Posted May 30 2011 6:18AM
MIAMI -- We know the Mavericks are Germany's Team, because of one terrific player. And we're certain they're also America's Team, because of another tremendous player.
The people have spoken, often harshly, and they do not want LeBron James to get this NBA championship. Such a scenario would severely test the notion that "everyone loves a winner." No. Not necessarily. Not in the case of this player, who has no peer when it comes to excelling on both ends of the floor, whose performance the last four epic weeks mesmerized fans and caused one in particular, Scottie Pippen, to temporarily lose his mind.
Just as he did last summer, LeBron has our full attention, and just like then, much of it isn't particularly flattering. And now, the question becomes: Can he not only win his first championship, but also the affections of the basketball world in the process, a concession given to all champions?
This series will be an interesting case study in stardom and ego and forgiveness and the four-letter word often used when the subject is LeBron: hate. Never before has a player so great -- and no knock on Dirk Nowitzki, but nobody in these playoffs has played better all-around -- generated such a polarizing reaction. This comes as a mild surprise, if only because of LeBron's brilliance in the clutch, truly amazing to behold. LeBron closes a show better than Oprah, and that's the only comparison anyone can make between a beloved talk-show queen and a player who calls himself "The King."
The Legion Against LeBron is most famously led by three in particular: Mark Cuban, the mouthy Mavericks owner who bashed LeBron's decision to bolt Cleveland and took noticeable glee in the Heat's early-season struggles. Charles Barkley, the funniest and most influential basketball commentator on the planet, has always complimented LeBron's skill while never resisting a chance to tweak LeBron's shortcomings. And Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner who boldly predicted his team would win a title before LeBron and just last week, after the Bulls won the first game of the Eastern Conference finals, remarked: "Have to say, I'm enjoying it."
There's more. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, his injured team pummeled by LeBron in the semis, recently appeared on Boston radio and said: "I want Miami to lose so badly. I'm rooting hard against the Heat," which means he's not a LeBron guy. Neither is DeShawn Stevenson, the Mavericks' starting guard who three years ago called LeBron "overrated" and could be thrown into the mix of players to guard LeBron this series.
That's just a sampling. The volume inside opposing arenas never lowered when it came to LeBron, not during the season, not even in these playoffs. Fans and a segment of the media refuse to let go of "The Decision" and dismissed his clumsy recent attempts to apologize for the way he left the Cavs.
A player who has never been pulled over for a DUI, or punched a fan, left his children, been busted with drugs or committed a crime continues to endure public abuse, all because of a silly 60-minute TV show. Even Magic Johnson was eventually forgiven for that.
No doubt, part of the passion for the Mavericks in the NBA Finals will be rooted in sympathy. Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, aged 32 and 38, are all-time greats at their position who realize this is perhaps their last best shot at a title. The way Dirk elevated his game throughout the playoffs is deserving of a gold star, at the very least. Combined, these two players reached the promised land three times in the past, only to be turned back at the pearly gates, with Dirk losing a title to Miami after blowing a two-game lead in the 2006 Finals. Yes, they will be slathered in sympathy.
"We're the Miami Heat," said Miami's Dwyane Wade. "We're not going to be the favorites from that standpoint."
Yet the vibe suggests this is about denying someone a championship more than winning it for someone else. And you wonder if the distaste for LeBron will eventually blow over, as NBA commissioner David Stern has suggested, or only increase should LeBron win and therefore confirm the biggest nightmare of a basketball nation.
What's lost on that nation is the sacrifice made by LeBron, the kind we don't normally associate with All-Star players we accuse of being too self-centered to embrace winning. He took less money to sign with Miami. He surrendered his "team" to join Wade's "team." He also tossed away any reasonable chance of winning another MVP, because voters aren't as impressed when a player has two other All-Stars pulling the freight. LeBron did that because he wanted a better shot at a title after coming up dry for seven years as a solo act with the Cavs.
"As much as I love my teammates in Cleveland, I knew I couldn't do it by myself," he said.
The public should no longer question the "why" he left. But many months later, the public's obsession with the "how" continues. Not even the $2 million raised for the Boys and Girls Club is enough to make them forget. It all goes back to That Show and The Way He Left. Because of that, LeBron stayed under the microscope for eight months, his every mis-step and perceived mistake examined and consumed by a public desperate for another chunk of his scalp. As for credit, that's been grudgingly given; LeBron did not beat the Bulls and smother Derrick Rose as much as the Bulls simply choked and Rose didn't have enough help.
Finally, the purists remain annoyed that a team assembled through smart money management by Heat president Pat Riley and free agent maneuvering by LeBron and Chris Bosh is this close to a championship in its first year. Which was supposed to be a get-to-know-you, transition year, especially with injuries to Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. And now that they've arrived at the doorstep, so quickly, so immediately, the thought of a dynasty in the making is causing a nervous shiver.
"A lot of players came out and said it won't work, it's going to be a disaster," James said.
Well, it is working. For the Heat. And LeBron. The 3-point shots, the roof-raising dunks on the fast break, the phone-booth defense and especially the deliveries in the clutch, we are driving up the TV ratings and witnessing one of the great postseasons in recent memory. Although for some folks, they'd rather remember something else.
And definitely root for someone else.
Not the one who calls himself "The bad guy."
Will that ever change?
"We'll see next year," LeBron said.
Then he laughed, at the thought, at the sheer silliness of it all.
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