May 20, 2010
One has to tread lightly when dealing with two subjects that the Internet has had quite a bit of fun with over the last couple of years: Buzz Bissinger, "considered by many to be the finest writer on sports of his generation," according to the person who put together his website, and any bit of rumor that has LeBron James(notes) even considering becoming a New York Knick this summer.
Both are pretty tired subjects, and on paper, both would likely serve as some unholy combination when paired together. But I think we're big enough to move past that for an afternoon.
In an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times (how many blog posts on any subject have included that line amongst its first three graphs?), Bissinger pines for LeBron James to head to New York this summer, leaving Cleveland behind, "for his own emotional and professional growth." While I concede James has plenty of room to grow in both areas, I still fail to see how a turn spent with the hopeless Knicks will change things for him, but then again I'm not the guy (as Bissinger appeared to be, years ago) who thinks the "LeBronze is gay" comments that will no doubt dot the lower part of this page were in fact written by this post's author.
And with that, I'm hoping to get the last bit of anti-Bissinger and anti-New York — for the sake of going anti with either — out of the way.
It's hard not to be swayed by the history of either subject. Bissinger acted a right pillock in his time spent on an HBO soundstage a few years ago, spewing uninformed invectives at former Deadspin editor Will Leitch (a sniggering prat, I concede) with precious little remorse or decorum. His Twitter page, which I initially assumed to be a parody, houses all sorts of crass comments that I would think beneath a 15-year-old Bleacher Report blogger barely worth a follow.
It's an astonishing page, especially for someone his age. Someone half his age, really. His go-to phrase, one I will not and cannot repeat here, is particularly offensive and nauseating. I spend half my day looking for perceived slights and spend the better half of the weekend on the wrong side of the tipple, I'm terribly profane and oft-angered, and if I can keep things cleaner than PG-13, why can't this mug?
And James-to-New York? It's something we're pretty sick of, as if James' ascension can't take real hold until he wins 44 games for a few years in a row in the west-ish part of midtown Manhattan.
It's a bit of patronizing nonsense that took hold before Shaquille O'Neal(notes) ran away from Orlando in 1996, really hit hard in 2000 and 2001 as Vince Carter(notes) approached free agency and probably had its start while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was trying to force his way out of Milwaukee in the 1970s. Carter's perceived jump, away from the boondocks of North America's third-largest city, made the most noise, however. Because it hit just as the Internet was really taking off, away from AOL-housed insularity and into a high-speed version that was available in just about any office or classroom.
And this? This is the zenith du decennia. LeBron picking his home, a media frenzy that started all the way back in 2006, something dominating the headlines even with a month and a half to go before he can legally sign with a team.
Here's the problem, though. Here's what doesn't turn Bissinger's run into the typical James-in-NYC rant: He's right. He's wrong, but he's right.
He sees New York as best for LeBron because of the accountability it would force on James, who has long skated, to take in. It would turn his Game 5 meltdown against the Celtics into an art crime for the ages, based on tabloid exposure alone. And this is coming from someone who clearly appreciates what James represents (and someone who, yes, has a book about LeBron to sell):
"James is of course a great player. But he is not the greatest player in the history of the game by any stretch if you define greatness, as you should, by winning it all. He has never shown anything close to the killer mentality and step-it-up of the players he is most compared to, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. He is not in the same category as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Or Kobe Bryant(notes)."
Save for a pair of particularly splendid runs in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs, this is true. I wanted to dislike this Op-Ed piece, intensely, but I cannot argue with these sorts of points, and with the way it is written. And the Cleveland Cavaliers, desperate to keep what is currently theirs but never theirs for good, could never provide the sort of biting criticism needed to make James feel bad for failing their fans in Game 5.
What I can argue with, again, is the self-serving panacea that New York would somehow provide. Based on, to hear it from Buzz (no curse words, I promise), the sheer amount of back-page induced pressure that comes part and parcel to heading to the island that destroyed the character that James Bridges decided should be named Jamie Conroy.
I can't get behind this. Because we're a nation of back pages at this point. The Post and the Daily News have nothing on, well, America.
Within hours of James' Game 5 meltdown, Adrian Wojnarowski had a brilliant column up on Yahoo!'s NBA front page that had the sort of influence and readership that a back page — or any combination of tri-state sports gasbag radio, newspaperdom, local cable TV and message board claptrappin' — couldn't touch. Especially when the radio shows, message boards and blogs get to quoting good chunks of Woj's work, if not all of the column, for no price at all. You're welcome.
Pair that with other national sites, cable TV and any other combination of media and influence in this seconds-ahead-of-you-chump world we live in, and the influence is there. The scope is there. The damnation if he fails, the lauding tone should he succeed. Hell, the ridicule should he hint at failing and the unyielding plaudits should he appear to be on his way toward succeeding. I've taken gleeful part in all.
In fact, the most consistent reaction I gleaned from the blogosphere in reaction to James' Game 5 disappointment ran along the lines of, "chill out." As if it was too much piling on, from too many angles. That the uniformity in its disdain was too much to handle. The Internet — the Internet! — had had enough.
Bissinger argues that, in New York, "he would never be allowed to forget [Game 5]," but this is complete and utter bollocks. Not that New York wouldn't let him forget, Buzz has it there, but that New York would change any of that, in any meaningful way.
Game 5 is going to be part of the package for years. It's going to be what we expect from him, until he wins a championship as a go-to guy, and probably until he wins a second ring as a go-to guy, because we're taught to anticipate best- and worst-case scenarios, all at once. I know we still think of the way Kobe Bryant handled Game 7 in Phoenix back in 2006, and that's with him winning a ring last season. Game 5 isn't going away, whether it happened in Cleveland, in the Custerdome or on Broadway.
This is why I don't see New York as a cure-all. I don't see the pressure as something that turns a man. You can point to Alex Rodriguez all you want, but all he did was finally have a good opening-round baseball series last year, which allowed him more at-bats. He was never a bum. He was just a baseball player, working through highs and lows and small sample sizes. And the New York Daily News, to say nothing of Beezer and the Big Boy (or whatever soul-crushing radio show you want to point out) had nothing to do with it.
The man changes the man. Nobody else. Nothing else. Others have had outside influences, but outside influences (death, pressure, addiction, love, lost love, guidance, spirituality, self-awareness, abandonment) can take a person either way. It's up to the person.
And this is up to LeBron. It's up to him to finally take the discredit for the way he's run things off-court. For the way he's run things on-court, too; because the reason people think Kobe Bryant is better is because Bryant can have eight points in the final three minutes of a 24-point game that sees him miss 15 of 23 shots, and people will come away from that contest remembering what they saw last. Not the totality of a 48-minute, 29-point, nine-assist, nine-rebound game, which James often comes through with, nearly on average.
It's up to LeBron to admit that, despite all the excuses that are in place — the iffy teammates, the poor coaching, the superior competition — he still could have done better, despite the regular-season contributions that only Michael Jordan can touch.
New York isn't the answer. No town is. LeBron is his own answer. Some players, like Allen Iverson(notes) ("the Answer," himself) never found it. Some players have found it, spurred on by whatever reason. Some players have been given the same reason as the success stories, and still managed to fail miserably. The end-all being that it comes from within, and not from some sudden jump. Or not by staying where you are. Extremes, for extremes' sake, aren't the answer. They never are.
You are. And while a new team and a new start and a new take on the next five years of this 25-year-old's life might keep things cheery for a spell, nothing's going to change until LeBron does.
Until then, we'll be watching. There are a lot of us, you know. Many boroughs between us.