By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
Posted Jun 2 2009 5:34PM
LeBron? LeBron. Over here.
Grab a piece of paper, and a pencil. Ready? Write down this number: (615) 565-4000.
It's the phone number for the Tennessee Titans. Call it in the next couple of days.
When they answer, ask for Earnest Byner. He's the Titans' running backs' coach.
If you speak with him, trust me. After you're done, you're going to rethink your last 48 hours.
I was all set to write about all the moves your Cavaliers need to make now that they've been bounced from the playoffs by the Magic, a round short of where all of you -- heck, where most of us -- thought you'd be. I had all sorts of trades that would fix things lickety-split, a free agent signing or two (there are no shortage of good players who'd take less than market value to play with you, but you probably already know that), advise on what to do when Dan Gilbert and Danny Ferry offer you a contract extension this summer.
But that all can wait. This is more important.
You have to know that you've made a mistake, and that your pride is keeping you from fixing it.
After the clock ran down to zero Saturday night in Amway Arena, the result assured, the Magic on their way to the Finals, you walked off the court without shaking a single Orlando player's hand. Not one word of congratulations to a team that beat yours fair and square, after a tough series. That was poor sportsmanship, LeBron, no matter how you or any of your followers, acolytes and media protectors say otherwise.
No one likes to lose, especially someone as competitive as you, who's as used to winning, and winning big as you. You have won more in your short life than most people do in their entire lives. But that doesn't give you the right to be a poor loser, on the rare occasions that you lose.
Then, you got dressed, and walked out without speaking to anyone other than your teammates. Not to the Nike reps that were, reportedly, waiting to see you (they'll understand), to the Magic players in their locker room (not cool, again) or to the media that was waiting for you.
On that last one, I know: who cares? Well, a lot of people. You may think what we do doesn't matter, but we're still the conduit through which many fans that don't have Twitter or Facebook pages or anything else get their information about their teams and favorite players. You may not think so, but LeBron, you stiffed them, too -- many of whom are your loyal fans. You know that thousands of kids emulate you, want to be like you. Is this the lesson you want them to learn?
You did congratulate the Magic on Sunday for their victory, which was good. But you still said you were right not to shake hands. Not so good.
"One thing about me you gotta understand; it is hard for me to congratulate somebody after just losing to him," you told the Cleveland Plain Dealer back in Cleveland on Sunday. "I'm a winner. That's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you are not going to congratulate them [for] beating you up. That doesn't make sense to me, I'm a competitor and that is what I do. It doesn't make sense to me to go over and shake somebody's hand."
LeBron, I think you're great, on and off the court. You're a wondrous player, and better yet, a very level-headed young man who is mature beyond all possible expectation. But you couldn't be more wrong on this one.
You don't get to dictate the terms under which you're going to be gracious. You either are gracious, or you're not. I have no doubt that you were incredibly hurt, and angry, and frustrated after Game 6. But you know what? Karl Malone and John Stockton were hurt and angry and frustrated after losing the Finals, twice. Jerry West was hurt and angry and frustrated after he lost in the Finals eight times. Eight. Six times to Bill Russell's Celtics. After the last, in 1969, according to Robert Cherry's biography of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell held West's hand, and John Havlicek said, "I love you, Jerry."
Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing and Dominique Wilkins and Mark Price and Clyde Drexler and Gary Payton and Reggie Miller were hurt and angry and frustrated after each one of them was vanquished -- in some cases, multiple times -- by Michael Jordan and the Bulls in a playoff series. Kobe Bryant was hurt and angry and frustrated last year, after his Lakers got a 37-point beatdown by the Celtics in the final game of the Finals.
They all shook hands. They all spoke to the media afterward.
You think those kids your St. Vincent-St. Mary's teams pummelled in the state finals in Ohio for three years weren't hurt, and angry, and frustrated? Most of their basketball careers ended with those state title games. A lot of them didn't have college scholarships to keep playing ball, and almost none of them had NBA dreams. How many of those kids came up to you afterward and shook your hand, said 'good game,' or congratulations?
You were incredibly gracious last March in Columbus, when you watched SVSM win another state basketball championship, this one over Dayton Thurgood Marshall. Afterward, you consoled Thurgood's star player, who was in tears after losing in heartbreaking fashion. You think that kid walked off the court and into the night without congratulating any of the SVSM players on their hard-earned victory?
You don't congratulate someone after they've beaten you up? You're wrong.
Mike Tyson, of all people, is an example. After getting destroyed by Lennox Lewis in 2002 -- "one of them down home, Mississippi ass-whippins," as his former trainer, Tommy Brooks, so eloquently explained to HBO in the "Legendary Nights" documentary of the fight -- Tyson displayed a grace and class in defeat that leaves no excuses for anyone else that's lost a game. He apologized to Lewis for his crass pre-fight comments about wanting to harm Lewis's children. He gave Lewis full credit for knocking him out. He sat for numerous post-fight interviews.
"I am thankful for the chance," Tyson said. "He knows I love him and I hope he gives me the chance to fight him one more time."
Then, there is Byner. No one can tell me about this; I was there. And being an Ohioan and knowing Cleveland's sports history, LeBron, I know you know what's coming.
On January 17, 1988, I was covering the AFC Championship Game for the Washington Post. The Browns were playing the Broncos for the right to go to Super Bowl XXII. It was the year after "The Drive," when John Elway took the Broncos 98 yards in Cleveland in the waning moments for a game-tying touchdown that forced overtime. Of course, the Broncos won, breaking Cleveland fans' hearts yet again.
The following year's game was even better. It remains the best football game I've ever seen in person, whether working or as a fan. The Broncos jumped on Cleveland for a 21-3 halftime lead, and looked like they'd cruise. But Bernie Kosar and Byner led Cleveland back -- Kosar with his arm, throwing passes from every possible angle, and Byner with his legs, scoring two touchdowns within four minutes in the third quarter to bring the Browns back within 28-24.
The Broncos kicked a field goal. Kosar threw another touchdown pass to tie it at 31 in the fourth, after Byner had caught a 54-yard pass. The Broncos came right back down the field and scored another touchdown with four minutes left to take a 38-31 lead. And Kosar drove Cleveland right back down the field, crossing midfield, then getting the ball inside Denver's 20 with less than two minutes to go. At 1:12 to go, the ball was at the Denver 8, and Kosar called a trap play for Byner.
Byner went left, looking like he'd score for sure. And then, he was hit from the side by a Broncos' defensive back, Jeremiah Castille. Byner fumbled. The Broncos recovered. Denver won. Cleveland lost. Again.
If anyone -- anyone -- had the right not to talk after losing such a game, in such a manner, after having been so heroic on the field, after having his heart broken in front of 75,933 fans at Mile High Stadium and millions more watching at home, it was Byner.
But Byner spoke. Did he ever.
"I was going for the touchdown, obviously, and the ball came out," Byner said. "So what can I say?...I tried to split two guys and the ball just popped out."
Time and time again, he answered the same question, over and over again: what happened? He answered it at his locker for more than half an hour, still in uniform, and if he raised his voice or was curt or profane to anyone, I am not aware of it, and neither are the dozens of reporters and camera people who were there. It remains the single most courageous, classy thing I have ever seen an athlete do. Ever. It should be required reading and/or viewing for anyone who plays any sport on how to handle defeat.
That's why you should call him, LeBron. He knows.
And after you do, you'll know what to say, and what to do. It wouldn't hurt if you showed up at the Finals and shook Dwight Howard's hand, but however you want to handle it, you should handle it. It doesn't make you less of a winner to congratulate the dude that beat you. It makes you even more of a champion.
Send your witticisms, criticisms and any other isms to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name and what city you're from. If we select your e-mail you'll get a DVD of The Drive and The Fumble (unless you're from Cleveland; we understand) and the Baltimore Colts #7 jersey that John Elway never wore. Well, actually, you'll get none of those things, if they even exist. But we will publish your e-mail.
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