Letting Go My LeBron Hate

It’s Not About the Decision.

Driving through western New York this weekend I saw some interesting abodes.  It’s not exactly an area that features your standard cookie cutter developments.  The houses I saw were decorated with a unique style.  One in particular caught my eye.  It looked like it was being held together with a patchwork of corrugated metal siding.  Decorating the metal were several #3s, spray painted in black.  I assume they were a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt.  In some areas of the country, Earnhardt probably belongs on the short list of the most popular athletes of all-time.

His legend is so strong, his fans so loyal, that many of them have flocked to his son, Dale Jr.  Earnhardt Jr. is perennially voted the most popular driver in NASCAR despite his inability to live up to the promise of his early career.  After six wins in 2004, Earnhardt has won just four times in the last eight years and just ended a drought that saw him without a win in three full seasons.  He’s never finished higher than 3rd in the season ending points race, but none of that seems to matter to his fans.  Earnhardt Jr. could be judged less on performance by fans than any other any athlete.

It’s difficult to compare NASCAR to the NBA, and certainly within the racing world Earnhardt has plenty of detractors, but it’s hard to imagine LeBron James winning many popularity contests.  In contrast to Earnhardt, James is judged solely by his results, and not individual results, but how his team finishes each year.  His obvious greatness and how he is perceived by the media and fans lead to every season being judged by one question: did LeBron’s team win the title?  If they didn’t, even in a year where James was clearly the league’s MVP, the season is a failure and LeBron is saddled with another layer of criticism regarding his abilities as a winner.

Any athlete who fails to win titles begins hearing questions.  The early part of LeBron’s career could be compared to what Peyton Manning faced in his early years with the Colts.  Manning was an MVP, a regular season record setter, but he often failed in the NFL Playoffs.  Those failures defined him to a certain extent until he finally broke through and won a Super Bowl.  LeBron was starting to hear those same murmurs in his final years in Cleveland.  The Cavs had made a trip to the Finals, LeBron was an MVP, but there was no ring to show for his efforts.  In addition to that, he had turned in several shaky efforts in key moments, his final playoff series with the Cavs being the most notable.

When LeBron left Cleveland, he accelerated the wave of sentiment against him with his television special.  This is what people cite when they explain why they root against LeBron and the Heat.  For me, my mind was made up long before The Decision.  My general stance as a sports fan is to take a contrary position when confronted with a certain level of greatness.  Unless a player wears the uniform of my favorite team, being a perennial MVP isn’t the way into my heart.  Players and teams that win too much annoy me–think Jordan, or Tiger, Federer or Kobe.  LeBron was such a prodigy that I put him into that category before he actually started winning anything.

Rooting against a player or team is a powerful part of sports and for years I’ve spent these months waiting for a particular NBA team to lose.  It might have been LA, or Chicago, but the last two years it has been the Heat.  Every year LeBron went without a title was a success for me, even as my interest in the NBA as a whole waned.  This year as I watched bits and pieces of the Western Conference Finals I found myself rooting for the Spurs because I thought they had a better chance of beating Miami.  This despite the fact that if I was forced to pick a team between San Antonio and OKC, I’d take the Thunder every time.  I almost like Kevin Durant.  If I had any chance of coming back around to the NBA, you’d think I’d want the Thunder to move on and beat the Heat, but that wasn’t the case.

And so I was unimpressed with the Thunder’s effort last night.  I felt Miami and LeBron inching closer to what may be an inevitable title.  If not this year, you still have to like LeBron’s chances to win one eventually.  I saw the Heat take a 2-1 lead, and thought to myself–see, the Spurs should have won.  But had San Antonio won it all, that would have been five rings for Tim Duncan.  How does that fit into my theory on excessive winners?

The conclusion is, I shouldn’t be spending any time rooting against LeBron James in a sport I hardly care about.  So rest easy tonight, LeBron, there’s one less person against you out there in the world.

Thoughts on the Weekend.

Disgruntled Westwood Fan?

It’s always entertaining listening to sports radio the morning after a U.S. Open that Tiger didn’t win.  The course is always too hard, the action is always too boring.  There weren’t any great shots.  It was nothing like the Masters.  I agree that it was nothing like the Masters, but you don’t have to string together eagles and birdies to be playing great golf.  Webb Simpson’s 68-68 weekend was a ball-striking clinic.  Most casual golf fans don’t comprehend that not all 68s are equal, and so they bemoan the lag putting and Tiger’s demise.  This is why golf is in no danger of supplanting the NFL, only so many people actually find it compelling without Tiger or highlight reel shots.

Instead of charging with a back nine 30, Simpson stayed steady while the players around him crumbled.  Several contenders didn’t survive the opening six holes (see Tiger Woods).  Ernie Els, who vaulted himself into contention with an early eagle, couldn’t hit a fairway on the back nine.  Hacking out of Olympic’s rough, to its dangerously sloped targets ended Ernie’s quest for a 3rd U.S. Open.  Some young contenders, Michael Thompson and John Peterson, missed crucial putts late.  Jason Dufner didn’t make a putt all week.  And, of course there was Furyk, hitting the granddaddy of all rope hooks on the 16th hole.  Simpson won because he played mistake free golf, which on Sunday was as rare an accomplishment as blitzing the back nine at Augusta National.

Simpson’s win made it three straight majors for young American players.  It made it 15 straight majors without a repeat champion.  Parity was also exhibited by the atrocious performance of several of the game’s supposed elite.  Luke Donald, world number 1, was alleged to be a perfect fit for Olympic.  He shot a million.  So did Rory McIlroy, who is suddenly facing questions about his dedication.  The defending champion has been stringing together missed cuts like he once strung together top-3s.  Phil Mickelson and Bubba did their parts as well.  The left-handed section of the opening dream threesome was throttled by Woods over the first two days and never had a chance.

Nothing against the skills of a Cinderella story like Beau Hossler, but if a high school junior can navigate Olympic, the game’s best players should at least make the cut?  Without a dominant player, you have to wonder whether the hot golfer winning every week is a good model for the PGA Tour.  The powers that be, the media, clearly want a dominant figure, but could the wide open nature of a big golf tournament become appealing if people can move past the Tiger era?

My closing thought on Olympic is, how tough will the PGA Championship be at Kiawah Island?  What struck everyone, especially Johnny Miller, was that the week passed with almost no wind.  What would have the winning score have been if there were some gusts, or a sustained 15 mph breeze?  Eight over?  10?  The water added to the course Friday night kept things reasonable, and still no player broke par.  I wonder what the PGA of America was thinking when they saw this setup.  At Kiawah, you’re talking about  a course widely regarded as one of the most difficult in the entire country.  You expect the wind to be up there, so if it blows and they get the course as firm and severe as Olympic was, what kind of numbers could we see in August?  The USGA wants the toughest test, but the PGA will be in a position to make Kiawah as hard as they’d like–how far will they go?

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Blog Schedule for the Week:

*Later Today–Some more tidbits on the weekend, LeBron, etc.

*Tomorrow Evening–Late Inning Phillies Live Blog.  The Phils are a total train wreck right now.  Most of the pain has come late in ball games.  I’ll use tomorrow’s game to touch on all the painful Phillies’ topics.

*Thursday–The Mail and Picture Bag.  Already have a picture or two, and a couple of questions, so keep them coming.  Also, if you fancy yourself a humorist, feel free to send a picture w/caption and I’ll be happy to give you full credit.