LeBron James is arguably the best current basketball player on the planet. And that's a shame, since his career has been emblematic of practically everything that's wrong with the sport, and especially the media's relationship with it.
The Miami Heat star will appear in his third consecutive NBA Finals starting Thursday, having won a first elusive title last year. He has spent much of his life in the media spotlight, from ESPN televising his participation as a high school phenom in the McDonald's All-American Game to his announcement that he would leave his hometown, Cleveland, and "take my talents to South Beach" live on national television, in a special ESPN dubbed "The Decision."
At every turn, James has operated with cool efficiency but also an utterly mercenary aura. College? James was lucky enough to precede the NBA's "one and done" rule, dispensing with any need to participate at the amateur level. Loyalty to a city or franchise? Far from it, James essentially promoted himself to general manager, orchestrating a trio of all-stars with the Heat's Dwyane Wade and fellow newcomer Chris Bosh.
Perhaps foremost, James (anointed "King" long before he ever donned an NBA uniform) has finally proven himself to be a winner -- validating his move to Miami, if not the manner in which it was handled -- which tends to gloss over all ills. As the New York Times' Harvey Araton noted in a column that almost comically leapt over the NBA Finals to speculate about James' future, "even one title is enough to win back the capricious mainstream."
When it comes to setting up media storylines, James has also found the perfect opponent in terms of contrast this year in the drab San Antonio Spurs, a team whose three aging superstars - Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli - have remained with the same franchise for the duration of their careers. As the Times observed, it's a rare display of loyalty by both talent and management, in a world that often seems to shower most of its attention on city-hopping free agents and stars in flashier media markets.
Indeed, the Spurs have long been something of an anomaly, a winning team from a modest-sized town, functioning with little buzz or sizzle. The players seem to focus on basketball, oddly enough, not endorsement deals; Nike wouldn't bother to build a campaign around them.
The Spurs' return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007 has triggered expressions of admiration, true, from the likes of the Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay, but there's little doubt they are the supporting players in this upcoming primetime drama. And the NBA is no doubt breathing a huge sigh of relief it wasn't left with a mid-sized market showdown between San Antonio and Indianapolis, which extended the Heat series to seven games.
The Heat's victory not only spared the NBA from that ratings-deflating prospect but ensured the Finals will be another LeBron-a-thon, with a great plot line for the media to plumb, win or lose.
For James, who dealt with criticism and for a time occupied the bad-guy role after "The Decision," since Miami started to win (chalking up not just a championship, but ratings for frequent national TV exposure) the attention has been mostly fawning, particularly from analysts like ABC/ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy, who began touting the super-team as indestructible only a few weeks into their union.
In the eyes of others more prone to restraint and sobriety, the bitter aftertaste from the spectacle that was "The Decision" lingered awhile, with then-Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Heisler accurately dubbing ESPN "the enabler of narcissists." Then again, in this reality-TV age, far better from a marketing standpoint to be colorful jerk than a boring nice guy.
By that measure, if LeBron James' career and relationship with the media demonstrates anything, it's a variation on a line from "The Magnificent Seven. Although in this case, it's not the farmers, but only the narcissists who have won.