Saturday, June 16, 2012


The ancient Roman elites were many things, but being stupid isn’t one of them. They knew that times were tough for the masses, and that they needed to come up with a hell of a diversion if they hoped to keep the masses docile. Gladiator fights sure fit the bill. I can only imagine all the Roman brick layers and peasants whose sole joy during a work day was to contemplate which of their beloved gladiators would achieve a glorious victory and which ones would be put to the sword.

Today in America, we commoners don’t need the elites to give us bread and circuses. We can provide such diversions for ourselves. In fact, we realize how important they are. The economy seems forever mired in muck. Our government is polarized and ineffective. You can’t trust anything any politician tells us. And on the rare occasions when we read the newspapers, all we see is that overseas, things are even worse. So? Give us modern-day gladiator fights!

This seems to be an especially fun time for watching big-time sport. So fun, in fact, that cities keep ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds every time a team squawks about leaving the city. And why not? Think of how many memories they are buying with those funds. We’ve just finished crowning the Kings for the first time – the Los Angeles Kings, that is, who won their first National Hockey League title. Millions of Americans are intrigued by the European soccer championships, an event that twenty years ago would have captured virtually nobody’s attention on these shores. Baseball is booming – and apparently, steroid free. That means we actually get to appreciate the art of pitching, something we couldn’t do in the “live ball and even livelier vein” era of the 1990s and early 2000s. In tennis, Rafael Nadal has recently cemented his stature as the greatest clay court player of all time with his record setting seventh French Open title. And as for golf, we’re witnessing the return of the freak formerly known as Tiger Woods. He’s co-leading the U.S. Open after two rounds, and has already won both Arnold Palmer’s and Jack Nicklaus’s tournaments earlier in the year. Could it be that “the natural” will once again take his place at the pinnacle of sport?

Not if LeBron James has anything to say about it. You see, as any Roman can tell you, there are gladiators, there are big time gladiators, and then there is THE MAN. Right now, with everything that has been going on in sport, there’s only one guy who can call himself THE MAN. His name is LeBron.

And he still hasn’t won anything. Yet.

As I type this, LeBron James and his Miami Heat are tied one game apiece against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the battle for the National Basketball Association title. What started with a prolonged lockout, followed by the announcement of a shortened season, has turned into one of the most intriguing campaigns in basketball history. Much if not most of that intrigue, though, has focused on a single player and his personal crusade to win a championship. You’ve heard of the phrase “get the monkey off his back.” Well, there has never been a larger monkey than the one that has hopped on top of LeBron. Last year, it all but crippled his ability to play in the NBA Finals. This year, once his team earned their way into the Finals again, everybody had the same questions. Will he finally win the Big One? Will he choke like he always has in the past? Or will he show up like the “King” he has always claimed to be, and still lose, because basketball is a team sport and the other team has more overall talent? Before the series started, I opted for choice number three. Now, it looks like I might have been wrong. LeBron is not only playing like a man possessed, but he has helped his team steal home-court advantage. The Heat might actually win this thing.

The intrigue surrounding LeBron’s quest for a title is easy enough to explain. Last year, he turned himself into the most hated athlete in sport. If you weren’t from Miami and you didn’t hate LeBron, you truly needed your head examined. To many sports fans, given the stage he set for himself, LeBron succeeded in making more of a fool of himself than any other athlete. And given all the competition for the title of Top Athletic Ass, that really is quite an achievement.

As a Vikings fan, I’ve endured many embarrassments. Who can forget Ontarrio Smith getting caught in the airport with a “Whizzinator” device? Or multiple players engaging in all sorts of creative sex acts with hookers on Lake Minnetonka? (Who but a Minnesota Viking would know about devices for getting off two hookers at the same time?) Every team has its own stories, its own rap sheets. Still, despite the fact that he broke no law, dishonored no promise, and failed even to insult anybody, no athlete in any sport has matched LeBron James for being the object of universal disgust.

It is no wonder that in recent weeks, the talking heads on ESPN and other sports shows have begun asking for sympathy on LeBron’s behalf. Their message is invariably the same: LeBron is a sweet young man who truly wants to be loved; he made a couple of mistakes back in the Summer of 2010, sincerely regrets them, and deserves to be able to put those mistakes behind him and play basketball without the whole world hating him. Truly, say the talking heads, what LeBron did wasn’t prudent, but it hardly merits all the bile that has been spewed in his direction.

Let’s recall the conduct at issue. First, LeBron made himself the star of an ill-fated one-hour TV special known as “The Decision.” That show had been hyped relentlessly by ESPN as a mystery that would resolve the question everyone was asking over the water cooler: where would LeBron play next year? At the end of the show, he announced to the world the now infamous words, “This fall, I am going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”

Are those hateful words? No. Are those racist, sexist, homophobic? Of course not. But the phrase “taking my talents” have come to be associated with braggadocio of the worst kind, when one considers the context in which they were delivered. (More on that shortly.)

The second event took place a few days later when LeBron and the two other athletes he hand- picked to play with in South Beach got on a stage in front of thousands of screaming Heat fans. In a moment that will forever be immortalized, LeBron boldly proclaimed that, when it comes to NBA Championships, the Heat’s three superstars will win “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven ... .”

Admittedly, say the talking heads, that wasn’t a wise thing to say, but should it be enough to make us all hate him? Should it be enough to put a perpetual target on his back? Hasn’t he been punished enough by having created so much pressure on himself and his teammates that he earned the ire of sports fans everywhere and crumbled under the pressure when he got his first chance to fight for the title during the summer of 2011? At this point, if we have any empathy at all, isn’t it time to stop hatin’ on the guy and start pulling for him?

I’ll let each of you answer those questions for yourselves. For me, though, I’m rooting for Oklahoma City and against LeBron And to explain why, all I should have to do is remind you of the whole point of bread and circuses.

I learned about being a sports fan from my dad, the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who was born in 1912. Here’s a guy who came of age during the Depression. He came from a large lower-middle-class family led by a man who had recently immigrated from Russia. He taught me that watching professional sports is supposed to be a diversion, and, within limits, it’s perfectly OK to go with our gut instincts. That means that the fan is allowed to let loose a bit and hurl insults at the athletes if that’s what floats our boats. Why do you think they used to call my father’s beloved Dodgers “Dem Bums”? Because when they’d lose, that’s what their fans would think of them. And they’d let the players know that too. That was just fine with my dad, despite how soft-spoken and proper he was in other walks of life.

As my dad explained it, professional athletes are getting handsomely paid for playing a kid’s game, and hearing a little abuse is the price they have to pay. Stated differently, our catharsis is part of the transaction. We pay our money and they get rich, but we get our catharsis. As long as we avoid hurling abuse against the athletes’ families, or avoid other below-the-belt topics, we’re cool.

Does that mean we should hate athletes? Of course not. Just because we’ve decided to root against an athlete or a team doesn’t mean we hate them. But in order for bread and circuses to work, we’ve got to figure out a way to give a damn about who wins and who loses. The reasons for such a choice are invariably arbitrary. Even the decision as to whether to root for the home team is an arbitrary one. In the case of LeBron, he committed the mortal sin of sports: he proclaimed himself the Chosen One before he did anything to deserve such an honor. He acted as though he was such a Giant Among Men that all he had to do was get together at a party with a couple of other all-stars, decide to play together with them, and the championships would flow like water from a stream. In short, he strutted around like he’s a peacock … but before he had any feathers.

In sport, the “feathers” come from having won championships in the past. And in fact, unless your name is Muhammad Ali, if you have won championships in the past, you realize that the best way to win championships in the future is not to boast so shamelessly about yourself. A little humility is always a good thing. LeBron has learned that … the hard way. He’s learned that in an age when adolescents in jock straps buy multiple mansions, refer to them as “cribs,” throw lavish parties, stay up well into the night drinking, and generally live like punks, the one thing they cannot afford to do is speak with upmost arrogance. It’s accepted that they live like kings; they cannot, like LeBron, refer to themselves as one.

So, in context, the “not one, not two, not three … not seven” routine amounted to the issuance of a challenge to sports fans everywhere. Here’s the unspoken, but clear message: “Sure, I haven’t won anything other than the Most Valuable Player award. But championships or no championships, I am The King. I’ve got the most physical talent in the league, maybe of all time. And now I’ve got myself a supporting cast of two other superstars. We’ll be so good that we challenge you to root against us. Neither you nor anyone else can stop us from winning. We’re really THAT GOOD.” If LeBron’s prediction of “not seven” but eight championships wasn’t bad enough, we had only to remember “the Decision” and how classless that was. Sports fans everywhere put ourselves in the position of fans from Northeastern Ohio. They are the ones who rooted for LeBron when he played his high school ball in Akron and his professional ball in Cleveland for the Cavaliers, who selected him at the top of the draft when he was still in high school. Imagine how pissed his fans were upon finding out that LeBron was stringing their team along with others in order to generate interest for his TV special, at the end of which he would matter-of-factly announce he was heading for sunnier pastures. Bye-bye rust belt! South Beach, here I come!

Perhaps the “Should we forgive LeBron?” question needs to be re-framed. A better question is, with whom should we be empathizing more – LeBron himself, or the legions of sports fans from Northeast Ohio whose hearts were broken when he unceremoniously dumped the Cavaliers?

To me, though, even that formulation of the issue is missing the point. It’s a point that was made in ancient Rome and fully appreciated in early-20th century Brooklyn. The great thing about being a fan of big-time sports is that we fans have a rare opportunity to put away our obligations to empathize or think rationally. We can simply relax and let our guts do the talking. Believe me, we need those kinds of opportunities if we hope to stay sane in a stressful world.

It’s a God-given right of sports fans to choose for ourselves how to categorize the teams or athletes (1) they root for, (2) they root against, or (3) they couldn’t care less about. If we’re lucky, not everyone will fall into that last category; otherwise, sports won’t be much of a diversion for us. Frankly, it almost doesn’t matter if you put competitors in category (1) or category (2); either way, it will make the competition come alive for us. Personally, I’ve always had athletes and teams that I affirmatively root against. And I enjoy having a bunch of athletes and teams that I love, including that much-maligned “cad” named Tiger Woods. I’ve always rooted for him and I’m still doing it, even knowing that he cheated on his wife. So sue me. At least Tiger has always spoken like he respected the greats of the game and, when it comes to championships, never counted any chickens before they hatched.

Then again, to my knowledge, LeBron never cheated on his fiancé. Or beat her. Or behaved in any way that entitles us to hate him personally. And indeed, I don’t hate him personally. But I sure as hell root against him on the hardwood. Why? Because I can, and I don’t have to justify why – not to you, and not even to myself. Of course, if you really truly needed to hear a reason, I could probably think of one. Strike that. Not one, not two, not three …

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