Lebron balances athletics, philanthropy

After three games, the Miami Heat are 1-2—not exactly the way the defending champs expected to start the season. Now, being the champs is hard. Everyone and every team is going to give the Heat their best shot, as nothing is sweeter than dethroning the kings.

This phenomenon seems all the more evident after the Miami lost a lowly Philadelphia 76ers team, which Vegas has projected to be the league’s worst team by the season’s end. The loss to the new-look Brooklyn Nets can also be explained with the previous logic. When Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce played for Boston before being traded to Brooklyn, they took great pride in beating LeBron James-led teams, both the Cavaliers and the Heat.

The Heat have holes, the most notable of which being the lack of a quality defensive big man that can bruise with the likes of a Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan (as evidenced by last year’s Eastern Conference and NBA Finals). And no, Greg Oden does not count. But the targets on their backs are bigger than the few faults Miami has. People love seeing the Heat fail. Most of that has to do with LeBron James himself.

Something happened to me as a basketball fan during the summer of 2012. I’ll never forget it. It was right after Chris Bosh went down with a strained abdominal muscle in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and it looked as if Miami was toast with the Heat trailing two games to one in the series. That was it. The experiment was over. Blow up the big three! I wanted nothing more than to see the Heat lose that series. But then the Heat won the series, made the finals and I had a realization.

I love LeBron James. Not necessarily the Miami Heat as a whole, but definitely LeBron. The Decision really bothered me, even if the Heat as a team didn’t. In fact, I liked the 2006 Miami team that won the title — a team that, according to Shaq, spent more time partying than practicing.

I had a bad case of bandwagon syndrome. Lots of people were rooting against LeBron, and I fell in with the stampede, coming out on the other side as a fan of the undisputed greatest basketball player on earth.

The Decision was a terrible marketing idea, on all counts. Everything from the pink gingham shirt, to the infamous “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” quote, which has become the butt of every LeBron joke, was not well executed.

It is almost always forgotten, though, that The Decision generated around $2 million in charitable dollars for Boy and Girls Clubs (LBJ’s favorite charity) across the country. So there’s that.

Then there’s this hypothetical: An Ohio boy with prodigious financial and economic talent grows up, is recruited by every college, only to stay in Ohio. This boy works with a local investment firm in Cleveland that is pretty good, but he is a superior talent, and the firm can’t surround the boy with the coworkers he needs to reach his full potential.

Even though the boy has to carry the entire firm by himself, he carries the enterprise to new heights of popularity and success. But he gets frustrated, ultimately due to the lack of elite success, and joins a larger firm with better economists where he is more likely to achieve at the highest level.

Maybe the boy wasn’t an economist. Maybe he’s a politician, doctor or musician. LeBron’s departure from Cleveland for Miami unfairly victimized him. What would any proud, ultra-competitive person in any field have done in LBJ’s position, regardless of profession? They would have left.

LeBron made a logical choice, and I resented him for it. Remember the Tiger Woods’ and Nike’s controversial advertising campaign this year “Winning takes care of everything?” Tiger Woods’ public sex scandal and subsequent fall from grace precipitated the worst golf of his career.

But he’s winning again, and, according to these ads, his past transgressions don’t matter anymore. That’s how I felt about LeBron now, as fickle as that is. So the man is a two-time champion with supreme and heroic athletic gifts. Everyone loves a winner, but there are other reasons to love LeBron.

A lot is made of the comparison between James and Michael Jordan, firstly because ESPN stokes that fire every at chance it gets, but secondly because it’s viable. They are the two most marketable stars the NBA has ever produced. Statistically, LeBron stacks up pretty well against Jordan so far, as well. But if we compare their personalities, I think it’s a wash. Of course, LeBron has a team of very intelligent people shaping his image, but if he’s anything of the family man he purports to be in his ads, he’s a faithful husband, a supportive and active father and generally decent guy. Jordan is not, and was not, those things now, nor during his playing days.

LeBron’s charitable work is also admirable. He has done a great deal for his home town and community of Akron, Ohio. Just listen to James and Jordan talk. James is gregarious and approachable, while Jordan is cold and mechanical.

The knock of Lebron James is that he doesn’t have the killer instinct that Michael Jordan does, that he’s not as competitive as Jordan. That might not be a bad thing. Jordan’s competitive nature borders on the pathological. From betting $1 million a hole in golf, to punching teammates during practices, Jordan couldn’t let anything go. Those are not desirable attributes. LeBron has an emotional complexity that Jordan lacked, and it makes James more interesting.

The Heat are not going to continue losing games to weak teams like the 76ers. They will end up with one of the best records in the Eastern Conference and make it deep in playoffs all because of LeBron James. And all the while I’ll be rooting for James to succeed, because he’s a good guy–and because my team isn’t going to be good, so I have to take solace in something else. I feel like Dr. Strangelove. LeBron James is my atomic bomb. I learned to stop worrying about how I felt about him, and I love him.

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