LeBron James shakes hands with troops at Eglin Air Force Base in this Sept. 2010 file photo. (Getty Images)
If you're of a mind to hate LeBron James regardless of instance or circumstance, it probably won't matter much to you that he reportedly did something really cool a few weeks back for members of the U.S. Armed Forces during a layover in Oklahoma City. But if you're the type who thinks virtue is its own reward and that small acts of kindness performed when you think no one's watching might reveal something about a person, then maybe you'll think a little more favorably about the All-Star forward after the story Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman wrote this last weekend, before James' Miami Heat took on (and lost to) the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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The story's set three weeks ago, when the Heat headed west to Portland for a road trip. Miami's team plane needed to make a refueling stop en route at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, so Heat players and personnel got off the jet and headed into the terminal to wait for the fill-up to finish.
Inside, as one "airport worker who witnessed the entire scene" told Carlson, James "noticed a couple of uniformed military personnel" — helicopter pilots and crew members whose birds were also making a refueling stop at Will Rogers — "approach the team's security person."
Some of them wanted pictures with the players, but when the crew members approached the team's security detail, they were told no.
Maybe LeBron could overhear the conversation, or perhaps he could just tell by their body language what was going on. Either way, he piped up.
"Hey, hey," he said, "any of these military guys can take a picture with us."
He turned to his teammates.
"You guys get up," he told them.
More from the Oklahoma's Carlson, whose recounting of the meeting you should definitely read in full:
[James] started to wave the servicemen over but noticed that some of the players weren't yet on their feet.
"Hey, everybody get up," he said. "Get in a circle here. Anybody that wants their picture taken with us, we'll do it."
And that's exactly what they did. Any of the four or five dozen helicopter crewmen who wanted a photo got one. Not all of them did, but LeBron and his teammates posed with each and every one of them who asked.
It is not exactly breaking news to report that a lot of people don't like LeBron James. They think he's overpaid and overrated, they think he shrinks in big moments, and nearly two years later, many still think he's a jerk for "The Decision" and its aftermath. On top of that, there's likely not much that LeBron can do to sway public opinion of him at this point — if he wins titles with the Miami Heat, his detractors will always decry him for needing Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company to do it, and if he doesn't, his shortcomings will continue to be viewed as evidence of some essential, inescapable flaw.
Better or worse, right or wrong, that's the spot that LeBron occupies in sporting and popular culture now. To some extent, he's made his bed, but we've also taken particular delight in poking fun at what a sloppy job he's done ("You call THOSE hospital corners?") and the fact that he doesn't seem to get too many solid nights sleep despite stepping his thread count up.
In what seems like a no-win situation, then, pretty much all LeBron can do is try to be excellent on the court and a decent dude off it. There's no question he's done the latter this season, performing night-in and night-out as the clear best player in the league and strong favorite to take home his third league Most Valuable Player award come season's end, even if his Heat don't end the season with the NBA's best record and finish as the East's top team.
As for the latter ... well, I suppose whether you think James was being "a decent dude" when he organized his teammates to take a team photo in hooded sweatshirts as a sign of solidarity in the Trayvon Martin case — a choice that sparked a league-wide reaction, including the players union publicly calling for Martin's killer's arrest and personal responses from a number of stars — depends to some degree on your personal politics. Taking time out of a travel day during a layover on a cross-country flight to overrule team security, roust tired teammates and take pictures with members of the military, though? That one should play a little better, especially for the 50 or 60 pilots and crewmen that got an unexpected and pretty special thrill.
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