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Thursday, March 1, 2012
Time to stop loathing LeBron

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

By the time LeBron James committed the basketball high crime and treason of passing the ball rather than taking the potential game-winning shot for the East team in the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, the flash mob that always pops up whenever LeBron screws up had moved on down the street and disappeared around the corner without me. And I had no interest in opting back in.

In athletic terms, James isn't vastly different to me than Alex Rodriguez was before his first World Series ring, or Peyton Manning was before he finally proved he could beat the New England Patriots and go on to win the big one. People said a lot of bad things about them, too, before they won titles, and now they don't say the same things anymore.

The hate, disgust, mockery, annoyance -- whatever you want to call it -- reached an expiration date. And it's about time for that to happen with James, too, if he continues to be the best player on the NBA's best team and finally wins his first NBA title this year.

LeBron James
The All-Star Game didn't end well for LeBron James. But remember: It was just the All-Star Game.

Like A-Rod and Manning, James is what he is: a great talent with some flaws in his makeup. He has always been thus. So why act as if it's some kind of revelation worthy of fresh contempt when he interrupts the historically good season he's having and relapses the way he did at the end of the All-Star Game?

James' one-on-one endgame matchup with Kobe Bryant was riveting theater even before Bryant, who demanded to guard James in the last quarter, started screaming in his face, profanely daring him to try, just try, to make the winning shot over him with seconds left to play and the other All-Stars, the Amway Center crowd and the television audience looking on.

But the moment became even more memorable when it was learned that Bryant, still the league's most lethal closer, was playing with a just-broken nose and a concussion he picked up in a hard foul by Dwyane Wade -- LeBron's teammate in Miami and the player to whom LeBron tried to get the ball rather than run down the clock to take the last shot himself.

Blake Griffin intercepted the ill-advised cross-court pass.

When the East got it back for a final time, James wasn't even an option to win the game. He was told to inbound the ball. It was Wade who took, and missed, the last shot.

Then -- LeBron could learn from this -- Wade laughed.

As though he was big enough and secure enough to handle failing.

Several of the other All-Stars on the court looked dumbstruck that James lacked the guts to put his neck on the line in the clutch, even in a meaningless contest no one will remember anyway. What makes James' balk even worse is that he already had made six 3-pointers in the game.

"That [pass] is one I'd like to have back," James admitted.

So it was another whiff in a big moment by James. But forever damning? No. Manning used to rake the rest of the NFL, then see the Patriots and suddenly play as if he had been lobotomized. He got past it. A-Rod used to squeeze the sawdust out of the bat in big moments. Then, for one magnificent Yankees postseason, nearly everything went right for him.

LeBron James
Another side of the LeBron story: the LeBron James Family Foundation, which donated equipment and a new baseball diamond to the Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida last weekend.

James' All-Star Game brain lock isn't as loathsome as the stagecraft that led to The Decision. It isn't as ridiculous as James making his only visit of the season to Cleveland a few weeks ago and saying he wouldn't rule out returning there to play when his Miami contract ends. That was absurd. Why even open up that bag of cobras again? Because he likes to be liked? Craves attention? Again, we know, we know.

But look: It's also true that James is playing the best basketball of his life. He's playing team basketball, winning basketball, unselfish basketball. He never seemed to go through one of those young buck phases like Kobe, Allen Iverson and a lot of others did to prove they could pile up the points and win scoring titles. He has always known he'll be measured by rings, the toughest yardstick of all. He has always tried to play an all-around game like Oscar Robertson. Yet he continues to get treated like the second coming of Wilt Chamberlain instead -- nobody likes Goliath, and all that.

I hit a personal expiration date on my ambivalence about James because of something that happened four days before the All-Star Game. The Knicks and Jeremy Lin traveled to Miami for the first time with the comet tail of Linsanity attention trailing behind them.

Did you see how James threw himself into the game that night?

He was so into every possession -- even on defense -- you'd have thought they were playing for their lives rather than playing in their getaway game before All-Star Weekend. His head was on a swivel. He played with an almost manic intensity, an admirable seriousness of purpose. All the Heat players did. On both ends of the court, Miami was devastating. And James was right there, driving most of it.

The Heat are turning into a promise realized this season, and finally looking like everything they were supposed to be when James and Wade and Chris Bosh got together. To take the last step, like Manning and A-Rod before him, it feels as if James is going to have to find a way to stop caring so much that it paralyzes him in big spots, same as they did.

It's doubtful James will ever be the lethal closer Bryant is. But James is the best player on the best team in the NBA. Not bad, right? He worked with Hakeem Olajuwon in the offseason to improve his post-up game.

LeBron James
One of the reasons LeBron James might be underappreciated: He isn't necessarily a points-first player.

It's been tiresome at times to hear James and Bosh talk about how tough it is to encounter so many people rooting against them. But they're not lying. They are resented, far and wide. Nobody more than James.

But there was one more reason I stepped back when the Kick LeBron mob reassembled Sunday. In a short, humanizing interview TV analyst Jon Barry conducted on Friday night of All-Star Weekend, James was asked about an effort he has joined to help stop kids from dropping out of high school. (The stats say it happens every 26 seconds in America, a fact James said he found unfathomable).

Barry closed out their talk by telling James, "It's nice to see you back to the guy you were" -- a veiled reference to how he had lost himself by the time his stammering "decision" came down -- and James seemed genuinely touched and caught off guard. He just nodded and told Barry "Thank you" for recognizing it. James clearly feels as if he's coming out the other end of a tunnel now, too.

So hate James if you like, with no expiration date in sight. And dwell on the backsliding he did in the All-Star Game if you must. But if you do, know that it obscures the new part of the story James is writing this season.

Like Wilt and Oscar, A-Rod and Manning before him, James isn't perfect. But, even as a work in progress, he's still a transfixing show.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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