Cynics should be taking Sports Illustrated's choice to award LeBron James with the Sportsman of the Year award as their initial instinct suggests. Other athletes, other bad dudes and dudettes, have taken in more scorn. Other athletes have been the focus of all out cable TV marathons, daytime television dedicated to their potential and little else. Others have been trumped up, to ridiculous levels, merely for acting the centerpiece for a sterling collection of winning athletes. And other athletes have risen from low points with great alacrity and to marvelous results.
With something less than ease, James has mixed all of the more unsettling aspects of our attempts to saturate things. Basketball is a team sport, but the man went nine years without a title in ways that made Michael Jordan's frustrations (no playoff wins in his first three years for MJ, three straight losses to the same team in two different rounds, no titles for his first six seasons) seem like a smooth ascent to glory. LeBron didn't handle it well, he rightfully left a team in the least dignified manner possible, we bashed, and he failed. And then he won, so we give him an award.
Roll your eyes all you want, but this is fitting designation for a player that absolutely turned things on its high-heeled sneakers in just a fortnight's time. LeBron James grew before our very eyes last June, moving in just 14 days from the brink of another disappointing season to a championship to initiating talk of the Miami Heat dynasty he gleefully hinted at in July of 2010.
LeBron James gets this award because he finally figured out what to do. Because even the best still need to find ways to translate their greatness into something that counts, and even the best should be awarded when they finally suss it all out.
Not because he executed to the tune of our moral standards, of course; but that part of it doesn't hurt. All the awful sportswriter-isms about taking over when it counts and taking levels of production to "another level" when things mattered the most? Those lame clichés were actually true about LeBron James. The guy has been the best player in the NBA since 2006 or so, and even all the way back then he was working on a level that didn't translate to franchise-shifting brilliance in the playoffs.
Not overall. Not while leading teams to regular season records or postseason heights those teams didn't deserve. Just, ugh, when it mattered.
In 2006, James did amazing work just dragging his Cleveland Cavaliers to their first playoff berth since the Mike Fratello era. He then was absolutely dominant while taking his team to a 3-2 lead over the defending conference champion Detroit Pistons. Things then fell apart as Detroit moved ahead and won the series. Why? Because LeBron didn't know how to close things — it was all attempts at one on five drives, or long jumpers. Forget the 82games.com stats about late-game play, this two-game sample size against Detroit mattered most, and James couldn't cope. Not because of some psychological hang-up, but just because he didn't know where to put his feet.
The next season? James got past those Pistons by moving quickly and unashamedly playing his game in record time — all sped-up improvisation as to whether he wanted to dunk on three All-World defenders, or dish to the corner for an open teammate. Sadly, that 2007 conference finals win was the last we'd see of this LeBron, in games that would matter, for half a decade.
2008? Team stunk, not his fault. The Celtics were something else that year.
2009? Team stunk, Ben Wallace can't guard Rashard Lewis.
2010? LeBron, be it because he felt like acting a martyr or just didn't know what to do, completely faded when it counted. To put it in the nicest of terms.
2011? Not to discredit the fantastic planning and execution of the deserved world champions in the Dallas Mavericks, but LeBron had no clue what to do. The Mavs put him in that place. The still-learning Erik Spoelstra put him in that place. Years of AAU, high school, and isolation ball with the Cleveland Cavaliers put him in that place. Most importantly, though, LeBron James put himself in that place. He was left training on the company's dime, and the game worked its way around him.
That's why this is such a wonderful game. And that's why, for two quick weeks starting last June 7th and ending with the Heat's 2011-12 title victory on June 21st, it was so marvelous to see a player work quicker than a game that has 120 years worth of evolution on its side. Over 120 years to prepare for something like LeBron James, and yet it was the game that looked clueless, and the Sportsman of the Year that looked like the tenured professor.
Things can change that quickly, in ways that last for ages. And in a media-saturated era that has created an uncalled-for cacophony of "content," it's nice to see the old standard go to the right sportsman.