Josh Nagel’s blog

June 4, 2009

LeBron’s snub of Magic, media is OK by me

LeBron James has been the trendy object of ridicule in recent days from critics in every corner who would have you believe that his refusal to shake hands with the Orlando Magic showed a lack of maturity and sportsmanship.

I say, show me a good loser and … I’ll show you a loser. If you’re a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers, or just the King himself, James’s hand-shake snubbing of the Magic and subsequent media blow-off can’t be seen as anything other than a sign of progress.

It’s about time that he showed he cares. About winning and losing, that is.

For everything James has been criticized for, from posing after every dunk, to taunting the girlfriends of an opposing team (as he did in Toronto), to leading his team in a dance number set to a Rick Astley tune during a game (the choice of Astley as dance fodder clearly the more egregious error), most of the heat he has taken has come from those who believe James’s desire to have too much fun playing a kid’s game for his King’s ransom overrides his desire to win.

The nature of this line of criticism bothers me much less what we’ve seen since Saturday’s blowout loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. Not that anyone opposes a basketball superstar having a good time, but amid all the poses and (multi) million-dollar smiles, it became easier to question what James was made of at the core.

We’re beginning to find out, now that the King has discovered that he can’t always have it his way. Opportunities to reach the NBA Finals don’t come along every day, and particularly for his current Cleveland club, the window might soon be closing.

Cleveland fans should be more offended at James’s insistence at wearing a New York Yankees cap than his flag for unsportsmanlike conduct after being ousted from the playoffs. At least the latter shows some loyalty to the domain where his high-priced butter is constantly breaded.

Losing is supposed to hurt, and James’s actions showed that he understood the gravity of the moment. Pat Riley once said the NBA playoffs are all about winning and misery, and James was miserable.

This isn’t to say I condone a lack of sportsmanship, but let’s get real. What did we really miss without seeing James stumble through a half-hearted handshake line whispering “good luck,” then humbly utter to the media that the Magic were the better team and deserved to win? He wouldn’t have meant either sentiment and, by contrast, his bolt out of the corner door represented a refreshing change of pace from this time-honored exercise in insincerity.

For all I care, he could have walked toward Dwight Howard with his hand extended, only to pull it back and yell “Psych!” as Howard extended his, and had the same effect. (This gesture, popularized and long-believed to be better left behind at the grade-school level, can prove quite invigorating when pulled on an unsuspecting co-worker).

The token handshake-and-sound-byte routine is the definition of a sports cliché. That being, if the opposite makes no sense at all, then what you are about to say, hear or see might be considered on the trite side.

In this case, it was all too easy to envision James flashing his wide smile and embracing Howard as if he had just lost a game of HORSE to his opponent down at the local Y. This, or a version close to it, is what I expected to see.

That the opposite happened was a welcome disappointment, even if it threatened to put a dent in the fender of LeBron’s good-guy reputation.

Remember, some of the NBA’s most esteemed Hall of Famers are celebrated because they were great players, not great sportsmen. The relationship between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson is a prime example of this; their parallel careers were built on championship pedigrees and mutual respect.

If you’re waiting to see some display of love lost between them, check in another 30 years from now and see if anything has changed. This was never more transparent than a couple months ago during the Final Four, when a major effort was made to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Bird-Magic match-up in the national championship game that catapulted college basketball into the conscience of the sports-minded public.

In the days leading up to the 2009 Final Four in Detroit, Magic was all grins and memories as he recounted Michigan State’s historic win over Bird’s Indiana State club. Bird, long a reluctant interviewee on the topic, was all grimaces and misery.

He used the forum to lambaste the fraternization of professional sports as we know them, longing for simpler times in which running into an opponent on a pick-up court in the off-season came with the understanding that his ball would not be voluntarily returned should it end up on the wrong side of the court. No help asked, none given, and that was the way it worked.

Pressed specifically for his thoughts on that historic 1979 title game, Bird made it clear that his memories are far from pleasant. He said he didn’t play as well as he had hoped, and that the pain of the loss sticks with him to this day. If you saw the interview and the pain in his face, you believed him.

However, lest he be re-nicknamed the “Grumpy Hick From French Lick,” Bird awkwardly agreed to take part in a “commemorative” jump ball against Magic to celebrate the anniversary of their historic NCAA title game. But if you watch the replay, you’ll note Magic is the only one smiling.

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