Friday, April 27, 2018

Need a decision? LeBron James is the best

The best thing about being on top of the world is that the view to somewhere else looks so clear.

From up here, LeBron James can see the future. From up here, he can decide if it's in Miami. Or Chicago. Or New York. Or, for crying out loud, Cleveland.

From here, he can plan another Decision all over again.

And won't that be special.

For now, James is the resurrected superstar, the guy in charge of the fourth quarter. For three quarters, the game might be in the hands of Lance Stephenson or Paul George. But in the last period, the ball always seems to be in James' hand and everyone else has turned into a backup singer. Just like always, no one matters in those moments but James and his game.

Just asking: But how is this guy not the most popular athlete on the planet?

To a great degree, of course, James has rebuilt his image over the past few years. He was finally the most popular player in the NBA this season, after years of watching Kobe Bryant get the designation.

But I'm talking about something bigger. I'm talking about near-universal approval.

I'm talking about Michael Jordan status. I'm talking about Joe Montana and Michael Phelps and Cal Ripken popularity. I'm talking about Magic Johnson and Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning levels of approval. And Lionel Messi and Jack Nicklaus and Bjorn Borg. And all the other rare athletes whose names cannot be pronounced without a hint of reverence.

I'm talking about LeBron James.

The best there is.

Certainly, he's a good enough player for the approval. Certainly, he's a good enough guy. So why do you get the feeling that a lot of people are waiting for James to stumble so they can reopen the criticism?

On Tuesday night, when the Heat trailed the Pacers throughout before coming back to win, you could almost hear teeth gnashing in the background. James might be the most popular player in the NBA, but he's still one of the least popular, too.

Over the spans of time, we have grown used to flawed athletes. This guy is accused of murder. That guy of rape. The other guy of drugs. That guy of womanizing. This one of killing dogs. And on and on.

James? The worst thing he ever did was decide to leave Cleveland.

Say, isn't that why there are so many roads leaving the city?

Granted, back in 2010, James left town in the clumsiest way possible. He was 26, and he came across as self-centered and manipulative in his selection of the Miami Heat. You can still raise the blood pressure of a Cavaliers fan by bringing it up.

Yeah, it was a bad week. But who hasn't had a bad week?

James certainly isn't the only athlete to try to use free agency to make his life better. As comparative crimes go, that's hardly a large one. It wasn't as if the Cavs taught him how to dribble, you know.

And now?

We might be facing another Decision soon.

That's the part of these playoffs that no one seems to talk about, least of all James. On the other side of them, James can again opt for free agency. As quick as a finger snap, this run by the Heat can all be over.

Oh, the Heat expects him to stay, partially because of the success they've shared and possibly, there are so few places to go with such destinations as Lakers and Celtics rebuilding. If it wins a third straight title, it will probably happen that way.

But what if Miami loses? Dwyane Wade has had a trying season, missing 31 games with his hamstring injury. Might he have reached a part of his career where he won't be around often enough? Chris Bosh has never really been an equal partner. And there are too many average players at the end of the roster.

In other words, there are too many nights when James needs more help.

And so you wonder: Could James bolt for the Knicks? For the Bulls? Or, maybe, even back to Cleveland, which has its third overall No. 1 draft pick in four years?

Put it this way: Since the day James left, the Cavs have tried to prove they're the dysfunctional mess he thought.

Just a guess, but at 30, I would bet James would handle the verdict better this time around.

It's odd how that little burst of silliness has stuck to the bottom of James' shoe for all of these years. He has represented his country in the Olympics twice. He has won two NBA titles. He has won four MVP awards. He has been an All-Star 10 times.

And he competes. Whatever else you suggest about James, he competes. He competes so hard that, in those moments, you forget about his wealth and his fame. Jordan used to be like that. You never thought of his check when he was playing.

Who knows how this series ends up. There are stretches when Indiana seems to have more energy, more force. There are times when the Heat looks like yesterday's flavor.

Then there are the moments when James takes over, when even the other players seem mesmerized by him.

I'm convinced. James is the best thing the NBA has seen since Jordan. At this point in his career, they ought to teach him in schools. They ought to put his face on money. They ought to rename bacon for him.

In other words, this is the best time to admire James. This was his best season. If he could squeeze out another title, this would be his best postseason.

Tomorrow? Who knows where he ends up. For today, however, it is long past time to embrace LeBron James.

As Decisions go, that one is easy.

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