Wednesday, January 12, 2011

LeBron James: Say Goodnight To The Bad Guy

Almost exactly six moths after he was unwittingly cast in the role, LeBron James is embracing the idea of being the NBA’s arch-villain.

Sunday night in Portland, LeBron unleashed as dominant a second half performance as you’re likely to see in an NBA game. After a “quiet” 12-point, seven-rebound first half, he shifted into attack mode, scoring 10 in the third quarter and 14 in the fourth, as the Heat erased a seven-point Blazer lead with 1:46 remaining to force overtime. In OT, he scored eight of Miami’s 14 points, including a pair of backbreaking 3-pointers. The first of these saw LeBron somewhat inexplicably slap himself on the ass on his way back down the floor. After the second, which sealed the game, he took a more scenic route back to the Heat bench, stopping to stare down the Portland crowd and welcome their jeers.

The look on his face was unmistakable- “Go ahead! Dissect me, judge me, hate me… just know that you can’t beat me.”

And it was pretty awesome. (This tweet, directed at the Cavs after a 112-57 obliteration at the hands of the Lakers, a bit less so… but only a little)

Despite what “sporting purists” (and Colin Cowherd) might have to say on the matter, this is what had been missing from LeBron James’ on-court persona. F#@k you mode. That’s not just referring to the ability to drop 20 in quarter and close out a game- he’s always had that- but the ability to step out in front of an extremely hostile crowd (as they all are for him these days) and to return all the vitriol that rained down on him during the game by not only demoralizing his opponents and their fans, but by reminding them of it as well.

It’s not that his on-court game has improved dramatically- he’s a 26 year-old, two-time reigning MVP that’s a constant threat to score 50, grab 15 boards, post a triple double- or some combination of the above. He’s always been great. Even at the height of post-Decision anti-LeBron sentiment, his physical skills were never called into question. His biggest flaw was presumably some shortcoming in his personality or a “weakness of character” that kept him from getting over the hump and leading a team to a championship.

It’s not that he’s played particularly poorly in the clutch, and with the exception of his final two games against the Boston Celtics last spring, he hasn’t shown a tendency to shrink under pressure. More than anything, while he was playing well, it seemed as though he wasn’t mentally and emotionally challenged by big moments- armchair psychiatrist alert!-  as if the universal adulation softened him and left with the sense that he had nothing to prove.

Until this summer, LeBron had been universally celebrated and beloved by the basketball public, with little to no effort on his part. For the past ~15 years, LeBron’s otherworldly basketball talent and celebrity status won him countless fans and friends, very few of whom, if any, concerned themselves with his personality. As long as he stayed out of handcuffs, kept packing the box score and stuck to the Nike script, he’d be free from scrutiny.

However, in this post-Decision world, after revealing what is now assumed to be his “true personality,” LeBron is no longer afforded any such luxuries. The same people that gleefully referred to him as King James during his seven-year stint in Cleveland now point to that very moniker as the epitome of his narcissism and self-obsession. Those that enabled his entitled behavior are now all too happy to point out that this is how he’s been all along.

These days, there is no more benefit of the doubt for LeBron- there’s seemingly nothing he can do that won’t attract scrutiny and judgment. Every sound bite is scrutinized, every facial expression examined under a microscope for any insight into his true personality. Not because he’s actually done anything wrong, but because he somehow “failed us” by not living up to an idealized image.

In short, the public has learned in recent months that LeBron James is totally different from the mythical figure that our minds (and Nike) worked so hard to create. Mind you, he’s not a criminal or a thug- just kind of a prick. Thing is, he made a lot of self-important people look really dumb, and that, my friends, comes with far more severe consequences than merely running afoul of the law.

Despite initially being taken aback by the severity of the backlash against him and a less-than-spectacular start for both him (~44% FG through the end of November) as well as his new “superteam” (9-8 through 17 games), LeBron seems to have not only found comfort in his new role, he appears to have found that Jordan/Kobe-esque assassin mentality that we’ve pleaded with him for years to show us.

So, is this real? Did December 2 in Cleveland provide LeBron with a glimpse into a world that was previously unknown to him? Did Christmas Day in Los Angeles confirm his rightful place in that world?

Buzz Bissinger’s book, “Shooting Stars,” written about LeBron James and his four best friends and high school teammates, looks at the adversity-filled lives of five teenagers from Akron and their united battle to overcome circumstances (poverty, drugs, absentee parents, racism from white kids, resentment from black kids) that threatened their respective well beings. The book also sheds light on what appears to be something of an underlying theme for LeBron’s life- the bunker mentality. Yeah, he wants you to like him, but on his terms. He wants to make you like him.

Lost amid the fame and the eight-figure paychecks is the fact that LeBron- with the same group of guys at his side- may be at his best when fueled by a “screw you, watch this” mentality. Michael Jordan was the same way- he just made up perceived slights to fuel his fire. Kobe does it too- by chasing the ghost of Michael.

While superhuman physical gifts and an incredible basketball IQ have left fans in awe and carried him to the heights of superstardom, it’s been widely lamented that that same fire does not seem to burn within LeBron. Just so we’re clear, this is not to say that he doesn’t want to win or that losses don’t bother him- what appeared to be lacking was the all-consuming, maniacal need to win. To win and- just as importantly- to beat you.

Until this summer, questions regarding whether or not it existed within him, and when (if?) it would manifest itself were a legitimate ones. Well, he seems to have found it. Ironically, all it took for LeBron James to discover the assassin mentality that fans and observers had been begging him to display was the post-Decision anger and disapproval of those same people.

It’s not that LeBron doesn’t want public adulation, he just seems to want it on his terms. It’s as though winning the hearts of millions of sports fans was so easy the first time around, LeBron’s decided to see if he can re-win them. It’s as though he made people hate him, just so he can make them love him again, this time against their own will.

Screw you guys, watch this!

So, really, the question is not “Is this for real?” It’s definitely real. Now that the greatest physical specimen in NBA history has found his killer instinct, the question is now, just how far will this drive him?

Hard to say. Hopefully he doesn’t win us all back before we get a chance to find out.

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