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Venkataraman: The many faces of LeBron James

Few players in the NBA command as much attention as LeBron James has over the course of his storied career. From making the jump to the NBA straight from high school at the tender age of 19, through his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, his ill-fated “Decision” to take his talents to South Beach, his feel-good return to his home state, through his 13 years in the league — few players have had every action and every move they make hyper-analyzed by a rabid media.

In a way, it has been this way for LeBron from the moment he was anointed the “Chosen One” by a Sports Illustrated cover way back when he was in high school. The weight of the limelight, of immense expectations, of millions upon millions of fans putting their hearts (and their money) on the line with the belief that you will play well; that has to wear down on a person.

This long-term view of James’ career precedes my article here because it is a useful framing device for all the unsavoriness that I am about to dissect. Namely: the idea that LeBron James, the person, and LeBron James, the persona, are two very different people, and as congenial, friendly and personable as the latter is, the former is not nearly as likable.

One of the biggest illusions of the last quarter-century of NBA play is that the league’s superstars have always gotten along well with their teammates. With the exception of Bill Russell, whose teammates would have walked on flaming coals barefoot for him, the pantheon of the Hall of Fame features many players who were testy towards or openly feuded with teammates — Michael Jordan once fought a feisty Steve Kerr in practice, Oscar Robertson terrified his fellow players to such a degree that they were scared to shoot in big moments, Larry Bird had a passive-aggressive relationship with Kevin McHale and Kobe Bryant had a well-known feud with Shaq and has never been shy about expressing disgust with his teammates.

LeBron James should easily count as one of those players, even though the mainstream media never reports on his own clashes with teammates. His issues with older teammate Delonte West became the stuff of TMZ legend but were never really reported on by sports media at large. He had problems with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, but being under the thumb of notorious disciplinarian Pat Riley limited the publication of these issues.

The most obvious clash has come in his second stint in Cleveland, with Kevin Love being a particularly juicy target. From passive-aggressive tweets and all-but-Kevin social media pictures to…interesting…word choices in postgame interviews, LeBron’s feud with Love has been one of the more intriguing subplots of the last two seasons. And yet, it took the firing of head coach David Blatt this season for the public at large to become aware of LeBron’s behind-the-scenes tactics.

Many superstars have battled reputations as coach-killers or aloof players. Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, even Magic Johnson, at some point or another in their careers, were construed by the media at large as stubborn or selfish players, incapable of getting along with their coaches or their fellow teammates. Deserved or not, these reputations festered like the scent of dead woodchucks under the porch — once assigned, they are quite difficult to undo.

Somehow, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, until this season LeBron James escaped this reputation. Let us review the facts: Upon coming into the league, James was saddled with Paul Silas at head coach; Silas was fired before the end of the 2003-04 season. Next up was Mike Brown; Brown did better than Silas, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, but could not lead the Cavs to a title and was let go around the same time James left for Miami.

In Miami, LeBron openly sparred with Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley’s hand-picked head coach, before (according to rumors) being told to put up and shut up by Riley. Under Spoelstra, the Miami Heat won two titles and reached four consecutive NBA Finals before James took his talents back to Ohio (while Spoelstra remains the coach in Miami).

In Cleveland, before James even committed to coming back, the ownership hired Israeli league coaching legend David Blatt. Blatt took the Cavs to the Finals in his first year in charge before being unceremoniously let go midseason this year, having compiled the best record in the Eastern Conference at the time of his firing. His replacement, Tyronn Lue, is a former player who is known to be in James’ good books.

When compiled into one dossier, the evidence is pretty damning — James does NOT get along with coaches very well. Want more evidence? Merely watch the highlights of the Cavs game from last night — Coach James rears his ugly head, contradicting Tyronn Lue’s instructions, wearing generally exasperated emotions on his face, and otherwise behaving like a grade-A prima donna. It is ugly for the game and especially ugly for Cleveland’s chances of keeping James when he becomes a free agent this coming offseason.

LeBron James is undoubtedly a pantheonic player, one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball in any era. However, while players like Jordan and Bryant are ruthlessly torn down for their personality quirks and competitive natures, LeBron James, by nature of his almost dual personality, escapes much of this ill feeling, even though the evidence suggests he has at least as much mental baggage as the others who have come before him.

Perhaps LeBron is feeling the window of opportunity closing, as the Warriors chase NBA history and his own team can’t seem to get unstuck. Perhaps he feels the weight he has put on himself, to “win one for the ‘Land,” as he constantly refers to championship-starved Cleveland. Or perhaps he finally feels his basketball mortality, having crossed the age-30 mark and with Father Time breathing down his neck. Whatever the reason, this season has opened many eyes, mine included, to the true nature of LeBron James. And the character behind the curtain is a very different animal from the one that takes the court.

 

Ask Vignesh why he has dead woodchucks under his porch at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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