Of King James, Dexter and a Culture of Comeuppance

What comes around, goes around.

Where and when I grew up, we’d say that so often, it became a way of life, a way of thinking and believing. A lot of NBA players come up in similar circumstances, so I can’t imagine that they didn’t also hear that bit of wisdom uttered a time or two.

LeBron: What Comes Around
Did they simply fail to listen? I mean, was LeBron James so intent on taking his talents to the NBA that he grew deaf while growing up in Akron, Ohio?

I don’t know the guy. He came after I stopped covering the NBA. After 17 years, it had become, for me, a league of antics. You know what I mean: Whenever there’s a crowd of adults, some kid runs up to the hot microphone and starts singing, or some boy throws a frog into a flock of girls. After starting out knowing Larry Bird, Earvin Johnson and Michael Jordan as genuine people, the league for me had devolved into a silly show with its players clamoring for more and more attention, as if all the dollars weren’t enough.

So I don’t know whether to feel sorry for King James. There are real lines drawn these days between the NBA and the public; the media doesn’t literally live with the players, the way we did in our day. So the media feels left out and no longer feels accountable — it can write and say whatever it wants because it never really has to face its subjects anymore — and the players continually retreat. Now everything is played out in public, and James’ really is the first generation to come up completely in the hot glow of the media microscope. Today, that’s got to make someone like James squirm, though I’ll give him this — the cat keeps digging it deeper and deeper for himself. Then again, this is the age of social media, so the players can add to the cacophony surrounding themselves.

For goshsakes, after all the fussing and fighting and hating that went on during the just-concluded NBA postseason, this is what James had to say after his Miami Heat lost decisive Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks:

“All the people that were rooting me on to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before. They have the same personal problems they had to today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want with me and my family and be happy with that.”

Wow. Blind arrogance really is a legacy killer. After Tiger Wood’s stunning slip from relevance, if there’s one thing we know about the mighty, it’s that they do fall. Fast. And hard.

Kareem: Statuesque?
But that’s always been the case. I remember spending cumulative hours waiting for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to pull his face out of a newspaper in the Laker locker room. When he did, he’d mutter something surly and stalk off. Year later, after Abdul-Jabbar retired, his publicist called me, asking for help marketing an autobiography. “Tell Kareem,” I said, “that I’m too busy reading the newspaper.” Now, fittingly, you read about Abdul-Jabbar whining about not having a statue outside the Staples Center.

There’s another player who once made me wait an interminably long time for an interview before finally informing me, “I don’t talk to white boys.”

“What if I’m not white,” I asked.

“What are you then,” he replied.

“Japanese,” I said.

“Well, I don’t talk to Japs neither,” he said.

His coach later tried to defend him, saying the player had to be kidding. But I once observed the same player stroking himself in front of a female sportswriter, so I doubt it. Yes, I know what became of this guy, and it ain’t pretty.

Yes, karma is a bitch. And James’ comeuppance isn’t just about not backing up his boasts, it’s come to revealing himself as a shrinking fourth-quarter violet and the public spectacle of the seemingly direct relationship between the recession of his crunch-time production with that of his hairline.

Even Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who never meet a jab he didn’t want to plant in the back of an NBA executive or official, stood down during the James/Heat feeding frenzy. Afterward, he explained that, in the face of his team winning, he didn’t want to tempt karma.

After years of the orchestrated chalk toss led to The Decision and turning “taking my talents to South Beach” into a cultural catchphrase, after all that and making Akron feeling like Mayberry if Andy ever left for, say, Raleigh, James didn’t just lay low, bathe in humility and let the karmic after-shocks subside. He didn’t keep tempting fate, he outright taunted it, up to his and Dwyane Wade’s ridiculous mocking of Dirk Nowitzki’s health issues. It reeked of “boys” sitting around over beers, or worse, and thinking up stupid things to do. And these knuckleheads actually did it, in front of millions, on the biggest stage of their profession.

Dexter: Miami killer
Even before that, James and the Heat had turned Nowitzki into Dexter Morgan, the Michael C. Hall character on the Showtime series, “Dexter.” This series is popular because, a blood-splatter specialist in Miami (ha!), Dexter serially kills serial killers, and the public loves it when someone who “deserves it” (see Osama bin Laden as recent example) gets it. I just got through the Seattle International Film Festival, where every other Asian film seemed like it had a revenge theme. There’s an international culture of comeuppance that James has stoked the past year.

So, with a world thirsting for King James blood, how could Nowitzki and the Mavericks possibly lose? This was the Portland Trail Blazers upending the playground bully Philadelphia 76ers in 1977. And then again, it really wasn’t, since Dr. J (Julius Erving) was a regal presence and the perception of his Sixers was born out of a kind of public ignorance that cannot exist in today’s world.

Though I recently wrote about how nice a guy Shaquille O’Neal is (see When You’re a Freak, Freaky Things Happen to You), the most recent big winners of our time in the NBA were not perfect. Jordan womanized and gambled. Kobe Bryant had his sexual assault episode in Eagle, Colo. But I knew both to be “good people,” and am sure I was not alone. Improbably, back in the day, Jordan and I were alone in the Bulls’ Kingdome locker room and talked joyously about fatherhood. I spoke at length with Bryant early in his career and found him to be respectful and engaging.

But I don’t know LeBron James. At least I hope I don’t. Because, if his public persona is really who he is, then what comes around just went around.

One thought on “Of King James, Dexter and a Culture of Comeuppance

  1. Hairy Allper

    Glenn…It is so good to read your basketball prose about “The Greatest Stage”. I have missed it. Your insightful and well-phrased writing congers up memories of years gone by…when the people we knew in the NBA were “real people”, ones we knew well and enjoyed (for the most part!) being around. Great writing, Glenn…and thanks for the memories. Please continue to blog about the NBA. With the exception of a few playoff games (including all The Finals), my NBA experiences in the past few years have been trying to remember to view Charles Barkley on the TNT post-game show.
    ~ Hairy

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