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Laramie Movie Scope:
Go LeBron!

The man who beat the system, the haters and the dupes

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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May 29, 2011 and updated periodically through 2017 -- I read another article today by yet another hater of basketball star LeBron James. Gregg Doyel, CBSSports.com National Columnist, says he is determined to enjoy the NBA finals this year, despite the fact that LeBron James is playing in the finals. He complains that LeBron “gamed the system” by refusing to continue to play in Cleveland, persuading Duane Wade to stay in Miami and persuading Chris Bosh to join him there. Duane Wade and Bosh probably had something to do with the team Miami has now, as does the crafty Heat manager, Pat Riley, but the James haters have singled him out as the lone villain in this evil scheme to build a championship team. Excuse me? If you aren't trying to build a championship team, you've got no business being in basketball.

I've been hearing a lot from the LeBron haters lately. I can understand this, especially from those foolish enough to have actually watched that TV show “the decision” in which James announced he would be leaving Cleveland to move to Florida (just imagine someone wanting to move from Cleveland to Florida. That's unheard of!). I didn't waste my time watching that stupid show, so it didn't bother me. Some also side with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's attacks on James, calling him a quitter and a traitor. Dan Gilbert swore after LeBron left that Cleveland would win an NBA championship before LeBron did. This is not the statement of a smart man. It is the statement of an owner whose team went from contender to also-rans, until LeBron came back, that is.

Then there are those who worship at the altar of Michael Jordan, and who say that Jordan never would have pulled a stunt like James did (Jordan himself said as much). Jordan (who is now the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats) stuck it out in Chicago, even when the team was losing. That's true. But Chicago had, and still has, good management (the team finished tied for the best record in the NBA in 2012), and they hired a Hall of Fame coach, too. It is also possible that if Jordan had not been injured for much of his second season with the Bulls, the team would not have been able to get high enough draft picks to get All-Star guard B.J. Armstrong (obtained through a draft-pick trade for Brad Sellers, who was drafted by the Bulls in 1986). The management of the Cavaliers wasn't that good.

I think if LeBron had been drafted by the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Spurs, Mavericks, Heat or any other team with competent ownership, management and coaching, he would not have walked away. He would have stayed. But he wasn't lucky enough to be drafted by those teams. He was stuck on a team that had never won a title and it looked like it would never would, despite the ravings of Dan Gilbert.

Gregg Doyel and the other LeBron haters also fail to mention that James took a cut in pay so his new team, the Miami Heat could all fit under the NBA salary cap. But then self-sacrifice for the good of the team doesn't fit into the whole notion of James being a selfish villain. Cork Gaines of businessinsider.com estimates in a Dec. 20, 2010 article that the NBA salary cap system is costing LeBron James about $40 million per season. If he can't get paid what he's worth, at least he can now win a championship. So what's wrong with that?

Reading the comments of the LeBron haters, I detect a certain amount of racism. It is like they think that LeBron, a black employee, has no right to question the wisdom of his white employer (Gilbert). He should just trust Gilbert's judgment and hang with Cleveland, trusting that Gilbert will eventually add enough talent to the team so that James will finally win a title. LeBron, the hater theory goes, stepped outside his place in society when he sort of picked his own team and his own teammates. It looks to me, based on the results so far, that LeBron James is a better judge of talent than Dan Gilbert is. This really upsets the haters. That's not his place to pick his own team. In other words, he is an uppity you-know-what. For those of you unfamiliar with this disgusting characterization from the old Jim Crow south, consider yourselves lucky.

The LeBron haters share a rather narrow view of individual rights with respect to professional athletes, and perhaps all people. When a professional athlete is offered a high-paying job with high social status, he is expected, as his part of the bargain, to respect the authority structures of that sport, know his role in the sport and generally to do what he is told. Those who buck the system, like Curt Flood, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, John Elway, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, stir up a lot of hatred from fans and sportswriters, particularly if they happen to be black, or Jewish, in the case of Koufax. A local instance of this that most people probably haven't heard of is the “Black 14” incident of 1969, when 14 black football players were kicked off the University of Wyoming football team for protesting the anti-black policies then practiced by the Mormon church. The press and public overwhelmingly sided with the coach, Lloyd Eaton, who banned the players from the team for their protest. Most of the players lost their scholarships.

I'm not saying LeBron James is a particularly admirable person. In his youth, at least, he seemed to be very self-centered and not very mature, but that describes a lot of athletes, particularly ones like James, who became a top sports star at a very young age. Being a professional athlete means you never have to grow up, and some don't. It's like NBA great Charles Barkley said. “I'm not here to be a role model.” I don't expect athletes to be role models and most aren't, and that includes Michael Jordan (well, come to think of it there was at least one, Roberto Clemente). If you want a role model, look elsewhere. Try Martin Luther King, St. Francis of Assisi, Jesus Christ, Buddha, William Wilberforce, Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and so on. There are plenty to choose from.

Anyway, I like people who buck the system, and go their own way, like Curt Flood, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, John Elway, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and the Black 14. The system was working against LeBron James. He was stuck with an organization that held him down, but after years of futility, he was able to beat the system. Good for him. I don't like the system. The system is corrupt. I'll go with anybody who stands up against the system. It's not surprising that sportswriters like Gregg Doyel would go after people like James, who buck the system. They are part of the system. Their livelihoods depend on the system. So I'll be pulling for LeBron James against that big German white guy and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks. James is a great player, maybe the greatest ever, and the chance to see him play at the highest level is an opportunity not to be missed. Go LeBron!

Addendum 1, June 13, 2011: The series is over and the Mavericks have won. LeBron didn't play all that well, settling too often for jump shots instead of getting inside. The Heat couldn't seem to solve the Maverick's zone defense (rarely used in the NBA), which would seem to be a coaching failure as much as anything. A zone is different from man-to-man, but there are a lot better ways to attack a zone than the Heat did in this series. The Mavericks were obviously the hungrier team. The Mavericks are the more experienced team and they knew something the Heat didn't know before this series. What they knew is that the chance to win a championship is a very rare opportunity for most players. In order to get multiple championship opportunities you have to be a great player who is playing on great teams.

The play of Jason Terry was a real difference in the series, along with that of unstoppable, cat-quick point guard J.J. Barea. Terry was hot as a machine gun from all over the court in the final game, scoring 27 points. Terry also tied an NBA record for three point shooting in the playoffs this year. I am happy for Jason Kidd (age 38, 17 years in the NBA) and Dirk Nowitzki (13 years in the NBA), great players who had played for more than a decade in the NBA without a championship. Dirk's performance when he was sick was inspirational (he was the series MVP). I am also happy for Shawn Marion, another fine all-around player, who, like Terry, had labored in relative obscurity for years in the NBA. I am also happy for Maverick coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best coaches around, and one of the few to have ever won NBA championships as both a coach and a player (he won a title with the Celtics as a player in 1986). The experienced Carlisle definitely out-coached Erik Spoelstra, the less experienced coach of the Heat.

I am also happy for Mark Cuban, the Maverick owner (and owner of the national Landmark Theater chain of art house movie theaters) who has paid millions of dollars in fines to the NBA for his repeated criticisms of the league and its officials (including his screaming fit at the 2006 finals when Duane Wade of the Heat spent even more time at the charity stripe than Michael Jordan ever did). He finally beat a system that seemed stacked against him. He got the last laugh on those who criticized his trade of promising young talent for a seemingly washed up aging point guard, Jason Kidd, and for sticking with Jason Terry. Cuban said, the knock on Terry by some in the media was that “'He can’t perform in the playoffs. He’s not clutch in the playoffs.'” The talking heads were wrong about Terry. Now the nay sayers are singing the same old tune about LeBron James. They are just as wrong now as they were about Jason Terry. LeBron James is a young guy and the Heat is a young team. The Heat will be back, and LeBron will get the last laugh some day. When it comes, it will be just as sweet for him as it is now for Kidd, Nowitzki, Terry, Marion and the Mavericks.

Addendum, June 22, 2012: The series is over and the Heat won, despite being the underdog in the series with the smaller, older team. In Vegas, before the series, the odds were against the Heat. Oklahoma City, the younger, taller team, was favored to win it all. In a series very similar to the 2011 finals, the older, more experienced team beat the younger team. After the loss the year before, the Heat players knew they were not entitled to the championship, they had to earn it, and they did. LeBron James said after the series that he learned last year that he had to stop trying to prove people wrong, so he got back to basics and played his game. But it was more than that.

James played a different game this time around. He became a post-up player instead of a perimeter jump shooter. He got the ball in the paint and played like a center or power forward. When he was double-teamed, he passed the ball to the open man, and most of the time, unlike last year, the guy he passed to made a three-point shot. In this series those other guys on the perimeter made their shots most of the time, punishing teams for double-teaming James and Duane Wade. Mike Miller alone made 23 points in the championship game, outscoring two of Oklahoma City's “Big Three,” mostly on three point shots resulting from pinpoint passes from LeBron.

This was very similar to the performance of Jason Terry of the Mavericks, playing against the Heat the year before. Miller did this despite having a bad back and despite shooting poorly in previous games. Like James, Wade and the rest of the Heat, he wanted this win badly and he put everything he had into it. It was later revealed that Wade was playing with a bad knee, an injury that kept him out of the Olympic games this year. That's one reason Wade was willing for the first time to allow LeBron to be the “go-to” guy in key situations. LeBron is more willing to defer team leadership than Wade is. It is difficult for these two players to play complimentary styles. This duo wasn't perfect this year, but much better than last year.

The Heat this year played the way the Mavericks did last year, and for the same reasons. Also, I think Heat coach, Erik Spoelstra, out-coached the year before by the more experienced Rick Carlisle of the Mavericks, was a better coach this time around. This year, he was the more experienced coach than his counterpart, the relatively inexperienced Scott Brooks. In 2011, Spoelstra had no answer for the match up zone defense of the Mavericks. In 2012, Brooks had no answer for the post up offense of the Heat, led by LeBron.

After the game, LeBron said it was “About damned time” he won the title. So he still hasn't completely grown up. The best part of the celebration came when the great Juwan Howard, 39, the third oldest active player in the league, was playing on the floor for Miami at the end of the game. Howard was one of the original “Fab Five” Michigan Wolverine recruiting class of 1991, along with all-stars Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. The Fab Five came close, but never won an NCAA or NBA title in all the years since, until now. Jalen Rose, working the event as a television commentator, congratulated Howard for helping to get a championship for the long-suffering Fab Five. They enjoyed a long-delayed celebration together.

Like Howard, Rose and Webber, LeBron James was expected to win an NBA title from an early age and would be considered a failure if he did not. That is a lot of pressure. Most athletes don't have to deal with that, Tim Tebow, for instance. In a March 24 column in the New York Times, Ross Douthat wrote of Tebow's move to New York, “Above all, did you think that Tebow himself, with his distinctive mix of missionary zeal and “give me the ball” confidence, would duck the Gotham opportunity? That he would pull a LeBron James and take his talents down to Florida instead?” Evidently not well versed in sports, Douthat's back-handed insult to James could not be farther off the mark. Comparing Tebow to James is like comparing hamburger to steak.

Tebow was traded to New York from Denver because Denver got a better quarterback, Payton Manning, and Denver didn't need Tebow anymore. The Heat aren't crazy enough to trade LeBron James. Tebow had no choice in this matter. James left Cleveland when his contract was up, knowing the team had been too poorly managed for him to win a championship there. Both Tebow and James moved from smaller cities to much bigger cities, but the expectations for the two men were very different. James was expected to lead his new team to an NBA championship. Anything less would be failure. Tebow, on the other hand, is a second-string quarterback behind Mark Sanchez.

April 29, 2013 update: Tim Tebow has been cut from the New York Jets. Told you so. Here is a bit of poetry about this, courtesy of sports writer Rick Reilly:

They cut Tim Tebow
A big deletion
20 mag covers
6 completions

A lot of great players, like Rose, Webber, Elgin Baylor, Patrick Ewing and Pete Maravich never got a NBA championship ring. One of the things that LeBron James learned last year is that no matter how great a player is, he is not entitled to an NBA championship, in fact, some great players never even get a chance to play for a championship. It is a rare opportunity. Luck is involved. You have to make the most of those opportunities when they come along. Who knows, Tim Tebow might even get his own NFL championship ring, if the starting quarterback wins one for him.

So what are the LeBron haters saying now? That the Miami championship was the result of a conspiracy by the NBA. This is crazy. It makes no sense to think the NBA really wanted the most hated player in the league to win a championship. The incentive would be for the NBA to engineer a Miami loss. Kevin Durant is younger and more handsome and has a nicer smile than LeBron. He is much better liked by most fans. He's nice and modest, too. He would be the perfect face for the NBA. Miami is the most hated team in the league. Lots of people, and probably the NBA brass too, didn't really want them to win. They overcame all obstacles and won anyway. LeBron and company got the last laugh. The LeBron haters are desperate for another plate of schadenfreude. They will get it someday, through injury, or age. It happens to us all. But for now, LeBron reigns supreme.

Updated Aug. 14, 2012: LeBron James has just completed one of the most remarkable seasons in basketball history, winning the NBA championship, the regular season MVP award, the championship series MVP award, and, on top of all that, winning an Olympic gold medal. Only one other player in history has ever done all that in one season, a guy who just happens to be the personal hero of record-setting Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps: A player named Michael Jordan. In winning Olympic gold, James came up big in the fourth quarter, hitting a fall-away three-pointer and driving down the lane for a monster dunk to help win a tight, hard-fought game against a tough Spanish team. What a year! LeBron and Kevin Durant (who set a record for the most points ever scored by any Olympic player), what a duo! I was cheering for you all the way. Way to come through for the USA!

Updated again, Dec. 3, 2012: LeBron James has just been named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, for all of the accomplishments listed above. “Time Inc. Sports Group editor Paul Fichtenbaum said when Miami needed him most 'he came up the biggest.' In particular, Game four of the second-round series at Indiana and Game six of the Eastern Conference finals at Boston.'LeBron kind of made it easy on us,' Fichtenbaum said. 'In a year that had really high standards, he just stood taller than everybody else.”

Updated again, June 22, 2016: After losing in the NBA championship series the year before (two of Cleveland's “Big Three” stars, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, were absent with injuries for most of that series) the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, accomplished the seemingly impossible, by erasing a 3-1 deficit in the series, winning three games in a row to win their first ever championship, and the first major sports championship in over 50 years in Cleveland.

It was a true Hollywood ending. The great Kyrie Irving hit the winning shot in the final game, so what did LeBron contribute? Not much, say the haters, but the fact is LeBron led both finals teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots and steals. The numbers don't lie. He is the first player in NBA history to top those five statistical categories in an NBA finals. He was the finals MVP by unanimous vote, and deservedly so. This year LeBron also became only the third player in NBA history to score a triple double in a finals game seven. James is now 4-2 all time in game sevens and 2-0 in NBA finals game sevens.

So what was the reaction by the LeBron haters? The usual. They said the series was fixed, again. I do love it when the haters have to come up with excuses as lame as tinfoil hat conspiracy theories. This really galls them. The Cavaliers beat arguably the best team in NBA history up to this point. The Golden State Warriors, defending NBA champs, had compiled the best regular season record in NBA history. They were led by the only unanimous regular season MVP selection in NBA history, Stephen Curry (even the great Michael Jordan was not so honored).

So, does this make LeBron James the best player in history? No, but he is certainly among the best. I'd have to put Bill Russell at the top, with his 11 NBA championships and five championship MVP trophies (that trophy is now named after him). He was also the first black coach in NBA history (he coached two NBA championship teams). I doubt that anyone can equal Russell's amazing NBA records, but it's possible. Until then, Russell's position in NBA history is unassailable.

Another update, 6/16/17: As expected, the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship over the Cavaliers, four games to one. Last year, these same two teams, Golden State and Cleveland Cavaliers, were very evenly matched. Kevin Durant, one of the best players in the NBA, joined the Warriors team this season, tipping the balance of power heavily in favor of the Warriors, and he played brilliantly in the playoffs this year. The Warriors are definitely the best team in the NBA right now. No other team can match the Warriors talent level, and they have a great coaching staff, too.

As the series began, I thought Cleveland might have a chance since Klay Thompson's shooting had been off earlier in the playoffs, but he came up big in the finals, as did Steph Curry. Thompson, Curry and Durant as a group provided unstoppable offensive firepower in the playoffs, and Draymond Green is an absolute demon on defense, rebounding and offense. Green is the Dennis Rodman of his era, but is a better scorer than Rodman was.

Cleveland played poorly in the first two games of the finals, but even if they had played better, I don't think they had a chance. Maybe if the Spurs had been healthy, they might have given the Warriors some trouble, but right now, the Golden State is a super team, in class by itself. However, if Kevin Durant had chosen to play for Cleveland after leaving Oklahoma City, instead of choosing Golden State, the fans of Cleveland would now likely be enjoying a second championship.

A Cleveland team including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson would have a matchup advantage over a Warriors team led by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia. The advantage would not be as great at the heavily favored Warriors had this year, with Durant, but it would have been enough to shift the odds in favor of a Cleveland championship.

The Bulls of the Jordan era versus the Warriors — I'd pay some money to see that series. And LeBron James? Can't blame him for the loss. In this series, he became the only player in history to average a triple double in the finals, and he scored 41 in the final game, but it didn't matter. He also passed Michael Jordan to grab the all time record for most points scored in the playoffs.

Right now, there is a serious lack of parity in the NBA. This is kind of a one-team league now, kind of like when the Chicago Bulls, or the Boston Celtics dominated the league years ago, but perhaps even more extreme than those examples. There have been rumors that LeBron James might change teams again. I hope he doesn't, but if he does, I'd like to see him play for the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs coach, Greg Popovich, is the best in the league and the Spurs organization is very strong (20 straight years in the playoffs, longest such streak in history for any North American professional sports franchise). The Spurs could, with the right talent, challenge the Warriors in a way I don't think Cleveland can.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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