We don’t forgive so much as forget with a title or two. Awe us enough on the field, and we’ll spot you a Mulligan for your misdeeds off it. Call it jock justice. Or the American sports fan way. But ask Ray Lewis. Or Kobe. Tiger may need Jack Nicklaus’ record for true redemption, but the galleries (and TV advertisers) roar like the olden days when he charges on the back nine Saturdays.
Because, the truth is, we want to watch history more than morality plays.
We weren’t fair to LeBron James.
America hated 2011 LeBron James for the preening, the arrogance, and The Decision, yes. But LeBron James was not the first prodigy whose ego outgrew his talents. And he would not be the last. America hated LeBron James in 2011 because he wasn’t The One we were waiting for. But, perhaps, he was The One we deserved.
2011 LeBron James was heir not to Jordan but to Air Jordan. In visiting locker-rooms they called him simply “Nike”. LeBron was the poster-child of a softer, commercialized NBA. A game that fits its phenoms with cushy shoe deals before their growth spurts. A marketing machine that splashes its prodigies with a Spaulding across Gatorade and Vitamin Water ads before they taste greatness.
Someday, perhaps, we will merely see the Jordan Years as a different era. A no-holds barred, angrier epoch in grainy Youtube video. An NBA Gilded Age of good, old-fashioned hate. When rivals like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird would not even speak to each other. When Michael Jordan punched out his teammates. In practice.
But LeBron hails from a new age. He did not beat D-Wade and Chris Bosh. He joined them. He is the coddled valedictorian of a class that has texted each other since AAU games in their tweens. They are the unfinished products of a sensationalized youth talent search that makes middle schoolers the cover boys of SLAM Magazine. Green-lit by an industry that prizes megawatt smiles with Player Efficiency Scores.
And so LeBron daydreamed. He fantasized in interviews about someday becoming the richest man on Earth, a global icon. He forgot where athlete stops and celebrity starts. 2011 LeBron James was yet another childhood star, sprung from a broken home, flawed by years of our drooling adulation.
We sized up King James for the crown and were astonished when his head grew. And we were all witnesses. To an industry that hyped up a Golden Boy and toasted The Villain’s 2011 lonely walk of redemption and press conference.
We weren’t fair to 2011 LeBron James.
He dished out 9 assists and was smeared a “facilitator”. He messed around and got a triple double in the 2011 NBA Finals Game 5 (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists), and it was the most scorned triple double in NBA Finals history. We demanded the next Jordan and bemoaned that all we got was a more athletic Magic Johnson.
LeBron James of 2012 was forged in the fiery aftermath of the 2011 NBA Finals press conference. Defeated but still smirking at his ‘haters’ after losing the series to the Dallas Mavericks: “All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.”
Jordan or Kobe would have stared icily into the camera. They would have vowed: I’ll be back. But not LeBron. At his rock bottom, at his lowest low, LeBron James reminded the world that he was still fabulously rich.