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The King under seige

Posted by: | September 5, 2011 | No Comment |

Is LeBron James the Most Scrutinized Athlete in Sports History?

In a 24/7 media circus where a celebrity’s every move–and I mean every move– is documented, it’s merely impossible  for a superstar athlete to not take heat for something, in some form or another. The rapid rise of the Internet in the late-90′s gave the world “instant” access to a wide array of  information at the click of the mouse. So it makes sense that LeBron James, arguably the first superstar to emerge in the age of the Internet and is one of the most recognizable faces in the world would be a top candidate of scrutiny under the media’s microscope.

Jordan faced his share of scrutiny–when he retired in the prime of his career to pursue a career in baseball, when he retired again and had a — let’s say, less than exemplary stint with the Wizards. MJ’s critics came mostly in the form of newspaper columnists and sports talk personalities instead of that of the uncontrollable and widespread Internet. When it comes to the growth of media scrutiny, you have to look at the preferred medias from each era and the amount of sports coverage that were available during each time period.

In the early years of sports reporting, when radio was king and television was just starting to gain notoriety, American athletes were perceived based on what was written about them in the newspapers or said about them in radio broadcasts. The new millennium has opened the door for the spread of information at a much more rapid pace, to millions of people on one global endless canvas: the worldwide web. With blogs, tweets, podcasts and other forms of multimedia strewn across the media spectrum, it’s almost impossible to live in privacy and go unnoticed.

Look at the Tiger Woods saga. After the “accident”, within a matter of hours, hundreds of media outlets and paparazzi were outside the world-renowned golfers, Orlando-area home with cameras blazing and rumors of his infidelity spewing all over the Interwebs. Anyone can be subject to scrutiny, no matter how powerful, famous or rich. Woods–Mr. Marketability, himself–was torn to shreds by the media in a matter of weeks and will never be able to fully restore his reputation to its prior squeaky cleanness. So LeBron is definitely no exception.

The Chosen One

James’ road to the show (and media stardom) couldn’t have gone more smoothly than it did. He was heralded as The Chosen One and considered the next NBA superstar as early as his sophomore year in high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s by the media.  We all can remember when James graced the covers of SI and ESPN The Magazine with the nickname King James, a  moniker that from the beginning made me despise him. LeBron did things in high school that the game of basketball had never seen before. He won nearly every award that a prep basketball player could receive, he won three state titles from his sophomore to senior seasons, and he created a buzz that had the media calling him the next Michael Jordan. That’s where the problems begin.

Being compared to the greatest basketball player to ever live and worst of all, being called his predecessor, would be the No. 1 reason that James’ career has been so heavily critiqued and analyzed since Day 1. One of the mistakes he had coming in was choosing to wear the No. 23. He was merely adding fuel to the media fire, when it came to living up to his potential in the seven years that he wore those hallowed digits.

Instant Gratification

LeBron’s rookie season was everything that he could have hoped for. In his debut against the Sacramento Kings, James scored 25 with nine assists, six boards while shooting a remarkable 60 percent from the field. Things were looking up for the young star. The media was on his side, the city of Cleveland was on his side, and for the most part, America was on his side. He became the youngest player in NBA history to score at least 4o points in a game and finished the year winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award. James passed the first test in living up to His Airness: win a ROY award. And that’s how it always has been for James throughout his eight year career. Can he meet the nearly impossible expectations that have been placed on his shoulders? Can he follow in the footsteps of Jordan?

Throughout his stay in Cleveland, he was able to do that to an extent, minus the rings. He won two MVPs while with the Cavs (and should have won a third this past season in Miami) and slowly but surely began having playoff success. Reaching the Finals in 2007, James and the Cavs were swept by a veteran Spurs team that had won two previous championships within the past five years. That Finals appearance would be his only one as a Cavalier and he would always be the scapegoat for the Cavs shortcomings. In Cleveland, James never had all of the right pieces in place to help him win a championship, no matter how hard owner Dan Gilbert tried.  With impending free agency in 2010, James was the top prize for any lowly team that would be willing to make an offer. Little did we know, the summer of LeBron would be one of the most dramatic and surprising in NBA history.

The Decision

The most over-hyped, money-making (for charity), nationally televised free agent decision in the history of sports. Hands down. And without it, the NBA season wouldn’t have been as exciting as it was this past year. LeBron’s attention-seeking, marketing ploy broke the hearts of Cleveland fans everywhere. From Willoughby to Quicken Loans Arena, Cavs fans were in disbelief that their hometown son would “betray” them and “take [his] talents to South Beach.” The once beloved star of the NBA was now one of the most hated athletes in the nation. When he, Wade and Bosh joined each other to create a super-team in Miami, the majority of the country immediately hated the Heat, not because of the players but because of the way they came together. The Heat all of a sudden were the NBA’s most hated team. They were now up there with the likes of the Yankees and the Cowboys as the teams that you either love or loathe. Their cockiness and their “us against the world” mentality was not attractive to many NBA fans and automatically made the Heat, Public Enemy No. 1.

The Heat lived up to their expectations of being a team to be reckoned with in the Southeast Division, winning handily and taking the No. 2 overall seed in the East. With series wins against Philly, Boston and Chicago, the Heat carried all the momentum into the NBA Finals. LeBron, Wade and Bosh were all contributing to the team’s effort each night and role players like Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller were stepping up in crucial situations. The 2011 NBA championship seemed to be in their grasp. But like college football analyst Lee Corso would say: “Not So Fast, My Friend!”

Under the Microscope

And now the next chapter of LeBron James has been written. Set in stone on the tablets of NBA lore. Another Playoff exit. Not just any playoff exit,  but one that was in reach.  What’s worse is that when the Heat were trailing the Mavs in the final minutes of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, everyone watching knew it was over. I knew it was over. Dirk and his cavalcade of seasoned veterans knew it was over. And worst of all, LeBron and the Heat knew it was over. This was the stage that LeBron had envisioned performing on less than a year ago when he left for Miami. And he flopped on it.

So why was it that in spots he looked detached, lost, distant and dare I say it, uncommitted about what was going on the biggest stage of his life? Maybe he just doesn’t like the big stage? The lights? The attention? No, that can’t be it. Just look at The Decision. Maybe the pressure that he has endured throughout his career has finally caught up with him. Maybe he’s content with being a stats guy and not caring about winning a title.

After “quitting” against the Celtics in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals and now choking away another NBA Finals, LeBron James has become synonymous with failure, with under-achieving, with distancing himself from the spotlight in the most crucial spots of the game. The spots that superstars dream of, even thrive upon. Would Jordan pass up shot with three minutes left in a must-win Finals game? Would Bird hang out around the three-point line when his team is struggling, “wishing” that his C’s could turn it around? Would Magic dribble around aimlessly and settle for a fading, pull-up jumpers when he has one of the smallest guys on the court guarding him? Exhibit A: Jason Kidd. The answer to those questions is absolutely not. They took it upon themselves as leaders, as superstars, as champions to force the issue and take the game over, themselves.

Nonetheless, the most scrutinized athlete in NBA history and maybe even in sports history will have to put up with the skeptics for at least another year when he can make another run at a ring. Even then, King James will always be in a constant struggle have to prove himself in order to live up to the hype (and win at least seven titles).

 

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