Monday, June 11, 2012

Addressing Anti-LeBronism

LeBron is often cited as one of the most hated athletes in professional sports. The basis for this animosity rests solely on his televised news conference (aka "the decision") where he announced his plan to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. This essay addresses two issues. First, it explains why "the decision" must represent the only point of contention with respect to LeBron. Second, it elaborates on how foolish it is to villanize LeBron for the decision.

LeBron is arguably the greatest all-around basketball player of all time. While people challenge his play and focus in the waning minutes of games, in terms of per minute production there are few players who can be objectively placed in his class. This isn't an opinion. This is based on statistics. So outside the decision what has LeBron done to make him so anathema?

It certainly cannot be his style of play. Arguably three of the most cherished American values are effort, toughness, and unselfishness--three characteristics LeBron exemplifies in his play perhaps more than any other athlete. At the most elite level of basketball, defense is predicated on two qualities: athleticism and effort. Although quantitative measures fail to truly define a superior defender (i.e., there are many intangible hustle or help defense plays that aren't necessarily quantifiable), LeBron should be the first name that comes up for the greatest defender of all five positions in basketball. Catch three minutes of any game he is playing in and you cannot question LeBron's effort in containing world class athletes night-in and  night-out.

There's also the quality of toughness. Unlike the Europeans and Argentinians and the LA Clippers, LeBron is not a flopper. He plays excellent straight-up defense and slashes to the hoop with an unparalleled fierceness. While he might appear emotional over calls he felt should have gone his way, one must recognize that every player and coach in the NBA complains over calls as it is a critical part of the psychological warfare. Appearing passive to calls actually comes at a cost to one's team as the player is making no effort to gain the favors of referees on ensuing violations.

Then there's the fact that averaging 7-8 assists per game indicates just how unselfish LeBron plays. And if there were any doubt about his abilities to score at will and, thus, not depend on his passing game to supplement his offense, LeBron exhibited in the Indiana and Boston series that he was virtually unstoppable in transition and in half-court sets. (It should come as no surprise that LeBron had a playoff low 2 assists in the game 7 win over Boston as he couldn't risk relying on Battier or Miller to make critical shots.)

It is also worth briefly addressing the relationship between LeBron's ability to pass and the narrative created by ESPN analysts, like Stephen A. Smith, that he isn't clutch. In many final shot scenarios LeBron--rightly--draws double teams. Anybody with a familiarity of basketball understands that it then becomes the duty of the player that is getting double-teamed to find the unguarded teammate as the opposition now has three players guarding his four teammates. LeBron does this better than anyone. However, just because an unguarded teammate fails to execute on an open shot, the fault should not be assigned to LeBron. Bear in mind that these are professional basketball players playing at the most elite league. If they cannot knock down an open 15-20 foot shot then they bear full responsibility.

So from a non-sports 'values' perspective it seems irrational that anyone harbor any animosity toward James. DBSF also recognizes that you'll hear the casual fan express frustration of LeBron's traveling or some nebulous violation of rules. Whether or not LeBron travels on every single possession, the responsibility for the call rests on referees and the league, and not players. Surely the speed at which world class athletes move makes it prohibitive to capture every rule violation. But the assertion that LeBron personally benefits from some sort of collusion with the league is baseless and inaccurate.

To summarize there is nothing in LeBron's play that justifies the malice directed at him. Therefore it must be based on "the decision" (which is the argument reverberated in this Slate article). But what was wrong with "the decision"? ESPN volunteered to air the hour-long program. LeBron used it to raise $6 million for charity. To repeat: As part of a business decision to pursue an option that he felt was in his best career interests--an action assumed to be of primacy to virtually every American--LeBron found a way to also raise $6 million all of which went to charity. Somebody was angry about this?

Well, maybe it was the event at American Airlines Arena where LeBron, DWade and Bosh all first wore their Heat jerseys and LeBron proposed that the Heat would win "not two, not three, not four" etc championships but seven or so. Many fans perceived this as unnecessarily arrogant. But what they miss was that the event was a gigantic pep rally for the organization's new stars. In what pep rally do the players come and predict that they "might make the playoffs" or are going to "try" to win a championship? The whole point of a pep rally is to invigorate a fan base and what does that better than telling them that your team will win championships? How people can malign LeBron for exhibiting optimism at such an event is baffling.

In the end, all of the anti-LeBronites are remiss in acknowledging what LeBron does so well. It would be an insult to James to suggest that the fact that he has never been involved in any criminal wrong-doing or sensational negative publicity merits approbation. But he has been subjected to vitriolic rumors involving the relationships of his family members and teammates, and has had to manage the legal issues of family members. Every time the media confronts LeBron with such events--and when they confront him it is incessant--he handles it with the aplomb of a White House press secretary. He never rattles or lashes out at reporters for inquiring about personal, non-basketball matters. He makes it clear that it is a personal issue and that he will deal with it appropriately.

Of course, all of this is ignored because he chose to leave a team that he personally was contributing anywhere from 20 to 42 wins a year too so he could have a better chance at winning a championship. It will be interesting to see how perceptions of LeBron change if he can lead the Heat past the Thunder in this season's Finals. But considering the number of championships that Kobe and Jordan accrued, fans will probably continue to castigate LeBron for raising $6 million for charity for years to come at fans' own cost as it is they who are failing to appreciate arguably the greatest all-around athlete of a generation.

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