“Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…”
LeBron James compounded the disgust that NBA fans outside of Miami had for him with these words. In an extravagant party for three players—two of which hadn’t even donned the Heat uniform on the court—LeBron James declared the Heat would win at least eight championships. The tattoo on his back, “The Chosen 1” wasn’t enough. Gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school basketball player wasn’t either. Even the despised “Decision” that aired on ESPN drew criticism that has still simmered lightly over the now NBA champion.
One of the first columns I wrote here on Bases and Baskets briefly touched upon this subjects and I concluded those thoughts with the general idea that we are all “just as mixed as before [LeBron’s move to Miami].” Some people are able to forgive him for the attention-seeking saga that enveloped the summer of 2010. Some people hate him for creating a superpower empire that looked down upon most NBA franchises. Some people are, well...Cavs fans.
To wherever you fit into the spectrum, my new proposition is simple: the dust has settled and LeBron has finally earned his title but more importantly evolved both on and off the court. Now we need to collectively respect LeBron James as a great player and ambassador for the game that we love.
Most superstars have egos through the roof. Kobe Bryant has ripped Pau Gasol, alienated teammates from Shaquille O’Neal to Smush Parker, and done countless other things that
he thinks his Hall of Fame resume has
entitled him to. The man is one of the greatest basketball players to grace
this planet and he knows it, he worked for it, and he is going to revel in it.
Kobe will always have a home in Hollywood and his dedication to that organization is remarkable (even with the bumps in the roads…remember those multiple trade requests?) but he and other sports icons a la Michael Jordan don’t care too much whether people like them or not. And since they are that good, well…does it really matter?
Many would simply: no. While I agree that ultimately a player’s greatness and NBA legacy is determined by their on-court performance—as it should be—there is another part that should not be neglected: the people that idolize the NBA’s greatest.
Here is where we need to realize that LeBron James is the best ambassador that the NBA has ever seen. Google defines ambassador as “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity.” With the on-court greatness that LeBron exhibits, he has become an international figure who benefits more so than Kobe or MJ from the Internet Age. People (like me) can write about him and analyze his effect on the game in a way that Jordan simply did not have available during his heyday as a player.
I have already written that we should not be surprised if LeBron drops in a greater performance this year as compared to last. Thus far his 26 points, seven assists, and nine rebounds per game complement an unfathomable 54 percent FG shooting and 44 percent three-point shooting. All of this with defenses improved overall and honing in on him in their game plans. Let us not forget that this is coming from a guy whose main basketball flaw was a lack of an outside shot.
So yes, I have dared to compare LeBron to Jordan.
But the reason why I respect LeBron is the way that he has ascended to where is he—and where he will be once his career is over. In one season, LeBron realized that in order to succeed he needed to wholeheartedly buy into the team effort and atone for the egregious mistakes that he made during the summer of 2010. Behind opting to make The Decision nationally televised was a hint that there is something in LeBron unlike previous superstars. People forget that that “show” raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs in Ohio and he still continues his charity work in Akron.
While those acts of generosity were hidden behind the superficiality of the show, a lot has changed since then. The mayor of Akron even went far enough to say, in 2012, that LeBron is the “greatest Akronite.”
Basketball, as a popular American game, represents so much to kids in the US—from inner city Chicago to rural California. And who would you rather have a wide-eyed basketball fan idolize? A self-centered superstar or somebody who cares not only about his teammates and fans but about the community?
The answer to me has been clear.
The cliché goes that “America is the land of second chances,” and LeBron has done far less harm than the quantifiable acts of someone like a Tiger Woods, Michael Vick or Lawrence Taylor (among many others). Most importantly, LeBron has grown up and realized the error in his ways and changed under his own power.
Regardless of what anybody said of him, he took the responsibility to apologize for some tasteless remarks and decisions. Simultaneously, the Akron native figured out what it meant to become a champion on the court. Was it a coincidence that the two happened in the same year?
I’m not from anywhere remotely close to Akron or Miami but I recognize when a person has grown into what the game of basketball is all about. In the end, it is "just a game" but the applications of this beautiful game to daily life are what make it special. That is where LeBron is head and shoulders above previous NBA superstars…but I would be remiss to neglect the fact that Kevin Durant is competing for that spot.
As a Warriors fan, I cannot tell you how ecstatic I was to see my team beat the Heat on Wednesday. (And *cough* how pleased I was to have picked Golden State to come away with that win, too.)
But every game that LeBron is not playing the team that I root for, you can bet that I will be cheering for him. The self-confidence he exudes does not overpower a sense of humility that took him some time to grow into. Now the question becomes: how long will it take NBA fans to fully appreciate this change and realize what he is doing for the NBA and its worldwide influence?
In the meantime, I will enjoy the on-court entertainment and skill set of LeBron James with a respect that he is intelligent enough to realize what he means to everybody from those closest to him to those fans thousands of miles away from him.