Posted Sep 15 2010 10:28AM
One guy got the high-powered, high-profile teammates that he wanted.
The other got the respect that he earned.
One guy finally opened a Twitter account and, of course, picked KingJames as his handle.
The other never did anything to call attention or separate himself from the rest of the loyal subjects who made up Team USA, except when it came time to win games.
Will it really always be this easy to tell them apart going forward? One with a scowl and a chip on his shoulder and the other wearing a smile and wings on his feet?
It coulda/shoulda been you, LeBron. Wrapped in the flag rather than a blanket of self-indulgence. Playing for the 50 stars on the blue field instead of the three stars on South Beach.
In an age when image is everything, this was an easy decision. Then again, James and his posse of enablers didn't handle those very well over the past few months.
But from the first moments when he stepped out of the TV lights and away from that hour-long disaster on ESPN, James could already have been smoothing the waters and mending his reputation if he had picked up the phone, called USA Basketball chairman of the board Jerry Colangelo and told him he was packing his bag for Turkey and the World Championship.
In the same week in early July that James was doing him damnedest to make himself the center of the basketball universe, Durant was doing everything he could to help a collection of rookies and young players with the Thunder get better in the Orlando Summer League. Durant had no reason to be there -- organizing 6 a.m. wakeup calls, early morning weightlifting sessions and sitting on the bench shouting encouragement -- except for the sheer joy that he gets from playing the game.
In the same 24-hour period that James was trying to make the world stop and look at him, Durant was quietly signing a five-year, $85 million contract extension with the Thunder.
"That other stuff isn't me," Durant said with a shrug.
While the last image most Clevelanders had of James was him almost ripping off his Cavaliers jersey following the final loss to Boston in the playoffs and then virtually slapping them in the face on national TV, the memories that Durant carried into the summer were that final, agonizing loss to the Lakers in Game 6 of the first round and then, the rousing standing ovation given to his team by the fans of Oklahoma City.
"There's a lot more I can do," said Durant, the youngest player ever to lead the NBA in scoring.
Then he went to Turkey and did it, playing hard, playing smart, playing his way into a leadership role that could/shoulda belonged to LeBron.
Maybe the powers-that-be at USA Basketball should save themselves the headache and the aggravation of more tryouts, more spurned invitations, more of the ego-massaging that is always necessary and simply elect to send the entire roster of the Thunder to London for the 2012 Olympics.
After all, the way Durant, Russell Westbrook and their teammates are zooming up the ladder of progress, they might be the newly crowned NBA champions by that summer. Just stamp their passports, put coach Scotty Brooks on the Olympic bench and those Thunder chaps could have a jolly old English summer and bring home another gold medal.
No matter how much he campaigns and cajoles, no matter how much influence Nike wields in the marketing world, does USA Basketball -- after all the work that's been put into scrubbing up the American image -- really want to step back into the Olympic spotlight in two years being led by a player whose reputation has fallen off a cliff?
The latest report says that James' "Q Rating," which measures favorability among public figures, has plummeted over the summer to the sixth-worst in professional sports. He is now viewed in a negative light by 39 percent of the general population. That's an increase of 41 percent since January and likely still falling.
James and his Miami Heat compatriots say they are internalizing and remembering all of the criticism, preparing to use it as fuel to stoke their fires. LeBron says he will answer all of the questions about his judgment and his leadership skills every time the Heat step onto the floor.
Funny thing is, he could have already answered those questions by being a leader, carrying the flag and the burden for Team USA.
Instead there were the images from Istanbul of a proud, growing-every-day Durant playing with the emotional anniversary date of 9-11-01 written in a quiet tribute on the sides of his shoes in a magnificent semifinal win over Lithuania, then coming back the next day to close the gold-medal deal against Turkey.
At home, KingJames was tweeting about going to the Cowboys-Redskins game.
A world apart in so many ways.
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