Friends of mine who cover the NBA on a regular basis tell me that LeBron James is a pretty good guy, that, for someone who has been in the spotlight since his sophomore year in high school he is relatively approachable and is also a bright guy.
But he’s a done a couple of things in recent months that make me wonder if he isn’t yet another in the long line of athletes who live in The Land of Never Wrong.
He could not possibly have handled his team’s season-ending loss in the Eastern Conference finals any worse that he did. After the Orlando Magic had knocked his Cleveland Cavaliers out of the playoffs in six games, James left the court without shaking anyone’s hand—including that of his friend and Olympic teammate Dwight Howard—and then left the building without speaking to the media.
Okay, it happens. He didn’t expect to lose and threw a little tantrum when he did. No big deal. But the next day when he did talk to reporters he was completely un-apologetic about his behavior, saying something stupid about winners not congratulating people who beat them. Actually that’s EXACTLY what winners do: part of being a real winner is dealing with defeat because it happens to everyone including Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant and, yes, King James—who still hasn’t won an NBA title.
On top of that bit of foolishness, James showed up for his little press conference wearing a Yankees cap. I’ve heard all about what a big Yankees fan he is and has been. That’s all fine. But when you are from Akron and you’ve played your entire pro career in Cleveland and the town is sitting on pins and needles wondering what you’re going to do when you hit free agency in the summer of 2010 you do NOT show up wearing the cap of a team that plays in the same town as one of the teams that is going to throw huge dollars in your direction.
Harmless fun? Maybe. But it’s like waving red at a bull—especially the day after you and your teammates have failed to reach The Finals in a year when it was expected of you, especially when you may only have one more season left in Cleveland. Go without cap. Show a little respect for your hometown fans.
The latest Lebronism is to suggest/demand that the NBA retire number 23—Michael Jordan’s number—the same way Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42. James even generously suggested he would be willing to change his number—to number 6.
This goes beyond foolish. To begin with, Michael Jordan doesn’t belong in the same sentence with Jackie Robinson, especially when it comes to breaking down barriers or being politically involved. Jordan, in fact, has made a point of NOT being politically involved. As we saw so vividly during his Hall of Fame induction speech, Michael Jordan has one cause: Michael Jordan.
No one is disputing Jordan’s greatness as a player. Many believe he’s the best player of all time. I think cases can be made for Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. But if you want to tell me that Jordan was the best, I can live with that.
Robinson wasn’t close to being the best baseball player of all time. But he may very well be the most important. The only player who comes close is Babe Ruth, who probably saved the game after The Black Sox scandal. Russell, whose Celtics won five more championships than Jordan, certainly would deserve consideration for having his number retired if Jordan’s is going to be retired. Memo to LeBron: You know what number Russell wore? Six. So how about at least scratching that from your list of new numbers.
Jordan certainly played a major part in the NBA’s renaissance in the 1980s but Magic Johnson and Larry Bird got to the league five years before he did and already had turned it in the right direction before Jordan’s arrival. Jordan didn’t win an NBA title until 1991 when the NBA---thanks in very large part to the Magic vs. Larry duels of the 80s—had re-taken its spot in the American consciousness. Jordan certainly deserves a lot of credit for all he did but he was no more important Magic or Bird. A better player? Yes. More important? No.
There is also the issue of the way he’s lived his life off the court. He isn’t a terrible guy and he hasn’t done anything truly awful. But he’s had gambling problems, he walked away from the game in mid-career for reasons that have remained murky and he hasn’t exactly handled retirement with a good deal of grace. That doesn’t mean we should all line up and say bad things about him but if a number is going to be retired by an entire league the person needs to be as special as the player. Jackie Robinson was special in every possible way. Michael Jordan was an extraordinary player. Period.
One can only hope that Commissioner David Stern and the NBA are smart enough to suggest that James focus on winning games and making commercials, not setting league policy. If James wants to change his number no one is stopping him. I would politely suggest though that he find one other than number six. Because one thing I can guarantee you is that he’ll never come close to winning as many championships as Russell whether he plays in Cleveland, New York, Miami, Los Angeles or anyplace else in the future.
A couple of comments on some of the recent posts and e-mails: As I’ve said before, I really enjoy them, even those from people who disagree with me since those are often very smart and well worth paying attention to.
First, since this has something to do with today’s blog, someone wrote a while back that I should stop, “trying to make a living off of Michael Jordan.” I think this was after the Hall of Fame speech when everyone in the world was commenting on it and I was in fact ASKED by many people what I thought. I would also suggest—politely of course—that I first wrote about Jordan when he was in HIGH SCHOOL and to comment on him is, in fact, my job…
Last week on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show I was asked if it was true that I had in the past opposed Navy playing Notre Dame. I noticed where one poster wrote that I had “privately,” been opposed to the rivalry for years before Navy’s win in 2007. Let’s get this straight: I don’t oppose anything privately. I opposed the rivalry very PUBLICLY for years, dating back to when I wrote “A Civil War,” in 1995. I never said the teams should NEVER play, I said I didn’t think they should play every year because it was unfair to the Navy kids: not only did Notre Dame have every possible advantage in recruiting and in exposure but Navy never got to play a home game! (Still doesn’t). One year the game’s at Notre Dame, the next at a so-called neutral site overrun with Notre Dame fans.
I changed my stance several years BEFORE Navy won for one reason: generation after generation of Navy players told me I was wrong, that they WANTED to play the game every year, relished it in fact. Even during the 43 straight losses they always thought they could win. So, because they want to play the game, I’m fine with it. I’m not the one who has to go out there and try to do the impossible—which they have now done two years out of three.
As for the couple of guys who called me a “bandwagon,” jumper, that one I think is unfair. I wrote the book in 1995 when both Army and Navy were struggling for any recognition at all. I’ve done Navy games on radio since 1997 including one three year stretch when the Mids were 3-30, including an 0-10 (none of the games close) in 2001. I really don’t think you can call me a bandwagon jumper. It’s not as if I started singing the praises of service academy kids just because Navy beat Notre Dame, although I was pretty damn happy about it.
By the way, did anyone notice that Notre Dame got called for a chop block on Saturday night? Sometimes, there is justice in the world.