I used to secretly root against LeBron, before it was cool. This was when he was on the Cavs and although they were a good team, they couldn't contend with the NBA's big boys.
I pretended to like him, but only because I didn't think he was in striking distance of the image I had of the NBA, which was a contorted, selective replacement of my MJ-filled childhood.
His prolific scoring and his being on the Cavs, without a supporting cast, comforted me enough to prod my own images of Kobe and Tim Duncan, for example. "Kobe had Shaq and now he has Gasol," I'd say in promotion of LeBron. "Tim Duncan has a ridiculously talented roster around him."
You see, during Jordan's rise, the time was ripe for a do-no-wrong icon. There had never before been a player with such a gigantic shoe deal, or a player whose first name was instantly on the world's mind thanks to a catchy tune made by Gatorade. Not to mention that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were exiting the scene that Jordan was about to revolutionize. He was one of a kind and he lived up to it... times 100. He etched a permanent mark on my mind and I never wanted it to go away.
On top of that, basketball needed Jordan. The public needed Jordan.
Enter LeBron James in the '03-'04 season. The league was crowded with guys with mega shoe deals, the airwaves were jammed with fancy commercials with rap songs praising the skills of a plethora of players, and the league itself was crammed with freak-show-like talent, including already-established seven-foot small forwards, and that not-so-bad guard out in Los Angeles.
I was fine with LeBron hanging out in Cleveland, a place where I only remembered The Jumpman repeatedly ruining Craig Ehlo's day, week, month and career.
Basketball did not need LeBron. Nor did the public, or so I thought.
But once LeBron made his error, I became a public critic. He was about to be a legitimate force. Like everyone else before him, he now had a business partner who could bring the heat. He found his Gasol, his Ginobili. Suddenly, my recovering image of the NBA was threatened.
I'm going to go play with my buddies in Miami, he told us. But he said it the wrong way, a selfish way. He made it about himself, even though he was raising money for charity. He held a nationally televised event for a business decision. He did Jordan's no-show "I'm back" press conference but without ever being "there" in the first place, without first taking out Magic, Drexler and Kemp.
Since the 2010-11 season, I've grown accustomed to watching carefully for LeBron to make a mistake. And there has been ample fodder for me to get my feed of the anti-LeBron meal.
My instant addiction became the articles about his errors, his turnovers, his "un-clutchness," the comments he's made about Cleveland and his apparently being dunked on by a high school player.
I could finally legitimize my distaste for him! Now I had to promote Kobe's greatness, only I'd conveniently leave out Gasol and Shaq as the reasons for his titles. I could call Big Tim in San Antonio the greatest power forward ever, but this time it was only because of his own doing, and not because of his ridiculous supporting cast.
But something last night -- maybe something I ate or because I now look at the game as a coach and not as a selfish shooting guard -- made me look for LeBron's greatness.
Everyone today is talking about LeBron's supporting cast. Miller's threes. Chalmers' contributions. Battier stepping it up.
There is only one reason those players are being celebrated today. For a similar reason Bill Wennington was paid $1 million in 1999.
In last night's case, it was the unselfishness of LeBron. It was his driving, where he could have taken an awkward floater over three defenders and missed, but instead planted two feet on the ground and passed to an open teammate. After a LeBron assist to a wide open Battier, down came Durant anxiously and like the old LeBron jacked up a defended and deep three, which clanked and was rebounded by you know who.
Twenty years from now, 'The Decision' will be a but a blip on the radar screen of LeBron's image in my mind. This is the beginning of his greatness. A greatness that will begin to retroactively erase his grave 2010 error.
A greatness, I hope, that will erase the post-Jordan Era image of basketball I have in my mind. Whether or not it trounces my 1992-1999 image remains to be seen. All I know is that I'm going to root for it now.
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