Posted Dec 24 2010 7:12AM
Our guess as to what's waiting for LeBron James under the tree at Staples Center on Christmas Day is a lump of coal and a cube of sugar.
Coal, as in boos and whistles and personal attacks coming from the stands, the typical warm greeting he gets on the road. Sugar, as in another sweet performance, which LeBron gives when the atmosphere turns poisonous.
That's been his season so far, the fans resorting to constant boos, LeBron issuing an equally punishing comeback with a monster night. All of the opposing towns are either feeling Cleveland's pain, or just booing because it's fashionable, some even forgetting why they're shoveling all the hate his way in the first place.
Meanwhile, LeBron has saved his very best for the very loudest arenas, helping the Heat to blowout wins in Cleveland and New York, where the exhausted fans just gave up in the fourth quarter and stopped wasting their breath.
"Boos are OK," he said. "I understand. I know how to adjust to it. If you're not on their team, you suck."
Which brings us to Christmas Day and the latest LeBron checkpoint: The defending champion Lakers ... national TV ... Kobe Bryant ... and an arena not especially known for being hostile or lively, especially at tipoff when it's only half-full.
It makes for a very curious, if potentially uncomfortable, marquee game for the NBA. On one hand, the league has the two splashiest teams on the floor under one roof, and this is the first meeting between the team specifically assembled to win "multiple championships" (LeBron's prediction) and the winner of the last two. This is a match made in Nielsen heaven.
But the LeBron Problem continues to be the elephant in the room for a league that no doubt must cringe at the unfavorable treatment given to its most visible player after Kobe.
Imagine: Kobe will be painted as The Good Guy in this matchup. My, how far he's come, and how quickly we've forgotten. You can almost see the media-fueled storyline churning:
Kobe: Owner of five championship rings.
LeBron: No rings for a guy who calls himself King.
Kobe: Still with the same team, after all these years. How romantic.
LeBron: "The Decision."
Kobe: Respected for coming up big when it counts, meaning, the postseason.
LeBron: Last season's Celtics series.
Obviously, the truth is a bit different. Kobe clashed with Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson and did his part to help ruin the Lakers' chances to win the 2004 title. He went on a scorching media tour in which he lambasted the organization. He had the Colorado Incident. He asked to be traded. And he harpooned Andrew Bynum.
LeBron? He starred in a silly, self-serving show. If being egotistical deserved a beating, then 90 percent of the receivers in the NFL would be in intensive care by now. If anyone should still be angry at The Show, it's Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who are probably upset that they didn't think of "The Decision" first. Like those two, LeBron has never been accused of a crime or brought up on charges or been seen as a menace to society. But hey, people are more selective with their outrage these days.
Truth is, while the rough verbal treatment of LeBron was interesting for a while, entertaining even, it's starting to get stale. How much longer? The show was what, five months ago? Since when did folks in New Orleans and Sacramento and all other points outside Cleveland start feeling this betrayed?
The boos have brought out the best in LeBron. Say what you will about the man -- and many have -- but when the glare was hottest this season, he delivered emphatically, first in Cleveland with 38 points in only three quarters and then in New York, punctuating the boos with a triple-double.
"There's not a spotlight I can't handle," LeBron said.
A big night against Kobe and the Lakers, along with a victory, would seemingly complete a triple crown of sorts for LeBron and maybe drop a hint of what he's capable of doing in the spring. Remember, he's carrying the baggage of never winning a championship (people forget he lacked a suitable No. 2 guy in Cleveland, though) and his "surrender" series against the Celtics, which he may never live down until he lands a title.
So there is motivation, both from LeBron and the fans, to keep this strange relationship moving right along. Neither side is showing any signs of giving in to the other. All that means that when the Heat visit the Lakers, you should cover your ears -- but definitely keep your eyes open.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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