By Vince Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Jun 3 2009 7:36AM
I always thought it was easier to be humble in defeat. But, if in defeat, you weren't humbled, then don't feed me mock-humility. As long as you're not acting dangerously, offensive or sociopathic -- act how and say what you feel. If it doesn't meet some arbitrary, societal standard for good sportsmanship then, as long as you're willing to deal with some backlash, carry on. For instance, if you (like LeBron James) are on your way to being the consensus "best player on the planet," won your league's most valuable player award, lead your squad to a franchise-record and league-best 66 wins, bogarted your way through the first two rounds in sweeps and ... THEN ... got bounced out of the Playoffs, in six games, while playing, perhaps, your worst game of the Spring.
I would think that would engender a degree of humility. But there was Bron --increasingly cavalier in the truest sense -- walking off the court without even wishing his friend, Dwight Howard, success in his first appearance in Finals; not even slapping up Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, paying respect to two opponents that collectively matched him all series -- big shot for big shot -- and did it like cool-dude good-sports.
Bron didn't mope off the court, he skulked off the court. "Man, forget this. I'm going home." Touche.
There's definitely something noble when a participant is truly upset about losing, maybe even crestfallen, but still congratulates the winner -- even if it's done hiding emrald green jealousy and white hot rage. But, let's be clear, this is a forced action, unless, of course, you didn't care much about winning or losing. I can yell "good game" after losing a pickup game because I don't care. Winning a championship isn't a game to LeBron. So he can either show forced goodwill or stew in solitude and silence. He chose the latter. Then, the next day, he gave us his reasoning for the walk-off: "It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them. That doesn't make sense to me. I'm a competitor. That's what I do. It doesn't make sense for me to go over and shake somebody's hand."
Now, we could get into the semantics of LeBron calling himself "a winner" without winning an NBA championship and come up with all types of snark. But, smarm aside, he's arguably the better at his profession than 95 percent of the world is at doing whatever we do and he'll probably make his first billion before he's 40 years old. In the grand scheme of things -- like the game of life -- homeboy is racking up W after W. More importantly, though, LeBron's answer smacked of the cavalier excuses that arrogant people give to justify behavior. In essence, Bron was saying, "I wanted to win, badly. I didn't. Just because y'all say it's right for me to congratulate the winner, doesn't mean I'm gonna wade through confetti and my opponents celebrating to go shake a dude's hand."
A humble dude is a cat that has a modest opinion or estimation of his own importance, rank, etc. It's hard for anyone to cultivate humility. It's that much harder for gifted and filthy-rich athletes -- specifically guys like LeBron who reside at the pinnacle of their sports -- to be truly humble.
What we really want out of our athletes and stars -- even if we don't know it or hate to admit it -- is what is mock-humility, a perfunctory humility discernible in empty words and coerced deeds. Mock-humility is never sincere. Athletes are really good with it. They know they can't be totally honest like Donald Trump or as self-promoting as their favorite hip-hop artists. So they spit out maxims and cliches. How many times have you heard players on losing squads say that "the best team won," even when you know they think the opposite? We like to hear/see the false-humility of players taking responsibility for losses they weren't necessarily responsible for.
Chris Paul can drop 35 points and dish out 10 assists, but he'd likely invite some criticism if, after producing like that in a loss, he said, "My teammates aren't cutting it. I deserved to win, based on my individual performance, but nobody else is stepping up to help me make that happen."
The mock-humility sounds good, but it's disingenuous. In many instances, I'd rather have honesty over decorum -- especially in sports.
The sportsmanship beef with LeBron's walk-off is warranted, but it's based on a lot of hypocrisy. How can the same men who excoriate players for pregame-consorting or helping an opponent off the floor, heap so much self-righteous criticism on a dude for being generally upset/disappointed after a season-ending loss and then acting like it? Leave a man on his back after you club him to the ground, but, by all means, shake a dude's hand that just ended your season. This is only the case because social and sports mores conditioned us to operate this way.
What's becoming increasingly clear is that there are some social/sports mores that Bron couldn't care less about. You know, things like, not wearing opposing team memorabilia, so as not to piss off and/or alienate hometown fans. When it comes to this, LeBron's attitude is, well, cavalier. "I'm a Yankees' fan, so I'm going to wear the hat, even if I'm attending a game at Jacobs Field."
Because LeBron is such a cool and affable dude in so many other ways, we've glossed over evidence that points to a real lack of humility. He drops cues, all the time. He publicly proclaimed himself to be "the leader" of the Redeem Team. Not "one of the leaders," but the sole leader. That was ballsy, impetuous, not true and straight up cocky or, as it's defined, overly self-assertive. Throughout the Orlando series, he would often refer to himself as "great" -- as in: "great players can make shots like that." That's cocky. Arrogant people like to say things like, "As far as I'm concerned, I'm the greatest sous chef in the world. And I'm not being cocky, that's just my confidence speaking." No, you're being cocky. My thing is, I don't expect for LeBron and players in his strata to be anything but cocky. Cloaking the cockiness under the veil of mock-humility is corny.
When Dave Chappelle's parodied the Buffalo-bred funk legend Rick James on a recent Snoop album (technically a 213 album), he spewed, "I'm one of the best singing, best looking, most talented mutha%$#&@$ ever in music!" Why not take it there? Be like Rick James. Be like Neon Deion Sanders. When Dwight Howard recently said that he had only reached 20 percent of his potential, it was a moment of self-awareness, not humility. He wasn't saying, "I'm only 20 percent of the player I can be. I suck." I mean, in the previous series, while Kendrick Perkins was forcing him into slinging shotgun jump-hooks off the back of the rim, Dwight was demanding the ball more. No, what Dwight was actually saying was, "I got some stuff to work on, I can get better. But I'm only at 20 percent, right now. So all you lames should be peeing yourselves at the thought of what I'll be in five years."
LeBron has said he wants to be a "global icon" and, in a messianic moment after his Game 2 winner, basically told Ohio basketball fans that there's a new No. 23 and he's coming to save the day. This is a young man that is eschewing humility on a quest for greatness. When that audacity and cockiness is pimp-slapped with conference finals upset, it can spawn some humility, but, more than likely, it just creates disappointment, maybe some embarrassment. LeBron chose to mourning over mock-congratulating. Bush-league? To you, yes. To him, no. Like I said, he's cavalier in more ways than one.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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