[h2]It’s Time For All of the Haters to Just Let It Go and Finally Give LeBron James the Props He Deserves[/h2]
Thank you LeBron! And I’m not talking about winning your first NBA championship or staging a luminous playoff performance for the ages. I’m also not referring to fulfilling the immense promise, making the leap into legendary status, for making good on the early “Witness” ad campaign or playing a brilliant, complete brand of excellent basketball that is only reserved for a mere fraction of history’s greatest players.
My sincerest thanks is extended for finally stomping the mute button into the likes of ESPN’s Skip Bayless, the narcissistic hot air balloon whose inebriation with the ridiculous sounds of his own venomous, incompetent voice have hitherto been rendered irrelevant. Thank you LeBron!!!
Honestly, I never could understand the continued hate. Not from Bayless, or from the Cleveland fans who set fire to his jersey, or even from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, whose petty and moronic published letter after James opted to exercise his right as a free agent to play in Miami, where he referred to his once star player and former cash cow as a “coward” who exhibited a “shameless display of betrayal”, where he boldly stated “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE. You can take it to the bank.”
I’m wondering what the cash reserves and balance sheet of said bank look like now, but I digress.
I could understand disappointment, hurt feelings and a sense of loss. I could understand some media pundits being greedy to see the full blossoming of LeBron’s talents ahead of time. But the loathing and open abhorrence of the young man? The mean-spiritedness? The laughter at his struggles? All of it was lost on me.
Maybe it’s because I have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the journey that LeBron’s taken. As a product of the fierce and unforgiving city streets of this country, I know plenty of LeBron James’.
I’m not speaking in terms of his athletic talents. I’m talking about children being raised by teenage mothers who were mere kids themselves, youth who’ve never seen their biological fathers, people who’ve been smothered by the destructive forces of poverty before the onset of puberty, many of whom succumb –mentally, physically and spiritually – to the tangible hopelessness in the air.
But LeBron didn’t. And despite the turbulence of her particular circumstances and whatever personal flaws she may have had, his mom, Gloria James, instilled a sense of pride, accomplishment and joy in a young LeBron that many overlook.
There is an oft quoted African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And in LeBron’s case, truer words have never been spoken. That village was spearheaded by the James Family matriarch, Freda, Gloria’s mom.
Freda James kept things together during LeBron’s childhood in a crumbling house on Hickory Street in Akron, Ohio, where she perpetually wrestled with the monthly mortgage payment.
The home and the neighborhood are woven into the fabric of the forgotten and ignored pockets of this great nation of ours. Folks who’ve never lived in such places can’t understand the sense of community that exists in these struggling communities. It’s a place where neighbors, despite the gloomy outside perceptions, despite the drugs and humbling homicide rates, want to see the next generation succeed, where the daily struggle intensifies the yearnings and dreams that people hold for the children and grandchildren.
Akron fell hard and fast, like most Rust Belt cities, beginning in the late ‘60s. It was once a manufacturing powerhouse nicknamed, “The Rubber Capital of the World,” due to its grip on the country’s tire and trucking industry. But remnants of that era’s pride, in the city’s former industrial might and the working-class man’s satisfaction gleaned from a hard day’s work, survived. And those fragments of pride and values, steeped in the blue-collar work ethic, somehow settled into the man who LeBron James would one day become.
Basketball and difficult times have always been synonymous with James. On that Christmas day, when Gloria and her boyfriend Eddie Jackson gave LeBron his first hoop when he was three years old, as the little boy jumped around slamming the ball through the plastic rim and having the best time of his young life, he was oblivious to the fact that Freda, his beloved grandmother, had fallen to the linoleum floor in the kitchen with a thump at 3:00am, dead of a massive heart attack at a mere 42 years of age.
He wouldn’t find out until later that day – after Gloria, Eddie and her brothers let him enjoy his presents and bask in a child’s natural happiness that comes with Christmas – that his grandma was gone.
So you see – Skip Bayless, haters and random idiots – that LeBron James was accustomed, from his earliest days, to the joy of his gifts being doused by pain. His spirit could never be broken by all of the painful verbal arrows, the shameful celebrations of his struggles or the malicious attacks on his character. He’s been beating the odds and overcoming adversity from day one!
The entire time that you all crowed and clowned, smiling like those frozen faces of townsfolk in old lynching photos when his team lost another playoff series, LeBron was actually laughing at YOU, pitying YOU, rising above YOU. And you were either too blind or too dumb to know it.
Shortly after Freda’s passing, the only home he’d known was condemned. And with her older brothers trying to find their own way in the world, Gloria and her young toddler were on their own, staring at long odds, homeless, facing life on the streets.
They crashed in the housing projects known as Elizabeth Park off and on for six years, part of a nomadic existence that would be LeBron’s reality until the age of 12. They never had an actual apartment there, but friends of Freda’s, relatives and the best of the caring portion of the community, made sure that they had a couch to sleep on, and hopefully, a hot meal.
“Anybody who knows about Elizabeth Park knows how bad it is,” LeBron once said. “You had gunshots flying and cop cars driving around there all the time. As a young boy, it was scary but I never got into any of that stuff. That just wasn’t me…I knew it was wrong.”
“When I was five…I moved seven times in one year,” James once told ESPN the Magazine. “My mom would always say, ‘Don’t get comfortable, because we may not be here long.’”
There were plenty of family friends and concerned community members, who offered help and filled in some crucial gaps as Gloria struggled to get her feet firmly planted in responsible adulthood. None of these neighborhood saviors was more critical than a guy named Frankie Walker, Sr., whose wife and family agreed to offer LeBron a temporary home.
“When I moved in with the Walkers, I went from missing 87 days (of school) my fourth grade year to zero days in the fifth grade,” LeBron once said. “They are like my family too and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
He learned about discipline, did his assigned chores, adhered to a homework and bedtime schedule and took great pride in going to school. And even while Gloria was still working on getting her stuff together, LeBron spent every weekend with his mom.
It was at this time that organized sports entered the picture. During his first year competing in his initial true love, football, at the age of nine, the young fella scored 18 touchdowns in six games as a running back for Akron’s South Rangers Pee Wee team.
His participation and domination of youth sports has been exhaustively examined, from his AAU basketball bond with his future high school teammates, being the greatest wide receiver prospect ever to rise out of the state of Ohio who could’ve easily dominated in the NFL (can you imagine a hybrid of Randy Moss and Antonio Gates who runs a 4.4 forty yard dash that dwarfs Julius Peppers in stature?), to the national hoops title at the small catholic school with no previous hoops pedigree, St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Normally, we’d celebrate the success of a young man who reached the crescendo of his profession, blossoming into an accomplished, well-adjusted and remarkably focused adult after such a troubling childhood. Wouldn’t we?
If someone from a similar background became a wildly successful brain surgeon like Dr. Ben Carson, a fortune 500 CEO, a Supreme Court judge or respected politician, like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick who grew up in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing projects before earning a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, wouldn’t society hold them aloft as an example to follow?
Don’t we point at accomplished people who came from nothing and say, “Hard work, perseverance and a belief in yourself will take you anywhere you want to go in life. Just look at that guy.”
But not LeBron. Why?
Because he chose, after earning the right to do so, to work for another employer who he felt presented him with a better opportunity to achieve his professional goals? Is that not we all work for, having the option to choose what’s best for us and our families?
If you say no, I’ve got a sweet deal for you on a bridge in Brooklyn that’s for sale.
Folks in Cleveland, I know it hurt when he left. It had to. As a lifelong Knicks fan, I understand the pain of knowing that my team might never win another championship. But with each season’s disappointment, I show up the next year, cheering like Spike Lee, hoping for the best and prepared for the worst.
Why? Because that’s my team. Whether John Starks couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean in Game 7 of the ’94 Finals against the Rockets (Cleveland fans, believe it or not, the resulting and continued pain caused by this is just as bad, if not worse, than LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach), whether Anthony Mason would follow up a brilliant performance with a Harlem nightclub brawl or whether Jeff Van Gundy was riding Alonzo Mourning’s leg like a rhinestone cowboy, it didn’t matter.
But the reaction to “The Decision” was so absurd, that it crossed into the realm of Jeffrey Dahmer- like scary.
Ok, he took some bad advice and admitted that if he had to do it over again, he would’ve handled it much better. I don’t know about you, but at the age of 25, I can think of plenty of my own personal mistakes that make “The Decision” look like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
I can’t fathom how LeBron James can be the most hated man in Ohio. You mean the guy that single-handedly elevated a moribund franchise and city? You mean the guy whose economic impact on tourism, the downtown service economy and the monetary appreciation of his hometown franchise, once known as “The Cadavaliers”, easily, EASILY surpassed $1 Billion during his seven years in town?
Were you hating on him when he became the first NBA rookie since Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson, to average at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds a game? And by the way, he did it as a teenager, something those other two did not.
Were you hating on him the next year when he averaged 27, 7 and 7 en route to becoming the youngest player ever to make an All-NBA team?
Were you hating on him during his third year in the league when he put up a triple-double in his playoff debut, when he averaged an insane 31 points, 7 boards and 7 assists per game, when even Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder could see that he deserved to win the league MVP ahead of the eventual winner, the Suns Steve Nash (which by the way, is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice this side of the Rodney King verdict)?
Were you hating on him in the summer of 2007, against a consistently excellent Detroit Pistons team in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, IN DETROIT, when he scored 29 of the Cavs last 30 points, including the game-winner with two seconds left, en route to a 48 point, 9 rebound and 7 assist performance that even Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan could be jealous of?
Were you hating on him when he took a team of stiffs that couldn’t hold next at the Sheboygan YMCA without him, to the NBA Finals that year?
Not at all. The hate came because of a poor decision to televise his decision to exercise his fully earned right as a free agent, a choice that, in hindsight, was short-sighted, but nevertheless resulted in a million dollar plus donation to the Boys and Girls Club. So that was his biggest crime? Going on TV to say that he was leaving Cleveland to ply his trade in Miami.
Some say no, there’s more to it. They say he took a shortcut to get a championship, by teaming with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. “Larry Bird didn’t leave Boston to chase a title, Magic Johnson didn’t leave Los Angeles and Michael Jordan didn’t leave Chicago,” the peanut gallery wails.
To quote my man Herm Edwards, Umm, HELLO! Larry Bird played with Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish and a host of phenomenal role players. Magic had Kareem, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Coop and his own array of great subs and glue guys.
And the one guy everyone is so intent on comparing him to, MJ, had the greatest team coach in pro basketball history in the Zen Master, an All-Time great in Scottie Pippen, an All-Time great in Dennis Rodman and an incredible cast of role players throughout the years, from Bill Cartwright to Horace Grant to Steve Kerr to BJ Armstrong to Craig Hodges to Bison Dele to John Paxson, etc.
Of course those guys didn’t leave. Why in the world would they?
Had they come along in the modern age, after looking across the locker room at Verajao, Pavlovic, Boobie Gibson, Larry Hughes, Ira Newble and Scott Pollard, I would love to have seen how Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and MJ would’ve handled that.
LeBron never held his team hostage or demanded that they either trade him or fire the coach. He just wanted to win. He filled each minute in Cleveland with 60 seconds worth of distance run and played his heart out for his hometown every time he stepped on the floor. And he made a whole lot of people a whole lot of money.
Really, folks in Cleveland should be thanking him every chance they get. “You know what big fella, we hate to see you go, it hurts, we don’t like it, but you made our lives better. Good luck.” That’s what you really should’ve said to the man. But you burned his jerseys, some even threatened his family and you made your entire city look like the ugly, verbally and physically abusive chick on Maury who gets bent out of shape when he says, “LeBron. You are NOT the father!”
Did folks in Ohio act like that when Oscar Robertson went to Milwaukee to win his first and only ring with Kareem? Did the entire city of Philadelphia hate on Charles Barkley when he had his opportunities at a ring while playing for the Phoenix Suns?
Did folks carry on and celebrate when other All-Time greats like Jordan or Jerry West or Shaq bumped their heads before eventually winning their first titles?
What happened to us a society, where we made LeBron a so-called villain? Why was Skip Bayless so vehement about LeBron being a failure, delighting in his sub-par championship series last year against the Dallas Mavericks? It really is a sad indictment on him, his like-minded cohorts and that element of society with a similar mean streak.
And in terms of pure basketball ability, how can anyone find any way to hate on his skills? Because he hasn’t been able to duplicate his mind-boggling heroics in Game 5 at Detroit each and every night? Nobody could ever live up to such an absurd standard of excellence on a nightly basis.
Yet he was crucified because of it. People act as if Bird, Magic and Jordan never came up short, as if they never stunk in a crucial game, missed a key shot, or passed off to a teammate that missed a game winning shot. I’ve got news for you, they all had their own moments of failure that helped them grow, just like LeBron.
And now that LeBron has swaggered past the velvet rope and into the VIP section reserved, not only for Champions, but for guys who can LEGITIMATELY be considered among the best to ever play, we see the re-runs of his proclamations of championships to come, “Not one, not two, not three, not four…”
Now we’re inundated with the smoke and boldness of the introductory press conference in Miami, the silliness, the youthful bravado of which has all been mistakenly misdiagnosed as arrogance.
I’ve got news for you, it’s not arrogance, but rather the confidence of a gifted young person who believes in the beauty of his dreams.
Not only does he believe in it, but he’s shown that he’s willing to put in the work, to bring his lunch pail, to learn from his failures and keep trying harder. Isn’t that how we should all be? Isn’t that how we want our kids to be?
And even with my undying devotion to my perpetually disappointing Knicks, I’m not mad at that cat. At all!
A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to interview the great Oscar Robertson for a story that I was writing about him. We touched on LeBron, who was still a member of the Cavs at the time, and here’s a snippet of our conversation.
Me: “Your lawsuit against the NBA and the subsequent Oscar Robertson Rule changed the business of the sport. Before that, players were basically indentured servants with no choice of where they could play. When you see today’s free agency orgy, what do you think?”
The Big O: “It’s a bit of a sideshow and circus atmosphere, but the good thing is that LeBron and the other guys get to choose to go somewhere where it’s beneficial for them. When Boston was able to put Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce together, you knew that guys were going to try to get together in order to have a better chance to win.”
Me: “To me, LeBron is the closest thing we have to a modern day version of you. And I think it’s ironic that he came up in the state of Ohio, where you spent the majority of your brilliant college and pro career. What do you think about him?”
The Big O: “Everybody has such high expectations for him that it’s almost impossible. If he shoots, they say he shoots too much, if he passes and they don’t win, he gets criticized by people who say he should shoot more. He’s going to get criticized either way and they’ll blame him if they lose, no matter how he does or how good he is.
I think he’s a great player, but you need help to win championships. Hey you have to be lucky to win. You have to have a good management team that puts the right players around you and makes the right trades in order to give you a better chance. But people in the media want to tell you what greatness is. That really bothers me.
I know there are a lot of writers and TV people who haven’t played who are knowledgeable, but most of them aren’t. They just make statements without any realism. I was talking to Bill Russell the other day and he said the exact same thing. And he won more rings than anybody!”
So why don’t we stop all of these manufactured debates right now about how many rings he needs to win to get in the Jordan conversation, or if this championship means less than a possible one in Cleveland.
Instead let’s take some time to marinate on a player who has a bizarre mix of elements to his game that are reminiscent of Magic Johnson’s, Larry Bird’s and Oscar Robertson’s diversified skills, Jordan’s ability to single handedly choke a team and silence a raucous arena, Jason Kidd’s fluidity on the break, Gary Payton’s lock ‘em down defensive mentality, Scottie Pippen’s brilliance on both sides of the ball, Dr. J soaring through the air for the Virginia Squires (if you just said huh?, look it up) and Barkley’s ferociousness on the boards?
Why don’t we bathe in a historical playoff performance that was as dominant as Shaq’s in 2000 or any of Michael Jordan’s post-season Picasso’s?
Why don’t we marvel at a kid who could’ve been a statistic, who was homeless, who was exposed to every opportunity to fall through the cracks and didn’t? Why can’t we smile, like he smiles, happy that he came through fire and brimstone to live his fantasy and achieve his goals? Why can’t we watch him play and appreciate the rare gift and full breadth of his talent?
If you can’t do any of that, why don’t you appreciate the fact that he’s managed to do something that civilized society has been in need of for quite some time.
Why don’t we at least appreciate the fact the he’s stomped the mute button into Skip Bayless. That’s gotta be worth something, even to the worst LeBron James hater.
Alejandro Danois, Bounce Magazine’s Senior Editor and a Contributing Writer with Sporting News, is also a freelance sports and entertainment writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Dime Magazine, among others.