I love Lebron James. It's beyond a sport-oriented man crush. I absolutely adore the guy. His tremendous ability on the basketball court is unparalleled but it's nothing compared to the attitude he exudes on and off the court. Lebron is everything you want a professional athlete to be. He's perfect.
Sure, you can nitpick your way into a small list of faults. You can crunch numbers and cite stats that reveal he is not exactly the kind of guy who you can count on to win games with a heroic last second shot. But most of those players we celebrate as clutch shooters missed more game winners than they made. Lebron simply hasn't been in position to win the big game with one shot. Yet. You can make the argument that his defense leaves something to be desired but when you look at the big picture you'd be an idiot if you didn't want this guy on your team. He's always flirting with a triple double and capable of scoring 30 points in a quarter. He can take the ball strong to the hole or drill a deep three pointer with a hand in his face and he sure seems to come up with the timely steal. Maybe he's not a lock down defender, but if Lebron plays too aggressively on defense he might risk foul trouble which would hurt his ability to take the game over on offense.
He is better after three years in the league than any other player before him was after three years in the league. At 21 he is setting performance standards that will not be matched in future years. But all of that is just window dressing. What really sets Lebron apart from professional athletes around the world is his attitude. He makes 40 year-old men look like petulant cry-babies.
After being heralded as the chosen one from his early high school days, one would expect Lebron to carry much baggage. You'd figure he would be a slave to his friends and his family, acting childish because nobody ever held him accountable for being a man. We see it in professional athletes who are much older and expect it in talented athletes that are Lebron's age.
But Lebron brings none of that. His nickname is an inside joke. Lebron doesn't act like somebody who has been called the King all his life, his manner is stately but certainly not regal. He is humble but doesn't exude false modesty. He is gracious, but not to the point where you feel he is putting up a front. Lebron is just a genuinely nice guy who happens to be one of the most remarkable athletes in professional sports. He's not soft, but he certainly doesn't have that bitter edge that makes it so easy to hate a player.
Unlike his peers, Lebron doesn't need to be the MVP every night. Lebron happily passes the ball to his teammates and truly enjoys seeing his team perform well. Most guys in Lebron's position will sacrifice team success for their own statistical performance, but Lebron is all about wins. He's doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk.
Lebron doesn't even get caught up in pursuing the elusive triple double. He doesn't force himself into the lane to steal rebounds from his teammates and doesn't get angry at those who fail to convert his crisp passing to immediate points. He loves to rack up the assists, but far be it from him to criticize a teammate for getting the ball a little closer to the rim for a better shot.
Lebron gets mad when he sees a lackluster effort. He takes responsibility for the team's failures but on the floor you can see Lebron trying to motivate his teammates to play better. He doesn't throw petty tantrums but he offers a solid mix of criticism and encouragement to help his coach get guys on the same page. He never uses the media to attack his teammates nor does he go out of his way to promote himself. He's also respectful of his opponents in both wins and losses. Instead of King, maybe we should call him Saint James.
You can run down a list of players present and past and not find a guy that brought a better balance of ability, work ethic, confidence and humility. Lebron is a natural born leader who understands that the best leaders not only do it through example, but they also know when to shut up and be led. The kid follows instructions and shows others the respect they deserve.
It's easy to lose sight of how special this is. Lebron is flashy but he doesn't show off. So many great players before him went to great lengths to market themselves through word and deed. Lebron seems content to let it come to him. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ruffled feathers along the way. Michael Jordan took a long time to mature into a winner and even then had a tendency to rub teammates and coaches the wrong way. Lebron has all of the ability his predecessors possessed but he demonstrates none of the negative traits that made them human. As I already assessed: perfect.
It's a perfect story too. Lebron's a hometown hero. Let's face it. Akron is part of Cleveland even though most Rubber-heads will claim independence. Cleveland, Akron and Canton are all part of the same metropolis. You can't script it any better. The Cavaliers were terrible for years before Lebron arrived on the scene. For a brief spell in the early 1990's they looked like they might have some potential, but then they made dreadful personnel decisions and the team was an embarrassment to the entire institution of basketball. Lebron's rise to glory in high school gave everybody hope that Cleveland's salvation was developing his game just a few minutes south in Akron. When that number one pick fell into Cleveland's desperate clutches after Lebron had just finished his senior year, everybody knew that Lebron was staying put.
Nobody expected him to live up to the massive expectations placed on his shoulders. He was just a boy when he made his NBA debut and most experts figured he'd be lucky to average double digits in his first season. It would take at least two years for the kid to adjust to the bigger stronger and faster game played in the NBA. Look at Kobe. The real question wasn't whether or not Lebron would meet the ridiculous expectations, but how he would handle the pressure. There was a distinct possibility that he would implode and take three or four years just to get on track.
It didn't happen. Lebron exploded onto the scene putting up averages in points, assists and rebounds that rivaled the best players in the league. He quickly drew comparisons to Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. His game had a few weaknesses but he started his NBA career at a level most analysts didn't expect him to attain for two or three seasons. He improved in his second season and got even better in his third. At 21 he has established himself as the best all around player in the league and he has the Cavaliers in position to not only make the playoffs but advance deep into them.
So when Lebron got off track in a recent game against the Wizards you'd have expected Cleveland fans to cut the kid some slack. He just came off an MVP performance in the All Star game and had been of fire in his previous starts. You'd have to expect a bit of a lull and getting it out of the way right after the break was better than running out of gas down the stretch. It's a long season and you can't expect a lights out performance every night.
But the clowns in Cleveland didn't see it that way. When Lebron struggled to find his stroke the fans booed. They gave Lebron the business. You'd have thought the Cavaliers just announced that Shawn Kemp was checking into the game. Lebron's performance was bad, but isn't he entitled to a poor showing once in a while? He plays 44 minutes a night and is bound to run out of gas once in a while. Right? Besides, he still turned out a near triple double performance. If anybody was to blame it might be the rest of the team.
There are those who will say that fans have a right to boo. They pay good money to sit in the arena and how they express themselves is their choice. Besides, Lebron is making big bucks and should be mature enough to handle it. Especially when he's struggling. If he's too soft to take it he should have gone to college.
That's one way to look at it. Fans have the right to boo. They also have the right to eat urinal cakes and wear underpants on their heads. For that matter there's no law against walking up to a cop and saying "oink" but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. There's a big difference between being right and having a right. Booing Lebron isn't right.
Cleveland fans would do well to remember that Lebron is approaching the end of his rookie contract. The Cavaliers will likely offer him the maximum deal, but that doesn't mean Lebron has to take it. If Cleveland fans want to exercise their right to boo, Lebron might exercise his right to bolt and go out of his way to punish Cleveland fans whenever he comes back to town. How loud would the boos be if Lebron signed a deal with Chicago just so he could have several annual opportunities to hang 50 points on his former club?
Cleveland's my home town but I'm not stupid. It's a hell hole. It's a decaying old industrial city populated with stupid people who don't bathe regularly. Many of them are my relatives. The only redeeming aspect of playing professional sports in a town like Cleveland is that the fans are supposed to be loyal...not only to their teams, but to the players who represent them. For years Cleveland has worshipped mediocre athletes because they were "our guys" and showed the city a little loyalty. We loved athletes who had a blue collar mentality over the arrogant jerks who played for other teams. Sure, Joe Montana might have been a better quarterback on paper, but everybody in Cleveland knew that Bernie Kosar had intangibles. If Bernie had been throwing the ball to Jerry Rice the Browns would have won 10 Superbowls. Right? You betcha. Best NBA point guard of all time? Mark Price. End of story. John who? Magic what? Get out of here. Finally Cleveland has a bona fide superstar who wants to bring his hometown a long overdue championship and fans are booing him for struggling in one game that won't matter at the end of the season. That's simply not how it's supposed to be.
So why stay? If fans are already turning on Lebron, why should he stick around? We all know that his endorsement deals automatically sweeten if he ends up playing for a big market team, and he'll get more media exposure in LA, Chicago or New York. What does Cleveland have? The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame? Big Deal. It's not like they have induction ceremonies there. What else? Rust? Oh yeah, Cleveland rocks. Lebron's got to stay.
Cleveland's not alone when it comes to stupid fans. Columbus is home to some of the most ruthless college sports fans in the country and Cincinnati is a festering pocket of mean-spirited rednecks. Philadelphia is a pit of irrational hatred and New York fans are among the most arrogant jerks in the world. Southern California has terrible fans who don't pay attention to their teams unless they're winning and Chicago is overrated. What happened to all those Bulls' fans? Where did all the White Sox fans come from? Around the world sports fans are getting more and more impatient. Whether it's because the athletes are getting paid so much money or because the tickets are too expensive, fans are just being rude. But Cleveland used to be special and that made it a great sports town. It seems those days are gone. Maybe Lebron will be too.