grace as a morality play on hardwood. You with Chosen 1 inked to your back had to flee your own state. I wrote some harsh words about you this July for slamming your legacy harder than one of your vintage Tomahawk jams.

Maybe you read it, LeBron. You did warn you took names all summer. So, in the unlikely event you checked out ProseBeforeHos, Mr. James I hope you a) enjoyed the cute koala pictures and b) remember you have only yourself to blame.

You did it to yourself, LeBron. You panicked about the rings. Jordan won his first by now. Kobe just won one for the thumb. You looked over your shoulder and couldn’t shake the specter of Kevin Garnett’s ringless Minnesota years. All the while, a 22-year-old Kevin Durant assembles an burgeoning dynasty-in-the-making out in Oklahoma City.

You talked too much, too. You called fans and family “spoiled” with your play after you were thrashed by an aging Boston Celtics team for yet another early playoff exit. You pulled out the race card when CNN’s Soledad O’Brien asked about LeBacklash. Take a page from Michael Jordan’s political playbook. It’s short: a few milquetoast one-liners that mean absolutely nothing.

And it’s impossible not to feel for Cleveland. The most tortured sports city in the nation suffered a new low as 13 million viewers tuned in to watch the local phenom dump the home team on the grandest of media stages. You partied at the glitzy South Beach W Hotel, as your Cavs jersey burned. It comes out later you had been ignoring all calls and texts from your seven-year employer for weeks. Sure, you at least had the decency to agree to a sign-and-trade with Miami. But barring the sudden dawning of a J.J. Hickson-Jamario Moon Dynasty the Cavs will win 23 games this season. And Cleveland tourism will lose even more.

Missteps like these are why LeBron’s popularity amongst American athletes skidded from #4—behind only Peyton Manning, Troy Polamula, and Brett Favre—this January to #78 Big-Ben-alleged-rapist-territory today. Hours before the Miami Heat season opening loss, a Cleveland radio station hired a witch doctor to curse LeBron James, chanting: “Tie a knot against the king. May he die without a ring.”

But 3 months, 4 NBA games, and 1 sparkling new Nike ad later, I forgive LeBron James.


LeBron Is A Role Model

Lebron James Child Game

LeBron James is not a politician. LeBron James is not a bailed-out Wall Street banker. LeBron James is a professional athlete who is paid vast sums of money to swish a basketball through a net. He is also a loving boyfriend and father. Nothing more. Nothing less.

LeBron hasn’t been charged with rape. He hasn’t been implicated in a dog-fighting ring. He hasn’t even been docked with a speeding ticket. LeBron’s lone crime is changing jobs and flubbing the PR. Never before has America so vilified an athlete for a simple change of uniform.

Truth is, LeBron got too much advice. LeBron James is Generation Y’s Mozart with a Spalding who has averted burn-out behind a massive entourage cocoon that would make Vince wince. He had the august triumvirate of Warren Buffet, Michael Jordan and Jay-Z for consul, for starters. Then he had his childhood friends whispering in his ear. Nike and Vitamin Water had their thoughts as well.

LeBron didn’t know what to do. So, in the end, LeBron did what any confused twenty-something would. He called his mom. Gloria told her son to go where he would be happiest. 10 hours later he announced he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach” and became the most loathed player in the NBA.

The Decision meant LeBron James wasn’t The One we were waiting for. That we were no longer witnesses to the next Michael Jordan. But the truth is you wouldn’t want to be like Mike, either. Talent is liquefied trouble, as the late great filmmaker Sidney Pollack mused. T’was raw Jordanian anger that fueled His Airness to become the greatest basketball player who ever lived but also quite possibly the craziest.

Air MJ Photograph

MJ racked up more mistresses that All-Star Game appearances. He fought his own teammates in practice. He is a degenerate gambler who has lost millions betting on his short game. An embittered Jordan dedicated his Hall of Fame coronation speech to calling out his “haters”. He enters his twilight years ungracefully pecking at today’s marquee talents from his Charlotte owner’s box. Jordan is destined for decades of restless retirement defending his legacy. Alone. Six glittery rings are all that separate Jordan’s brilliance from his madness.

Kobes Mean Face

Kobe Bryant shares the madness. He flares the Barracuda face deep into the NBA playoffs. It’s why Kobe has 5 rings. And it’s also why his wife has 3: an engagement ring, a wedding ring, and a dazzling $4 million 8-carat purple diamond My Bad ring after Kobe faced Colorado rape charges in 2003. It is the same singular focus that drives so many champion athletes but last-place husbands.

Tiger Woods has it. Tiger wanted to be like Mike. Perhaps a little too much. It’s theorized that the Vegas hard-partying of Jordan and Charles Barkley seduced a young Tiger Woods to The Life. That changed “Go On. Be A Tiger.” from an Accenture ad slogan to a national punch-line.

Tiger and LeBron share the same birthday (December 30), black ethnicity, and megalith Nike contract. That is all. Nine years and worlds separate them. One was raised by a military strict dad and loving mom, went to Stanford, and often plays in a sweater. The other? A heavily-tattooed manchild from a single mom and the streets of Akron, Ohio. Guess which one turned into sex-addicted Lothario who cheated on his Swedish bikini model wife and two children with umpteen mistresses from Vegas strippers to the teenage girl next door?

LeBron didn’t get that gene. Preening prima donna that he may be, LeBron James is the most squeaky-clean sports legend this side of Peyton Manning. Of the decorated NBA Class of 2003, Dwyane Wade has been locked in a sordid divorce trial and custody battle. Carmelo Anthony has been videotaped in murky Baltimore back-alleys and had friends take the rap for marijuana possession charges. LeBron James kicked a water bottle once ($25,000 fine) and joined the Miami Heat. That’s it. In the age of TMZ and Twitter, this is unfathomable. Especially when you consider what LeBron’s lived through.

LeBron spent his formative years mostly alone. He spent the evenings hoping his mom Gloria would make it back from work. She didn’t always. LeBron never knew his father. Now he and his mom are being sued $4 million by a man who claims he had a one night stand with Gloria back in 1984.

It explains some of LeBron’s interview tics. He doesn’t like to be interviewed in big rooms. He doesn’t like to be interviewed in rooms he’s never been in before. And he especially doesn’t like to speak with strangers. No lavish Nike shoe deal will ever let him forget these hard-knock years in Akron.

LeBron Has Done This Before

Let’s be honest. We’re only mad The Decision wasn’t Cleveland. If he announced he was returning to the Cavs and raised $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club, the legend grows. Instead he chose to play with his friends, raised $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club, and we all watched the We Are All Witnesses banner come tumbling down.

If it was about money, he would have picked New York. The Knicks’ recruiting pitch was simple. Want $2 billion in lifetime salary and endorsements? Play here. By their calculations Miami would net James the least of his four possible destinations—-a lowly $600 million. Cleveland, #3 at $690 million. Mark Cuban estimated James cost himself a billion dollars in brand equity by choosing Miami. Though the Mavericks owners would probably say otherwise if James had picked Dallas. If it was about the legacy, he’d stay in Cleveland.

But it wasn’t about the billions, and it wasn’t about the fame. It was all about recreating high school. You see, LeBron has done this before. Though not with Vitamin Water product placement splashed everywhere. And definitely not in a Ralph Lauren lavender gingham.

Lebron the Decision

But back home in Ohio in a dingy high school gym. There’s a chapter in James’ memoir “Shooting Stars” where he chronicles choosing St. Vincent-St. Mary, a starchy high school basketball powerhouse with his buddies over the local, mostly black Buchtel. James was ridden off a traitor who betrayed his own kind. In spite of the controversy—or perhaps because of it—the boys went on to win three Ohio state titles. The name of the chapter? “The Decision.”

A decade later James teamed up with super-star friend Dwyane Wade and super-star-by-association friend Chris Bosh. In them, LeBron found an (albeit better-paid) band of brothers who all took more flak and less money for the sake of the team. Yes, America will never again love LeBron as our generation’s answer to Michael Jordan. (That crown is now Kevin Durant’s to earn.) But like Kobe now, we will soon respect LeBron as the best basketball player on the planet—no matter how much help he had collecting his first rings.

We’ll merely see the Jordan Years as a different era. A no-holds barred, angrier era when rivals Magic Johnson and Larry Bird wouldn’t even talk to each. The kids are softer today. Today’s phenoms have been texting each other since AAU scrimmages in their teens. They are the product of a sensationalized youth talent search that hypes its phenoms on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16.

Lebron James SI Magazine Cover

And so I’m ready to embrace LeBron 2.0. The Chosen 1 turned Villain. A harder 1 who’s outgrown the pregame shenanigans with Shaq. I’m ready to watch LeBron wage battle before hostile road crowds with the biggest bulls-eye in sports on the back of his jersey, a new #6 on the front.

I’m ready to cheer LeBron on as he aims for the impossible: a triple-double in a season, 72 regular season wins, and 7 rings. And I’m ready to watch LeBron James’ 2026 Hall of Fame speech when we won’t remember any of this.

LeBron’s speech will tinged with love, not laced with hate. He will graciously thank fans and teammates for a charmed career before going home to Akron again to a mantle glistening with rings, MVP trophies, and happy family pictures.

And we will all have been witnesses. Not to the next Michael Jordan. But the first LeBron James. A kinder, gentler giant who checked his ego, paycheck, and stats to lord over the NBA with a little help from his friends.