LeBron proper mix of fun, professionalism

MIAMI

Over the past several days, a brush fire has raged across the sports shows as everyone struggles for new conversation points about LeBron James' amazing, perhaps historic, regular season. This new debate centers on why LeBron, ahem, dunks so much in pre-games.

To which he has a two-word-explanation:

"It's fun."

And I have a five-word question:

Who filtered fun from sports?

We celebrate assassin personalities like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. We salute dour champions like Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich. We appreciate open arrogance, as long as it wins, from Barry Bonds to Jim Harbaugh.

But the rarest gift in sports is a superstar who brings a proper mix of fun and professionalism.

Who last had that gift? And don't say Shaquille O'Neal. He had an unmatched sense of humor. But he cheated fans in regular seasons his entire career — and Heat fans, in particular, after his '06 title.

Magic Johnson had it. But that ended two decades ago. That's how unusual this gift is. And it's one you should open your eyes up to enjoy now that you don't have to weigh everything LeBron does against winning a title.

Did you see him hug a fan who made one of those half-court shots so hard they both toppled over? Or, when a fan threw an errant ball to him from 10 rows up, how he threw it back to the surprised fan? And headlining the Harlem Shake video?

Besides their being a championship-seeking missile, this is why the Heat is a team of any marketer's dream. No snarling. No sulking. Not even much whining about being misunderstood, being judged by everyone, or that the media is out to get them. Even when it's out to get them.

LeBron smiles when asked about the criticism about his pre-game dunks.

"That's a small thing on my agenda, being criticized in warm-ups," he says. "Like Shane [Battier] said, 'Stop.' "

Besides, if you want to criticize anything, criticize what happens after the opening tip.

This makes a mockery of the so-serious game, doesn't it? If the Heat win the tip, LeBron hikes the ball like a football center back to Mario Chalmers (the first time they did it was on Super Bowl Sunday).

"Last game, Sacramento tried to actually steal our shotgun snap," LeBron said. "[Sacramento guard] John Salmons was offsides."

He smiled. "It was cool. It was fun. And we like to have fun."

The larger point is no one sees any lack of purpose. The Heat have won 12 straight, they're favorites to win a second-straight title and LeBron has been named Player of the Month for every month of the season.

So why in the world would anyone question him dunking in pre-game, if that's something to keep him interested in a too-long season? The dunks aren't something he choreographs or thinks about too much.

"It just happens," he says. "Honestly, I don't need props like a cape, cheerleaders or flight attendants walking out with me. I just do it. It just happens. Like in a game, you throw me a lob, I'll figure it out."

He's talked a lot about the singular change he made after that first Heat season being about returning to his love of the game. He said that started last year. But this year has freed up everyone to see it.

"I like to have fun with the game," he said. "It's who I am. And I think it brings out who we are as a team. We're a close-knit group, if we're as serious as people think we should be, and then with what everything says about us, it wouldn't be worth playing anymore.

"So we've got to have fun with each other. We've got to do what we do, play at a high level, do what coach Spo tells us, but there's no reason we can't enjoy what we're doing."

He was asked if he dunked to warm up for games. He wasn't buying such phoney baloney.

"Nah, I'm always warmed up," he said.

We're used to champions led by snarling greats like Kevin Garnett or bat-throwing competitors like Roger Clemens. We embrace humbleness like in Aaron Rodgers or do-rights like in Peyton Manning.

But a champion who has fun even in pre-game warm-ups? That seems to go against so many fans' DNA. After a while, the only thing left to say as this silly debate rages on is:

Dunk this.

 

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