At least LeBron James has learned a little bit in the last year about how to lose. After The Boston Celtics ended his season and quite possibly his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he stuck around to congratulate the Celtics with handshakes and a couple of hugs and then came into the interview room to talk about the NBA playoffs and—at least in broad terms—what his future may hold for him this summer.
That’s an improvement from a year ago when he bolted the building as soon as the Orlando Magic had finished off his team and then was un-apologetic about his wounded-diva act the following day. “Winners don’t congratulate people when they beat them,” he said.
Actually, that’s exactly what winners do. That’s one reason why the hockey tradition of the handshake line at the end of a playoff series is one of the great traditions in sports. Do you think it was painful for Alexander Ovechkin two weeks ago and Sidney Crosby two nights ago to line up and shake the hands of the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens after each had lost a seventh game at home to Les Habitants? (I love that nickname). Of course it was. But it would never occur to either star to NOT line up and shake hands.
At least James has learned that much about losing. But he still has a long, long way to go. His pre-game ramblings before game six about his performance in game five made little if no sense. At one point he claimed he had played three bad games in seven years. At another point he said that losing this series would have no affect at all on his legacy and acted as if he was a rookie playing his first postseason rather than a seven year veteran who may be getting ready to leave town for another team.
What’s clear when James talked is that, like so many athletes—especially Nike athletes—the carefully concocted marketing image is very different than the reality. James can certainly sell product. Talking off the top of his head, especially when faced with an on-court crisis, he’s not nearly as smooth.
That’s okay too. There’s no rule that says every great athlete has to be Arthur Ashe or Bill Bradley or Arnold Palmer. James is light years ahead of, say Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals pitching phenom, who is so media-shy the team protects him as if he’s The President. When Strasburg gets to Washington the Nationals are going to have to bring the young reliever Drew Storen with him as both his designated closer and designated spokesman.
Back to James. The apologists will point out that he had a triple-double in game six and can’t be blamed for the lackluster play of his older teammates, notably Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal. The bashers will note the nine turnovers (a ridiculous number) and his unwillingness to try to take over the game. At 78-74, after he had FINALLY made a couple of threes, the opportunity for him to win the game for the Cavaliers was there. Instead, he literally handed it to Rajon Rondo, who outplayed him and everyone else throughout the series.
Let’s be fair about one thing: the constant comparisons to Michael Jordan—many the fault of Nike and his various marketing arms—are unfair and silly. There was ONE Jordan. There is no NEXT Jordan—not James, not Kobe Bryant, not the next eighth grader being over-publicized as we speak. Jordan wasn’t just a once-in-a-generation talent, he was a once-in-a-generation competitor.
He was never surrounded by great players and won six championships. Scottie Pippen became great because he had Jordan next to him. Everyone else was good enough to get Jordan to the fourth quarter and let Jordan win the game from there. That’s about what the Cavaliers are right now. They have a very good guard in Mo Williams and they tried to bring in experience and guys who could take some burden off James with O’Neal and Jamison. They won 65 games in the regular season, which makes them good—but apparently not good enough.
People will correctly point out that Jordan was in his seventh year when he won his first title. That’s true. James has just finished his seventh year. He also didn’t have three years in college under Dean Smith to learn the game the way Jordan did. Even so, he’s not Jordan. That doesn’t mean he isn’t going to win titles, I suspect he will. But his willingness to accept defeat and then to EXCUSE defeat makes him a lot different than Jordan.
Will he leave Cleveland? Probably. “Me and my team will make good decisions this summer,” isn’t likely to fill fans in that long-suffering city with confidence that he’s returning. He’s always been non-committal on his commitment to Cleveland. Some people are even writing and saying this morning that he needs to leave Cleveland because the burden of bringing a title there (the last championship team there was the old Browns in 1964) is just too much and he needs to get out.
Are you kidding? There’s less pressure in NEW YORK where the Knicks last won a title in 1973 and where they will start planning the parade the day he signs? There’s less pressure in Chicago where he can walk past Jordan’s statue every time he plays in The United Center? There’s less pressure in Miami where he’d have to fight Dwayne Wade for the basketball AND deal with Pat Riley’s ego?
In truth, he belongs in Cleveland. He can still be the (almost) hometown kid who brought a championship to the city. The Cavaliers would need to make changes around him: they probably need a new coach (I’d go get Jeff Van Gundy) and O’Neal is certainly done. But with James in town they can get players to surround him who can win a title. They aren’t there, but they aren’t that far away either.
This notion that he needs to go to New York to market himself is incredibly dumb. At James’s level it doesn’t matter where you play. Is Peyton Manning lacking for endorsement deals in Indianapolis?
WINNING makes you a billionaire not clever commercials. What’s more the RIGHT thing to do for James is to stay in Cleveland. It may be a quaint and outdated notion to say that an athlete owes something to a city but James owes Cleveland more than cutting-and-running the first chance he gets. It isn’t as if he’s going to suffer or be underpaid by staying there or he’s with an organization that won’t try to build a championship team around him.
James insisted on Wednesday that his legacy wasn’t at stake in this series. If he leaves Cleveland now his failures the last two years will very much be part of his legacy. And they will be HIS failures because the star gets credit so he must also take the blame. He still has a chance to change that legacy in Cleveland. But he can’t do it playing in New York.
I want to take a second here to thank my friends at “The Bob and Tom Show.” They have been my first interview on every book I’ve done starting with “A Season on the Brink,” and, without fail the interview gives the book a running start. It did so again yesterday with “Moment of Glory,” and I don’t want any of the folks there to think I’m not grateful because I am. So thanks to Bob, Tom, Dean, Kristie, Chic and Joni for all their help through the years.
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John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases