LeBron James has never been a candid post-game reflector. Notoriously passive-aggressive, James communicates by inference and nuance and subtlety. He has never been a flame thrower. He has always been careful about his reputation, about being a good person, about kids wanting to follow him and be like him, about his place in history. LeBron has always understood what basketball needed from him and what beyond basketball needed from him. He wanted out of Cleveland so he spun it as he was helping kids in his failed “Decision” disaster. He wanted out of Miami so he spun it as he was going back home to help Cleveland win their first title. In both instances, LeBron was heroic. Even as he stunned the basketball-verse with his inability to traffic in loyalty, he made it pay off.
In sports there is a saying, you are your record. In life there is a saying, be who you are, don’t be fake. They both mean they same thing. What you present to the world either in a binary affect or in who you are as a human being sticks, it lasts and becomes your reputation.
A lot of negative things have been said about LeBron James over the years. He has been called a quitter. He has been called a choker. He has been called a traitor. He has been called needy. He has been called sensitive. He has never been called a bad teammate. And he has never been one to take a knife and stab it six inches deep, twisting the blade over and over.
But last night…
LeBron James discarded his reputation and went full frontal payback revenge mode. It wasn’t that he said anything that wasn’t true about Charles Barkley. Everything he said was true and factual. Instead it was that James was setting up a moral argument. He was saying because Charles Barkley spit on a fan and threw a midget through a window and gambled and partied, then he was a lesser human being. LeBron was saying he was better and had more moral character than Barkley, not to mention he has the discipline and maturity to treat people well. LeBron was positioning himself as a good dude to Barkley’s questionable character. It was unfair even as his assessments rang out as facts. It was judgmental, the same thing LeBron bristles about from the media. Now it was his turn.
“I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said ‘I’m not a role model’. I never showed up to an All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying. ” (LeBron James)
Professional basketball isn’t church and Charles Barkley isn’t a saint. He never has been. If you are old enough you remember the history. You remember fat Charles Barkley playing for Auburn in the tournament and the shock at what someone that size could do. You remember his 76er days and yes, he did spit on a fan, a little girl. But LeBron didn’t mention that afterwards Barkley apologized. Afterwards he was remorseful.
I’m not an apologist for Barkley and a lot of the things he says regarding players cross the line but he is being paid to voice his opinion. I find a lot of the things he says on race misinformed and just plain wrong, lacking any understanding of history, politics and cultural thought. But he is a character playing himself in a media circus whose job it is to comment and analyze failure. That is what Barkley, and Kenny Smith and Shaq are being paid to do. Highlight and critique the failure of others.
LeBron knows this. He has been in the league too long.
More importantly, LeBron has a higher responsibility as the best player in the league and the face of the NBA and a significant figure in popular culture. He is required to be different. Don’t be a reactive personality. Ignore the shade. And more importantly, don’t position yourself in a personal attack that for the most part is unwarranted and is nothing more than low hanging fruit just because you are frustrated with the season.
Yes, Barkley criticized LeBron’s complaint about who the Cavs acquired in the offseason. So what? Turn on any talk radio show in the country and they will have some LeBron shade. Who cares if Barkley thinks you are a whiner?
This Barkley episode is at the heart of the LeBron identity paradox. His biggest flaw is his need for universal love and yet he is a participant in a sport where, by the very nature of his inclusion, criticism is going to rain from the heavens. LeBron, a 3-time NBA champion who has been to the Finals six years in a row, who if he was on the 76ers they would be a playoff team and if he was on the Magic they would be a playoff team and if he was on the Lakers they would be a playoff team, has a sensitivity to criticism issue that comes off as lacking proportion. When Barkley was criticizing James, it wasn’t personal. When LeBron criticized Barkley it was.
He turned Barkley into a victim as he went full fledged Donald Trump. The LeBron James point was that he doesn’t ever get the benefit of the doubt.
“All I have done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years, never got int trouble. Respected the game.”
Does he want an award for that? Hasn’t he heard: to much is given, much is expected.
photo via llananba