LeBron James practices with the Heat on Saturday in San Antonio. (Robyn Beck / Getty Images)
America is the land of forgiveness and second chances, and in the context of sports, villains can turn into heroes overnight.
But it doesn’t take the slightest squint of the eye to notice LeBron James doesn’t fit the bill of what the masses want in a redeemed hero.
LeBron James can’t win, no matter how much he wins, no matter what he does. This latest episode, his debilitating cramps in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, is further proof he’ll have no cover from his critics, that the usual soap that today’s athletes use to cleanse themselves in the eyes of the public won’t apply to him.
The vitriol came from professional analysts and weekend warriors alike -- mocking him for standing on the sidelines after making a layup and his leg locked up, his limping 50 feet to the bench, followed by a trainer carrying him the next 30 feet up the sidelines for aid.
Whenever James has the slightest instance where he appears to be mortal, the scorn and derision isn’t far behind.
The phrase, “benefit of the doubt,” doesn’t apply to James and unfairly, it probably never will. It seems to stem from “The Decision,” his made-for-TV show about his free-agent selection that was ill-conceived in 2010, but perhaps those seeds were planted in the years prior: Appearing on the cover of national magazines as a prep star, being nicknamed “The Chosen One” and “King James” before playing an NBA game.
His “decision” to leave Cleveland only revealed the predisposed thoughts, and began a narrative about his moral fiber and athletic character that simply doesn’t fit -- that he chose the easy way out by joining with his buddies in Miami, and had the nerve to do it on national television.
What’s more, James is unapologetic about it. He feels it’s a learning experience but it doesn’t appear to be some deep-seated regret that keeps him awake at night.
James has turned into more pariah than pioneer, although the way he’s handled the attention and lofty expectations for the most part is commendable. In the eyes of the public he’s chasing after ghosts -- very human athletes who’ve been turned into deities over time, with their flaws whitewashed.
Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan certainly had their flaws. Magic was called “Tragic” in the 1984 Finals after making some critical errors in decisive moments, and while he was a two-time champion at that juncture, there was still a little doubt from the public, and he took a beating that summer.
Jordan had his detractors, who believed a dominant scorer couldn’t lead a team to a championship, with his early failures to the Pistons being Exhibit A for evidence.
Then June of 1991 happened, followed by five more examples of him breaking the mold -- and now Jordan’s way is the standard for which all supernatural NBA talents are to be judged. The things Jordan was ridiculed for are now part of the Jordan-branded package, where even his flaws are put in a meat grinder to create the perfect superstar, the quintessential NBA player.
It’s funny how that works, and after those early moments of misstep, both are now presented with the cloak of perfection.
Even if Jordan actually asked out of a game due to dehydration in the 1997 Finals. Even if Magic looked like James, at The Palace in the 1989 Finals, when he pulled a hamstring in the fourth quarter of Game 2, officially dashing the Lakers’ chances of a three-peat.
But they’re protected, and James isn’t.
Winning four MVPs, two gold medals and two straight NBA championships are accomplishments James has earned rightfully, a trophy case that usually earns “perception immunity” in an instance like Game 1.
Immediately his failure in the 2011 NBA Finals come to mind to the critics, along with the regrettable finish to the playoff series in 2010 against the Celtics.
Never mind the 2007 Cavaliers were probably the worst two-through-12th man team to ever play on the Finals stage, dragged there by James’ singular brilliance.
He’s different than any superstar in this modern era, in the way that every single positive is said to be an anomaly and the negatives are indications of his true character.
But James’ talent is nonpareil, and he’s blazing a trail that makes people uncomfortable. The game’s ultimate team player is decried as selfish and a competitive wimp when the heat rises and going gets tough, although every metric and memory says the opposite.
If you admit he can never win, though, perhaps the mocking won’t be as poisonous.