Business as usual for LeBron and Maverick

LeBron James' popularity took a severe hit after he announced his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami on national TV

LeBron James(notes) is right. Race probably played a part in some of the searing summer criticism heaped upon him. This wasn’t much of a revelation to most of us, and it shouldn’t be controversial. Yet without context, without expansion, it predictably hit the news cycle like a tsunami.

Race is the story, but it isn’t the issue. This is: With everyone else pushing past LeBron’s July foolery, why did he let his business manager, Maverick Carter, drag him into another guaranteed losing referendum on “The Decision”?

As much as ever, James needs to rely on an America that confuses victory with virtue. He just needs the ball in his hands and mere mortals crumbling beneath him. His redemption comes with the basketball season, not awkward, out-of-context sound bites on race relations. LeBron James needs to be associated with Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) and Pat Riley – not Carter.

James was moving past the summer in a natural way, and somehow his handlers have gone and made a mess of everything again.

With James, less is more. With Carter, less is too much.

[Related: LeBron says race a factor in backlash to 'The Decision']

Carter ought to stop crowding James on a stage where’s there’s no room for him, no good use. After all, this wasn’t about a belated damage control for LeBron, but for Maverick. Carter crafted a hit-and-run that would work to restore his crumbled standing in the marketing world. Carter wanted to change the dialogue on “The Decision” for his own good, not James’.

Yet LeBron takes the hit again and again for his loyalty to this wrecking crew that surrounds him. They thrust James into a no-win situation, and it set him back again. And Carter? He slips back into the shadows until his next round of one-on-ones and photo spreads with Forbes and Fortune.

Purposely lost in it all, Carter slipped in some kind of half-assed admission about the television show that “the execution could’ve been a little better.” Yes, so could’ve the Bay of Pigs and the Faber College homecoming parade. This way, Carter’s on record with a vague notion of contrition, but the race angle steals the headlines and he never truly has to answer for his incompetence.

If James was committed to becoming a messenger, a crusader, for the double standards applied to NBA players, this all would’ve been a welcome entrée into that conversation. But he wanted no part of it. He ran away from his comments at Heat practice on Thursday. James doesn’t have the staying power to be the cornerstone of the discussion. This interview wasn’t orchestrated for him to make a stand, to speak his mind. Carter used James as a human shield, the way they used those Boys & Girls Club kids back in July. Hey, you can’t rip our self-aggrandizing motives for this hideous “Decision” when we’re raising money for foosball tables and new backboards.

What James says has merit – basketball players are treated far more harshly in the general public. To say that stereotypes of race don’t factor into the debate because Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan and whatever scores of African-Americans were critical of his act has no merit. There was still an element of society – free of logic, free of valid points – that will judge him poorly because of his race.

The stereotypes surrounding the NBA are part of common vernacular, and some people don’t even realize they’re using them. In hockey, they call you a tough guy, an enforcer. In the NBA, you’re a thug, a punk. In football, players get tattoos, long hair and become cult heroes. In the NBA, that makes you a breakdown in society.

There are double standards, and, yes, James paid a price for them. Many more have paid far worse. And as long as James and Carter are truthful with themselves and understand why so many fair-minded and intelligent people had issues with them over the summer, they could’ve intelligently introduced this into the debate.

It isn’t easy to be a young African-American business manager of one of the world’s most famous athletes. Carter has his own handlers propping him up in trade publications with flattering stories about his so-called innovative marketing genius. On CNN, he suggested people were uneasy with something that looked different, someone who did things differently. Maybe so, but it doesn’t account for the way he’s taken a sledgehammer to James’ image.

Carter’s been innovative with marketing LeBron the way Turtle was innovative with tequila. Maverick’s invited closer inspection of his self-proclaimed genius and the results have been unflattering. The irony of James leaving Aaron Goodwin several years ago was that his old agent ended up cultivating one of the bright, young minds of the digital marketing age, Nate Jones. Jones works with Kevin Durant(notes) now, and, well, Carter could learn a few lessons from a riser even younger than him.

Maverick Carter didn’t drag James onto CNN to work on the basketball star’s image. He brought him out there to start his own rehab tour. LeBron committed no crime in July except vanity and a callousness toward Cleveland. He took his share of grief and made it to Miami’s training camp, and deep down he had to know that contrition for his trespasses on ESPN wouldn’t be found on CNN.

The solution is still simple: Give LeBron the ball, get out of his way and watch him make it all right again. This won’t help Maverick Carter, but it just may resurrect his client.