Choking Down a Blasphemy Sandwich

Because FD is nothing if not a bastion of diverse thinking . . .

A few months ago, Rocco argued that more than spots for any other sport, basketball commercials appear to show players at their most psychologically transparent. In just thirty seconds, a Nike ad can beautifully and laconically reveal the inner workings of a star, and illustrate his place in basketball and our culture in general. Michael Jordan demonstrates his superior abilities, yet his failures remind us just how human he is; Carmelo Anthony embodies and in many ways personifies his hometown of Baltimore; Kobe doesn’t need your love, or so he perhaps unconvincingly declares, and is determined to work for success regardless of his place in your heart. Yet Nike’s two most prominent ads for LeBron don’t reveal much about him at all. The Second Coming says little more than “LeBron will be great and will also pass the ball proficiently.” I don’t have any idea what the LeBrons is trying to tell me outside of “LeBron can dance reasonably well,” and “It doesn’t take much make-up to make LeBron look like a sixty year-old man.”

For three years, we’ve marveled at the achievements and prowess of this basketball savant without having any idea of whom we were actually adulating. Ultimately though, marketing becomes just marketing and players’ true selves are exposed on the hardwood. If this series has been the first true unobstructed view of LeBron, this much is clear to me: while he plays like a man among boys, he acts like a spoiled fucking baby.

I fully acknowledge that all great players work the referees in ways that aren’t always flattering to them. Yet every time a call is made against LeBron, his face communicates, “I can’t believe how mean you referees are being to me! This is so unfair!” No act better encapsulates his attitude than the way he sulked to bench after picking up his 4th foul, put a towel over his face, and melodramatically lay down on the floor. Somehow, the man-child who was either born with or has been given everything (in the basketball sense) has developed a persecution complex concurrently with the countenance of a five year-old whose parents won’t buy him another new toy. This is not a point I need to belabor; we’ve all been watching.

Undeniably, much success and many accolades have come too soon and too easily to LeBron. I don’t know how someone who had been anointed the savior of an entire league before stepping onto a court would not develop a sense of entitlement. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a player so instantaneously deified, and so it’s no wonder that he acts as if the game owes him something. We’ve all contributed to creating this monster, but regardless of its origin, it’s still a monster.

I wholeheartedly agree with Shoals about how LeBron may ultimately change the way we have to watch and appreciate basketball. Despite the Wizards’ defensive ineptitude, he’s still playing against professional players, and dominates in every conceivable way. While I may be an unabashed Wizards fan, I can’t help but stop and revel in the way a 21 year old has totally imposed his will on my team with a dominance I’ve never seen. Early Jordan comparisons are not only apt, they’re necessary. But I don’t care.

If this series revealed much about LeBron, it’s also taught me about my own relationship with basketball. Increasingly, I’m coming to realize that I don’t watch basketball, but instead watch people playing basketball. No matter the transcendence of LeBron the player, I cannot truly admire, or even stand, the current incarnation of LeBron the person.

Where you stand on LeBron may well be the litmus test for how you predominantly choose to relate to basketball. If you see basketball as a purely visual, kinesthetic, and creative art form, LeBron is the epitome of all things wonderful about the game. As Shoals said, he may be so good that he demands a completely new set of criteria for evaluating his brilliance.

Yet if you see basketball as narrative, I can’t see how you can truly pull for LeBron. He simply doesn’t work for me as sympathetic character; he doesn’t struggle or fail, he just succeeds as if it were all predestined. In his own mind, he can do no wrong and can’t conceive of anyone thinking otherwise. Characters like these often fall spectacularly, but reality is not constrained by movie or novel clichés. LeBron may well whine his way to upending Jordan’s reign as GOAT and that’s what terrifies me about him; we could all be in store for fifteen years of his pouty and bitchy superiority as he mercilessly crushes those that are tragically mortal.


At 5/05/2006 9:17 AM, Anonymous miamian said...

nice post, totally agree (with two reservations below), many people, except for espn has pointed this out by now, but i expect espn to continue to stick their head in the sand about it (especially knowing that lebron would give them the cold shoulder for a year like when they talked shit about his mom).

anyhow, two reservations:

1- lebron is 21 years old. ive made my own critiques about his pregame kg-biting, and about his scowling and such, but he is really really young, and i think if sheed can continue to get away with his bullshit after ten years in the league (which is even more childish), lebron gets a pass for a few years while he learns the referee's names.

2- this is all the nba's fucking fault. a regulation nba game, thanks to the spurs and pistons, has basically become a 48-minute negotiation with the referees. every stoppage in play, some player has some shit to say to a referee (no team is a bigger transgressor here than detroit, as skiles has pointed out), every timeout, coaches run to the referees to list grievances. it used to be that when a referee made a bad call, maybe you'd get a makeup call. now the referee is basically making makeup calls all game. there's a reason that all of the sudden, ordinarily calm-ish dudes like dwyane and kobe are technical magnets.

so in a way, this excuses lebron's conduct, and shows even more how competitive and great he can be, b/c he's even willing to look like an absolute bitch in the greater pursuit of winning (ie, by getting a few calls). i'm all for big boi's "ball til you fall but do it w/ some class g," but nba referees tend to reward classless behavior with a certain regularity these days....

At 5/05/2006 9:19 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

i think i watch basketball both ways, so i have a fairly complex view of bron bron. i completely agree with every thing you say in this post, but i think i'm still a lebron guy. i guess the good (immaculate game) outweighs the bad (whiny and petulant on the court, boringly safe off the court) for me.

At 5/05/2006 9:59 AM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

Watching him must be like what it was like to see Mozart perform as a little kid. He's already better than everybody else and doing things musically that were previously unimagined, and you sit in awe and wonder at what he could become (how does the petulance you describe match up with the Mozart presented in "Amadeus"?).

And yet, to say you are a fan of LeBron says nothing about you personally. It's like being an English professor and saying you're a fan of Shakespeare. If you're an English prof, you're SUPPOSED to love Shakespeare. That's nothing distinct. You can even do all sorts of academic work on Shakespeare, and I won't know anything about you (unless I see the angles you take on the Bard). Shakespeare is the undisputed Sun of literature written in English. But to be a fan of one of the stars of the galaxy, even the other greats like Milton or Wordsworth, actually gives you a form of identity.

That's LeBron. You're SUPPOSED to like him as a player--but making him your favorite player reveals nothing about your soul.

At 5/05/2006 10:02 AM, Blogger Gregg said...

Yeah, I feel the same as Recluse. It's the same with Kobe. I need to watch him and Bron play because they're easily the most interesting things going right now. But I want to see them play out of their minds and somehow come up short to more likable opponents. ie Gil and Phoenix.

I guess it's that Kobe and Bron are head and shoulders the most compelling, but they're not at all sympathetic.

At 5/05/2006 10:16 AM, Anonymous bobduck said...

Kobe seems to be a pretty good job of redeeming himself during these playoffs, with the exception of the missed game winner 50-pointer last night.

He's bought into Phil's system and we've seen exactly zero "petulant Kobe" in the media. In fact, the only time he talked to the media was to drop "[Raja Bell] must not have been hugged enough as a child."

At 5/05/2006 10:35 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

and that whole thing with raja in the media is brash and kind of catty, but not the creepy kobe of yore. you could argue it's for the good of the playoffs and an ode to their history (wouldn't put that past kobe), rather than some awkward loner attempting to make others feel like him, feel his pain, or bear his wrath.

At 5/05/2006 11:28 AM, Anonymous river possum said...

Kobe almost had me sucked in before this series, then the full nelson thing happened. Now (last night, at least) he's a) trying to prove himself to us again, which he famously and lucratively doesn't care about (re: nike ad) and b) he's doing it with the ways of the old Kobe. Now we have kobe yelling at the poor yeoman Devean George after Kobe misses an isolation shot. Now we have kobe slumping his shoulders and glaring at Walton as Marion slaps the ball away and lopes down the court with his rock.

And isn't Kobe's bitching at the ref after a turnover worse than Bron's? Isn't Kobe supposed to be the elder statesman with the newbies (and the very impressionable Odom) watching and learning? Bron's teammates know that LBJ is just a spoiled kid that they have to suffer through and that it's "just a phase". When Kobe goes emo, we think he should know better.

At 5/05/2006 11:29 AM, Anonymous aug said...

First of all, don't diss king tut. The boy reigned with a chip on his shoulder. He was the bastard child of the most sacreligious and hated egyptian kings(akenaten). He had to follow in his father's footsteps and completely change the way egypt looked at life. Sure his advisor, horemeb, did most of the work for him, but i still think tut is more of an enegmatic and complex king than people make him out to be.

I still don't know how i feel about lebron. As stated in my comments in the previous post, i still don't believe he is real. It's hard to completely accept, and therfore, competely appreciate him.

To start a potentially long comments section; if bron is shakespeare of the english world, could melo be dostoevsky and wade be tolstoy of the 19th century russian literature world? Both have insane skills, melo seems misunderstood and struggling with himself and his early fame and expectations. Wade has such trancendent talent that things are coming too easy for him and he almost doesn't know how to react to it until one day he has a revelation and starts his own religion.

At 5/05/2006 11:31 AM, Anonymous illwafer said...

you guys are just arenas fanboys.

At 5/05/2006 12:02 PM, Blogger Mirabeau Lamar said...

aug, I'll take the bait. What of Gilbert Arenas as Eugene O'Neill? Atlas-sized chip on his shoulder, prolific, humble origins, ambitious and status-conscious, yet wholly original. The first major star presence in his genre (American theater/DC pro hoops).

At 5/05/2006 12:09 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

Kobe as Hemingway: arrogant, ambitious, tormented, a chauvinist, offends everybody, loses friends, a cliche...but later work reveals a deeper complexity there all along, and ultimately, he is so supremely talented, either people ignore his faults, or let them become part of his epic mythology, (or, primarily feminist critics, they despise him).

This is a ton of fun (especially for an English professor/sports fan).

(My word verification is mmmbas. Is that too close to "mamba," or am I reading into things?)

At 5/05/2006 12:16 PM, Blogger Mirabeau Lamar said...

TNT sideline man Craig Sager is Oscar Wilde. I'm sorry, the NBA has no clearer foppish dandy. Although he is married to a Luvabull (Chicago Bulls dancer), so the orientations don't quite match.

At 5/05/2006 12:37 PM, Anonymous Adam said...

While I agree that he can come off as a bit whiney, I think one of the earlier posters nailed it when they pointed out that it's a result of the culture of the league (where EVERYONE complains about calls), and his incredibly young age. Give the kid some time. Jordan worked officals every bit as much on the rare occasion that a call went against him.

And even with the occasional bratty behavior, I think LeBron comes off as a likeable guy. Whereas Kobe always struck me as aloof, and Jordan as hyper-competitive and overbearing, LeBron seems relatively approchable. I wouldn't want to play on the same team as Kobe or Michael; I would love to play with LeBron. Obviously I don't really know much of anything about any of these players, but that's the impression I get from watching them in interviews and on the court.

And finally, as someone mentioned earlier, his overwhelming talent outshines just about everything else. It's incredible to watch him abuse a defense so effortlessly-scoring at will or picking them apart with precision passes that no one else would even think of making. He's a joy to watch perform, and the fact that he's only going to get better as he matures makes it even better.

At 5/05/2006 12:41 PM, Anonymous johnny5 said...

Word, Gregg. Hate the player, love the game. It's that age-old question - is Kobe's unlikeability nature or nurture? The haughty cheekbones, the mistrustful eyes, the long nose pointing and judging, all say it's the former.

After the game when Kobe was comparing his post-loss mindset to taking a shit ("...you don't look in the toilet after you drop a load; you flush it..."), he flashed a bit of creepy. Obviously, that was not a self-indictment - he was dropping bombs of a different nature all night.

At 5/05/2006 1:11 PM, Blogger T. said...

Is it too easy to assign Yao Ming to the "Journey to the West"? Maybe he's the Monkey King.

Cliff Robinson is obviously the Portrait of Dorian Gray.

At 5/05/2006 1:28 PM, Anonymous Lucas said...

Everyone complains. Kobe is much more of a bitch that throws temper tantrums than anyone.

At 5/05/2006 1:37 PM, Blogger shoefly said...

I agree with this guy Lucas. Lebron's complaints don't seem to me particularly more frequent or annoying than any other superstar's (AI talks to the ref's easily as much) I think the objection is that the camera is on him every single second of the game. His games are presented differently than any other superstars'. Even Kobe and Nash don't get half the screen time that LeBron gets, and consequently, their whining seems less consistent and annoying.

At 5/05/2006 1:45 PM, Blogger shoefly said...

And also I've always wanted to write something about Kobe as Richard III. It couldn't be more perfect, a man willing to go to any cost to gain power. A man fully aware of his place.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.


No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

At 5/05/2006 1:59 PM, Blogger Snicker-snack said...

About LeBron's lack of a narrative- it exists, but LeBron is not the hero. I think that an apt comparison at this point would be Anakin Skywalker: supremely gifted, aware, petulant, immature. Yes, LeBron is unbelievably good, but he will grow up to be Darth Vader. Thoughts on who might be Luke? And Kobe has to be Obi, if only based on name.

At 5/05/2006 2:05 PM, Blogger Mirabeau Lamar said...

Anderson Vareajo is Jar Jar Binks. Pau Gasol is Chewbaca. Nash would be a decent Skywalker along your lines. Ron Ron as Lando Calrisian? (sp?)

At 5/05/2006 2:14 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

As I've been mulling over literary correlatives, it's struck me how difficult it is to define the narrative of players in the 3rd year. Their narratives are at the exposition stage, so it is difficult to make apt comparisons to characters and figures whose narratives are, essentially, closed.

So I like Snicker-snack's LeBron-Anakin parallel, since it compares a figure at the beginning of his narrative to another figure at the beginning of his narrative.

At 5/05/2006 2:41 PM, Anonymous Nels said...

So, if LeBron is Anakin at the beginning of the narrative, then there can't be a Luke yet. But when he arrives, he will watch LeBron destroy Kobe-Wan in the Death Star.

At 5/05/2006 3:39 PM, Anonymous possum said...

Bill Walton is C-3PO (ancient, brittle, and ultimately useless, but provides necessary comic relief)

(how have I not noticed the handicap symbol next to the word verification?)

At 5/05/2006 4:31 PM, Anonymous Carlos Destrroyo said...

I dislike LeBron because it appears as though he was created in a lab by a PR firm. He's unstoppable and says all the right things, but is petulent enough to make everyone else slightly irritated and jealous. Can someone run a DNA test on the dude?

And I call Damon Jones as R2D2: Incomprehensible and erratic, but a decent tagalong.

At 5/05/2006 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marv Albert is one Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He gives mesmerizing comentary... but he may have eaten a people.

At 5/05/2006 8:46 PM, Anonymous Buforana said...

Your boy Arenas just got T'd up along with Eddie Jordan for bitching about a foul call--which should have been on Arenas for clearing out Lebron with the left arm. If this proves anything, it's the ludicrousness of singling out Lebron for attempting to get into the refs ear. Name one star in the league who doesn't use his namesake to sway the opinion. I'm not saying that it's right, only that at this point it's a part of the game. Frankly, I'd find fault in Lebron if he DIDN'T do all the things you label him a "spoiled fucking baby" for.

Lebron never failed? Failure is part of his definition. Eventual sucess is as much a part of it, but if missing the playoffs two years straight and clanging clutch free throws aren't failure, then I'm not sure what to call it. It is the spreading progression of his game that make him sympathetic. Sure, there is the air of eventuality to his accomplishments, but it is all compacted by the frenetic intrigue of one question: just where does he reach his limit? If you want to bemoan the scattered pieces of the GOAT mend together like the T-1000, go ahead. But I'm content to see the legend build before my eyes.

At 5/06/2006 5:50 AM, Anonymous futuristxen said...

Lebron James=Iconoclastic God-Killer
That's your fucking narrative. He is systematically destroying all of your legends. By the time his career is over, when you see the number 23, you won't think right away of Michael Jordan.

If you want something to root for, read his biography. Lebron has pretty much the same childhood as Allen Iverson. He's basically had to raise himself, and it seems in some respects his mother.

Just because you got into the story late doesn't mean the story isn't there. We're in the chapters where Sigurd is fully developed. He's about a year away from bathing in Fafnir's blood and being granted invulneribility.

Just because Nike hasn't marketed it, doesn't mean the clues aren't there. When someone works as manically at something as Lebron obviously has, there is a tension there. I mean, the guy is constantly nawing on his fingernails. He has a Chosen One Tatoo on his back(his cross to bare). He shows his sense of humor a lot, but his humor is self-deprecating. And most comedians will tell you, comedy comes from pain.

There is an anger to Lebron's game that comes through sometimes, that can be just as blinding as Iverson or Artest's.

You have to think there was a moment in his development when he was living in cars, going from school to school, where he realized that Michael Jordan didn't give a damn about him, and if he wanted to get himself out of that situation, he had to do it himself.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Lebron is here to right all the wrongs that Jordan-Vader put on the game. To bring back unselfish free flowing basketball. To be a presence in the community and actually make social change.

I don't know how you can accuse this guy to be a spoilt-kid. Kobe is 27, and still isn't as mature as this guy.

At 5/06/2006 9:54 AM, Anonymous db said...

it doesn't get much more cliche than calling somebody a "hater," but this post might actually warrant it. lebron as being unusually "petulant" among basketball stars? please. stop trying to hard to dig up a flaw to hang on to. his career is going to be something to behold. enjoy it. i hated jordan when he was playing and it wasn't until he was gone that i realized that it would have been far more enjoyable to take the path of least resistance and appreciate his basketball genius while it was still in motion.

i'm not going to make that mistake again. plus, it's much easier to hate on a tried and true asshole like kobe than it is lebron, who actually seems to me to be a little bit self-conscious and ashamed of his own prodigious, unprecedented talent. this is the same player who has been deferential to the veterans of the league and humble to a fault until now. before, it was whether lebron is clutch enough or has the killer instinct to win championships. now, it's a matter of him being too cocky to be likeable. it's easy to superimpose your own ideas on a player's personality to find a reason to dislike him, but his career is still taking shape and actually looks dramatically different now than it did even at the midpoint of this season. so it probably won't be fair to make character judgments about the guy for another few years i'd say. this is all uncharted territory, although we'll get to know it well over the next decade plus.

At 5/06/2006 9:55 AM, Anonymous db said...

that's supposed to say "trying so hard" you fuckers
i'm still mad hungover, dang

At 5/06/2006 1:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that LeBron has been bitching to the refs and crying after every call WAY too much in this series. But he kind of has to. Every time a call is made against the Wiz, Daniels, Butler, and especially Gil are always bitching to the refs too. If you are going to call out LeBron for this, make sure you also call out Gil's posturing (putting his hand on his hips) and jawing at the refs, or Daniels's animated rantings, or Butler's whining.

Without a doubt, this has been the worst refereed series I've ever seen. In this situation, it is necessary to bring the refs attention when you think you are getting screwed, especially when the other team is also working the refs. As captain of the Cavs, who is playing for the worst coach in the playoffs, it is his duty to work the refs to pressure them to make calls for him. Lord knows Coach Eddie Jordan lobbies, where Mike Brown just sits there. While it looks bad on TV, LeBron's crying is something he has to do in this kind of situation. Saying that he somehow has a personality defect because of this is really faulting him for doing his job.

Javi P. - Cleveland

At 5/06/2006 6:59 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

As previously noted, this conversation must acknowledge the simultaneous existence of Current LeBron and Potential LeBron.

Current LeBron is good. Potential LeBron the transvaluer of all basketball values.

Current LeBron's goodness gets discounted because Potential LeBron may never eventuate. So many have jumped the gun anointing the "next" that all future "next"s cannot receive full credit for their actions unless and until they actually become the Next.

Current LeBron's badness (e.g. seeming off-court soullessness, face-making, self-aggrandizing pre-game rituals, ref whining) must be similarly discounted because it is all part of the narrative of the possible eventuation of Potential LeBron.

i.e. Give the kid a break. Don't project. Or, get a Tivo and fast-forward past all that, allowing you to pretend it doesn't exist.


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