By ANDY HEINTZ
---- — OTTUMWA — I don’t consider myself a huge LeBron James fan.
After all, James does play for the Miami Heat, the NBA equivalent of the New York Yankees — a leviathan that wields its money and power to dominate its smaller rivals. With its three superstars — one, James, who happens to be the best on the planet — the Heat are a veritable basketball Goliath swimming in a pool of Davids; albeit some of those Davids happen to be extremely talented.
Like so many Americans, I have a soft spot for David. Not just for David himself, but for the way he inspires hope in and sparks the imaginations of those who root for him. In a way, David is the manifestation of the American dream — the proof that with a little hard work and luck, anyone can do more than was logically expected of them. Even if, like me, you think the American dream has become a bit apocryphal with the vast inequality and lack of generation-to-generation mobility that haunts this country, you still can’t help but be smitten with the Davids who — whether they occupy the business or the sports world — overcome the odds and reach the top of the mountain.
Furthermore, the Heat don’t have much in common with the trademark Midwestern stoicism that is commonplace in Iowa. I suspect that, for many Iowans — and for a large number of Midwesterners — the Spurs with their fundamentally sound, no-frills style seemed more worthy of support than the Heat and their flashier style of play. While Miami — and the Los Angeles Lakers — is the darling of ESPN, the Spurs are beloved by those old-school types who never miss a chance to tell people how impoverished the team aspect of the game has become in the NBA. San Antonio, they say, performs in a fashion that harkens back to another era when one-on-one play wasn’t so ubiquitous and team play wasn’t so obscure. While I think these folks overromanticize the past, I agree and sympathize with many of their complaints about the state of game.
So I get why people don’t like the Heat. I was, however, caught off guard by how many loathed the Heat’s premier superstar, James. While the way he left Cleveland was clumsy and heartbreaking for a city that has already become too accustomed to disappointment, it’s hard to pinpoint a particular episode when James did something that’s worthy of all the venom that is directed at him by his detractors. For the most part, the 28-year-old basketball prodigy has handled himself admirably under the intense glare of the omnipotent spotlight. No matter how crushing the loss, James has almost always answered the media’s questions with maturity and aplomb. Both on the court and off, he’s has conducted himself in a manner that has provided a sorely needed counterexample to the behavior of other sports giants — Mark McGuire, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Sammy Sosa, Joe Paterno.
So why do James’ critics react to his every misstep with schadenfreude? After a couple of days of pondering this, I settled on two distinct possibilities: A) Everything has come to easy to him or, B) he’s disliked for characteristics that, on closer inspection, are and have always been nonexistent.
James, to put it simply, looks like he was created in a factory whose goal was to create an unstoppable basketball player. There are times when he looks like the distillation of perfection on the basketball court. He moves with an economy of motion that looks both impossibly perfect and effortless at the same time. He’s quick, strong, sure-footed, graceful and extremely intelligent.
But, and this is what his critics refuse to see, James is neither a hot dog nor a prima donna. While he can be impossible to stop on offense, he’s also a terrific passer and an exemplary defensive player. And these skills were not intrinsic — they took hours and hours of honing before they became what they are today. To see James as a hot dog who represents the one-on-one style play that is so derided by basketball purists is to be wearing blinders. Through his unselfish play, James make his teammates better, which should draw cheers from the old-school types.
But despite all of James otherworldly skills, he’s not, and I doubt he ever will be, the next Michael Jordan, and the media should quit comparing the two players. No matter what statistical prodigies he acheives in his career, James simply doesn’t have the competitive restlessness and unquenchable inner fire that made Jordan the best player to ever play the game. No player, not even King James, brought it every night like the man who wore No. 23. No matter how many championships he had won, Jordan, through his fierce will to win, beautful style of play and sheer brilliance in clutch situations, made you root for him over and over again. He was that good, that charismatic, that, well, Jordan.
So let’s give James credit for being what he is: Not a hot dog and not Jordan, but a decent human being who happens to be the best player in the game today.