Tuesday, June 2, 2009

LeBron criticized over 'handshakegate'

I don't need to do so, but I'll admit it: I'm not a fan of LeBron James. Most of it has to do with the fact that the Wizards can't get by James and the Cavaliers in the playoffs, but that's not the whole issue. I've written about my dislike of James and his "too cool for school" attitude before, but what he did this past week was a little different: it appears that he actually did something in the spur of the moment when he angrily walked off the floor instead of staying to shake hands with the Magic after being knocked out of the playoffs.

Was he mad? No question. But did he do the wrong thing? Probably. And for the first time that I can recall, James was openly criticized for something.

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wrote the most critical article about James that I could find (and probably the one that I enjoyed the most). Here's a sample:

LeBron doesn’t want to win more than Michael Jordan did, but Jordan could stop and shake a winner’s hand. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird could, too. Julius Erving did. Isiah Thomas led a walkout after losing to the Chicago Bulls after winning two NBA titles, but Joe Dumars never followed him. He stayed and shook Jordan’s hand, the way Jordan had always shook his when the Pistons had beaten him.

“M.J. had stopped, shook my hand and hugged me three straight years that we had beaten them in the playoffs,” Dumars once told me. “There was no way I was walking off the court without shaking the Bulls’ hands.”

Within the Cavs, someone needed to tell James that he embarrassed himself and the franchise, but that won’t happen. They’re too scared of him. Most league executives with knowledge of Cleveland’s operation believe it’s far more of an ownership issue, than basketball operations.

And if that wasn't enough, Wojnarowski wasn't done (thankfully):

The Cavaliers are terrified of James. When you’re around them, it’s sometimes embarrassing to watch the way they tip-toe and grovel with him. In their defense, that’s how James wants it. As a childhood prodigy, that’s all LeBron’s ever known. The Cavs are at his mercy until he becomes a free agent in July of 2010, and that isn’t going to change. There’s no chance that he signs an extension this summer, because that would be the end of the drama, the intrigue and LeBron James isn’t letting that go away.

He's right. There's no question that James is the league's top talent, but he still has some maturing to do. And he obviously loves every moment in the spotlight.

Even NBA commissioner David Stern isn't particularly happy with James:

In an appearance on "The Herd with Colin Cowherd," Stern acknowledged he was not pleased that James, the league's reigning MVP, didn't meet with the media, or shake hands with the Orlando Magic, following the Game 6 loss Saturday night.

Noting that in the recent past, other players and teams have been fined for failing to meet the league's media guidelines, Cowherd asked why James had not been fined.

"I'm in the process of making a phone call or two now to talk to LeBron ... so I don't want to speak to that at this moment," Stern said.

"So you're not happy?" Cowherd asked.

"I think that's fair to say," Stern replied.

I don't think that James should be fined, but that's a separate issue.

And not surpisingly, Michael Wilbon came to James's defense with an interesting excuse:

These are the kinds of lessons that aren't learned in AAU ball, where the star is simply catered to, but college, where the coach has the position and the authority to say, "Son, go back out there and shake their hands or you'll get splinters in your butt for the next five games." LeBron, who came to the NBA straight out of high school, didn't get that. If Kobe Bryant had walked off the court without shaking hands, two straight years in the conference finals, no less, he'd have been taken apart in the court of public opinion.

Still, I'm reluctant, like most people, to be too rough on LeBron simply for the reason that he's been so consistently appropriate and well-reasoned. He's been everything you could want a star player to be in the NBA. I've had several conversations with him over the course of the 2008-09 season, one of them here in Washington, lengthy and wide-ranging, and it's not just that he's engaging, which he is. But he's thoughtful. He's taken the time, unlike a lot of famous players, to thoroughly examine the history of the league before he arrived in it.

Yeah, whatever. If not shaking hands after a game is the worst thing that James ever does, that will be pretty remarkable. But I have a hard time believing that he decided to storm off the court just because he didn't have the proper coaching. Who, at any point in James's basketball career, has had enough authority to sit him on the bench at any point? I seriously doubt that would have ever happened no matter which coach he played for in college. He would have been such a huge star that any coach would have been publicly roasted for disciplining royalty. But again, that doesn't really matter.

As far as my opinion, I'm a bit torn. I didn't play in high school or in college, but I can't remember a rec league game when I ever just stormed out of the gym without shaking hands with the opposing team. I wasn't happy about shaking hands after losing, but I always did. But when I'm playing pickup ball, my attitude can be pretty terrible, and I can often be hard to talk to if my team loses or things aren't going right on the court. It can take me a little while to cool down, but once that happens, I'm usually good to go.

I don't think James is a horrible person, but he may be a bad sport. And that's not the worst thing in the world -- unless, of course, you're supposed to be the face of the NBA like James is. So, yeah, he might want to work on that.

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