Monday, June 13, 2011

In Defense of Lebron

"Should I be who you want me to be?"

I started reading "The Triangle" for the first time last week. It's a new concept blog, driven by a vibrant young writing contingent, and molded in some parts by sports media maven and Boston native Bill Simmons. The Triangle's pioneering article was a weighty one, a violent dialogue bent on rocking America's general sensibilities. Carles (our mononymous author) brought forth a sermon on "awareness", challenging NBA players to be champions of transparency. Of course, this carries the air of excoriation, implying that some (or most) of them just don't "get it", that these athletes refuse to become "accessible."


Carles echoes a sentiment that I advanced two years ago in a psychoanalysis of Kobe Bean Bryant. I admit that I saw Kobe’s career as an elaborate ruse. "Kobe shows us what he wants to show us…doing so in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions," I said back then. "He’s always maintained his fa├žade, never allowing his innermost feelings to enter the public domain."

Funny enough, I still see Kobe's career as an elaborate ruse. He gives us what he chooses to give us, and we have to make peace with that. However, can we make peace with the fact that after all these years...Kobe Bryant might have actually been right?
Robert Frost once said that "the road less traveled has made all the difference". But I'm not so sure Frost ever took into account the possibility of the "road less traveled" evolving into the "road most traveled". Generations X and Y have created a world with many protagonists and anatagonists, but no calming forces to make sense of these new pillars of thought.

This is the world that has created Lebron James.
Only a few years ago, this was a world that made "NBA Inside Stuff" a hallowed basketball TV program. Back then, it was rare to get a glimpse of our heroes carrying out routine tasks. I mean, just seeing a shoot around before a game was restricted to the ardent followers with big checkbooks. Michael Jordan and Ahmad Rashad shared a kinship that was unknown to most media personnel, and we were given access to "His Airness" that best tickled our senses without exposing MJ's incendiary rage.
Today, we have multiple media outlets to feed our daily sports binge. TMZ and Twitter pick up where ESPN and NBC leave off. Media dust paths have become unfettered expressways, and locker room access once deemed off limits is now taken for granted. I mean, guys can't even dress without pushing boom mics from their mouths.

I was listening to sports radio as I drove, only to hear the shock jock excoriate Dwayne Wade for being "too aggressive" in Game 6. Really? His team's about to lose the NBA Finals, D-Wade is playing with a weakened hip (thanks to Brian "Dad" Cardinal), his team's about to lose, and he's getting criticized for being "too aggressive"? Sometimes, it seems like mass media can't ever cut a guy a break.

Lebron was birthed into this rapidly changing media world. He was the first high school athlete to have his games be appointment viewing for a national audience. He had meetings with Nike, acquaintance with the professorial Worldwide Wes, and ESPN's bounty at his fingertips. He was 16 years old.

It's amazing that Lebron has lived up to the hype, but what's more amazing is the fact that he has surpassed even our great expectations. We expected him to be among the best, but he has become THE best. We expected him to be the prototype for the postmodern athlete, but Lebron has become the gold standard. We expected to see James on cereal boxes and underwear ads, but he went ahead and became a global icon instead. We gave him the United States, but Lebron TOOK the world.
Unfortunately for him, the world he took is a world of constant access and the 24/7 news cycle, a world where someone can seemingly become newsworthy and irrelevant in the same sentence. Kobe became a global icon by letting his game and the media run its course; Lebron accelerated the hands of time with bombastic rhetoric, shrewd marketing and professional savvy.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction...and it has been fierce. We saw the worst of King James when the going got tough. Because he forced all the cameras in his direction, Lebron's fragility was revealed with the precision of an electron microscope. And when the heat became unbearable, Lebron revolted, cursed those whom he allowed this access, and took his talents to South Beach...while burning every bridge along the way. Now, everyone hates him.
But should we be surprised? It's been YEARS since Lebron has made a decision without scrutiny. 10 years, to be exact. I was astounded by his intellect and poise as a 16-year-old, but he hasn't grown since then. A 16-year-old may be smart, may be taking AP courses, and may be advanced beyond his peers...but he's still a 16-year-old. There's a reason car insurance companies wait until you're 25 before lowering your co-pay. Life needs to happen. Adversity needs to strike and mistakes need to be made to stimulate growth.

Taking this path has stunted Lebron James' growth. As Skip Bayless said after Game 6, LBJ has the body of a 26-year-old but the mind of a 16-year-old. The dark side of 13 going on 30.

Perhaps Kobe was right to keep everything to himself.