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SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE? THAT TIME HAS COME, LEBRON
A legacy bolstered by a unique double — social justice leadership and his fourth title — has regressed into dangerous tweets, geopolitical hypocrisy, an ankle injury and whining as the Lakers struggle
He never grew up. That is the only explanation for how LeBron James, so astute last year in campaigning against voter suppression and protesting the murder of George Floyd, has become such a social failure in 2021. I called him the Sportsperson of the Year as recently as December.
Today, he has morphed into someone I don’t recognize or respect, as if his identity has been hacked by … wait, is this the work of Al-G’s Goon Squad in the upcoming `’`’Space Jam 2’’ production? Regretfully, it is not.
James appears to be suffering from megalomania. He is so driven by his newly acquired power and influence, he acts via impulse, like a child, instead of thinking through the potential consequences of his statements. The police officers who’ve protected him throughout his very public life, such as when racist graffiti was sprayed on the gate of his Los Angeles mansion, now want NBA commissioner Adam Silver to investigate him. And why not? When James tweeted, ``’’YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY’’ — beside an hourglass emoji and a photo of Nicholas Reardon, the Ohio police officer who fired the shots that killed a knife-wielding Ma’Khia Bryant — he struck me as a quick-trigger activist using a hand-held device to incite violence against police.
The fact he quickly deleted the tweet suggests James lacks the maturity and gravitas to be a responsible crusader. When O.J. Simpson displays more common sense, asking James to ``pick his battles’’ and wait for more details before tweeting, it’s clearly time to minimize LeBron as an American leader. Wrote James, after removing the tweet: “``I’m so damn tired of seeing Black people killed by police. I took the tweet down because its being used to create more hate — This isn’t about one officer. it’s about the entire system and they always use our words to create more racism. I am so desperate for more ACCOUNTABILITY.”
I am desperate for more ACCOUNTABILITY from James, who should be emphasizing peace and calm amid the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict. As it is, he comes off as a brand-fixated hypocrite, refusing to condemn China for human rights violations because he sells a lot of sneakers there and knows ``Space Jam 2’’ awaits distribution this summer across a country of 1.45 billion people, give or take a few political prisoners. Remember when front-office executive Daryl Morey, then with Houston and now in Philadelphia, supported Hong Kong in its rebuke of the Chinese government? James attacked Morey, saying, “``I believe he wasn't educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed — not only financially (but) physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too."
It’s difficult not to laugh at the utter disingenuity here. Not educated about the situation at hand? So many people could have been harmed? Be careful what we tweet and say? Each claim also can be made about James’ “``YOU’RE NEXT’’ tweet. Blatantly, and embarrassingly, he contradicted his own advice. The National Fraternal Order of Police certainly noticed, posting this tweet: ``’’@KingJames, with his vast resources & influence, should educate himself and, frankly, has a responsibility to do so, on the facts before weighing in. This is disgraceful & extremely reckless. The officer saved a young girl's life. No amount of gaslighting will change that fact."
Nor did James do himself favors in Los Angeles, where a union representing LAPD officers wants to know if he violated league policies. There is no chance Silver, the free-speech champion, will address the matter publicly and irritate his meal ticket. But the local goodwill generated last fall by LeBron, who led the Lakers to a championship in the Disney Bubble, has subsided in a market that generally views him as a rented mercenary after Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and other legends played entire careers with the purple and gold.
Little has gone well for James since the start of the new season, which tipped off only 72 days after he won his fourth NBA title. Stubbornly, rather than plotting strategic early rest like other superstars, he insisted on playing every night — and suffered a high right ankle sprain that cost him six weeks, while title-tandem partner Anthony Davis was missing nine weeks with a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis. Both returned, but the Lakers are woefully out of sync as the playoffs approach, their chemistry in tatters as multiple losses mount. Once atop the Western Conference at 21-6, they might sink so far in the standings that they’ll have to win a play-in series — the league’s new device to curtail tanking and maintain interest in more markets — to avoid elimination.
Of course, Mr. Impulse fired away again, this time whining about the league.
“``Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired,’’ James said of the play-in format.
Whoever would be Silver.
A title repeat looks impossible at this point, with guard Dennis Schroder out 10-14 days due to COVID-19 protocols. It’s unlikely James and Davis will stay setback-free through a postseason that won’t end until late July, with James sitting out the final six minutes of a Sunday loss and Monday night’s back-to-back against Denver with soreness in his problem ankle. Just as he should accept Nikola Jokic as the presumptive league MVP, James should prioritize health over record and anticipate a play-in assignment against, oh, Steph Curry and the Warriors. Or Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. Or Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. Or, if the Lakers do keep the No. 6 seed, a matchup against Jokic and the Nuggets.
In all scenarios, James won’t be the sentimental favorite.
`”I definitely want to get healthy. Not only for myself, but for our team," he said. “``I need to make sure my ankle is where it was before the injury. I've got to be smart with it. It doesn't matter at the end of the day if I'm not 100 percent or close to 100 percent. It don't matter where we land."
Seems Kyle Kuzma, his younger teammate, has a better perspective at the moment. The Lakers are disjointed, with veteran Marc Gasol upset about reduced playing time after the signing of big man Andre Drummond. ``”I just don't think we're connected right now. I think we're unhealthy and just not good enough," Kuzma said after successive home losses to Sacramento and Toronto. “``We're just not together as a whole — team, staff, everything. … I don't know, man. It's just very tough. It's just an unfortunate situation. It's tough, man. It's just tough, very tough. I'm not sure what to do."
Said Davis, whose big buckets allowed the Lakers a breathing-room victory Monday: “The only way is up. We really can’t get any lower than this.’’
Is there a leader in the house? “Our team,’’ coach Frank Vogel said, ``is a little shook.’’
For now, LeBron James has landed in a manure pile of his own doing. A legacy that never had looked shinier — a pandemic championship wrapped around a social justice triumph — now is smeared in pablum. It wasn’t long ago when he was sprawled outside a locker room in central Florida, soaked with champagne and smoking a cigar as he spoke to his mother via FaceTime. As detailed by NBA writer Ben Golliver in his new book, “`Bubbleball,’’ James told her on the call: “``Mama! Mama! Hey, Mama! I had to leave the locker room. They’re going crazy right now. I had to get away. There’s nothing that can stop me because this s— is nothing compared to the s— you had to go through.”
“God is good,” Gloria James replied.
“God is good,” her son said. “God is great. I hope I continue to make you proud, Mom.”
It’s stunning how quickly his world flipped in a matter of, what, six months? At least he has the new movie.
Er, never mind. It isn’t an original, having been made a quarter-century ago by Michael Jordan, who won six championships in six Finals tries and never let maniacal political leanings twist his life into undoable knots.
Jay Mariotti, called `”the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.