By Jason Keidel
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At a time when youngsters are force-fed the mantra that there are no losers, that the score is incidental and every team gets trophies, we have LeBron James as the global, athletic avatar.
Maybe it makes sense that James is the best player on the planet. Maybe he’s the perfect emblem of the era, the uber-sensitive star who needs to be hugged.
It makes Michael Jordan’s approach feel archaic: the caveman who would kill his grandmother to win a title. Has there been a tectonic shift, somewhere between the Vince Lombardi era and today, in how we want to be perceived? Winning was the only thing. What is it now? Must we be nice, too?
Ever since he won his first title, the world has been trying to superimpose James’ silhouette over Jordan’s scissor-kick visage, and it just doesn’t fit. And it’s not just the disparity in championship rings that makes it awkward. More than pedigree and profile, it’s their clashing personas that leave us dizzy.
James could be the most complete player of all time, but there’s a sense that something’s missing, if not in his style then in his soul. Maybe it’s the fact that he doesn’t demand the ball at the end of games. Maybe it’s the lack of vitriol or vindictiveness. Maybe he’s just too nice. Maybe there’s something wrong with me for wanting poor manners from all manner of winners.
We’ve been taught — at least those of us over, say, 35 — that part of what makes an athlete win on the court is what makes him lose everywhere else, the contrasting sides of the spiritual coin. Their on-court tyranny makes them lousy husbands, absent fathers and compulsive gamblers. But for those of us who will never live with them and strictly abide by the laundry, they make for lovely theater.
But James nestles nicely into our nouveaux culture of passive-aggressive play. It rarely works, of course, as we’ve learned from Aaron Hernandez. You can’t expect thousands of 20-something men to be so dominant on the field and diplomatic everywhere else. Toss the testosterone, cash and cachet into a small space and something will explode, even if not as profoundly as the aforementioned Patriots tight end.
But James has learned to play well while playing nice, at least outside of Cleveland, where he’s easily the most hated human. So he’s easy to root for, right?
ESPN conducted a poll of people pulling for James, posting the results on a map mimicking a presidential election. Florida was the only state that was rooting for James and the Heat to beat the Spurs.
The NBA Finals had everything we, as sports fans, allegedly love. We didn’t know who would win until the final quarter of the final game. The team that won should have lost. We had future stars, current icons and iconoclasts. We had hard play and fair play, and modest winners and gracious losers.
But it’s the implicit morality play that grabbed the nation’s attention, hence the lopsided lust for San Antonio. The Spurs are framed as a team doing it the “right way” — building through the draft and deftly trading for role players — whereas the Heat are the NBA’s Yankees, the face of voracious capitalism, Gordon Gekko gone wild, with Pat Riley, the former Knick, playing the perfect foil as the traitor who won everywhere but Times Square.
Is James the new wave, the conquest of the paper-thin psyche over the psychotic mien of his predecessors? Or is he singular in his sensitivity? Floyd Mayweather makes millions acting like a jerk. Mike Tyson literally took a bite out of his foes. Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick are hardly pastoral characters. John McEnroe was famously infantile. Tiger Woods was exposed way beyond the bedroom. Jordan was maniacal toward his teammates, and Kobe Bryant isn’t far behind “His Airness.” Aaron Rodgers plays with a cinderblock on his shoulder and Colin Kaepernick kisses his biceps after touchdowns.
So it looks like King James is just different. And, for some reason, we can’t seem to accept that.
Had James stayed in Ohio and won his rings in Cleveland, would he be so reviled? Does “The Decision” still bubble like bile in our throats? Why is James still so hard to cheer on? His game is transcendent. He’s a power forward with a point guard’s awareness and alacrity. He can defend Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. He’s won four MVP awards and two NBA Finals. What more could we want? He seems nice enough.
But he’s not like Mike. Maybe that’s the problem. Or maybe that’s not really a problem, at all.
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