James Leroy Wilson's blog

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Defending LeBron

Several posts the past few months have been sports-related, and tend to defend heavily-criticized athletes who, in my view, haven't done anything wrong.

There is a larger purpose to such posts. It gets to the question of why we get angry about the choices other people make, even when those choices have no bearing on our lives. This longing to be angry contributes to an ill-mannered, irrational society. This spiritual dumbing-down, in turn, has dire political consequences.

I'm not suggesting anyone thinks there ought to be a law requiring LeBron James to shake the hands of opponents and show up at post-game press conferences. But the habit of pointing fingers at others and yelling "classless!" or "naughty!" is a dangerous one. A polite society would give people a lot of leeway. It would be more tolerant, following the Golden Rule or "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Ultimately, it would be more free.

Anyhow, here's my latest defense. Basketball star LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a league-best 66 wins in the regular season and two early play-off round sweeps, but the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in the conference finals, 4 games to 2. After the Magic's clinching victory, James ran off the court without shaking hands in congratulations to any Magic player. Then, he didn't show up for the post-game press conference.

Some of the sports pundits seem bothered by the alleged poor sportsmanship of not shaking hands. Others were more bothered by James's absence at the press conference, indicative of poor leadership.

As to the sportsmanship: Yesterday, I heard Mike Tirico, who called the game on television, say what he witnessed. Normally at the end of games like that the victor dribbles out the clock and it is considered unsportsmanlike to make a final, pointless shot at the NBA level. The Magic's Dwight Howard, unthinkingly and in celebration, did throw up such a shot. Tirico said he saw James flash a look of disgust at Howard, and this may have explained why James, already disappointed, was not in the mood to shake Howard's hand.

As to the press conference: this incident reminds me of Peyton Manning over three years ago after his Colts lost the AFC Championship game to the Steelers. The Colts had come back from three scores down to almost win the game until they missed the winning field goal. Obviously crushed from losing in the play-offs once again, in the post-game press conference Manning was asked why it took so long for the Colts offense to begin to move. Manning said this (from memory, but paraphrased): "I know it's not right to be critical of anyone but . . . there were some protection problems."

The next day, Manning was criticized in the media for, well, telling the truth about his teammates (and/or coaching staff). I agree that it's best not to say something like that, but the level of disappointment and frustration can get the best of any player.

James was in an even dicier situation than Manning. He's a free agent next year. This series proved that he was the best player in the league, but that he was essentially a one-man team. More than one analyst said that throughout the series, the Cavs had the best player, but that Magic players would hold slots 2 through 5.

It seems to me that James acted in the best interests of his teammates. He wasn't going to risk saying something akin to what Manning said, and thereby provoke speculation about his leadership ability and future with the team. Perhaps he had a giant lump in his throat and was too emotional to say anything at all. In any case, no good could come from showing up at the press conference. Not for himself, not for the morale of his teammates, and not for the Cavalier organization.

Unless more inside dirt is revealed, it appears to me that James's "immature" behavior actually revealed character. He stole the spotlight that would have been focused on the inadequacy of his teammates and took the heat and criticism himself. Even in defeat and with the season over, he took one for the team.

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