On the floor in the middle of the locker room, a Cavs trainer pulled and bent and rubbed to loosen King James' muscles. While the trainer worked on his body, the King, a set of gold-colored headphones atop his head, sang.
Ignoring the crush of journalists in the room, the King — LeBron James — engrossed himself in the music. He was in no hurry to hold court.
So as the media waited, the King rapped aloud. He proved no candidate for "American Idol," but he never claimed his greatness extended beyond business and basketball. He's crafted an image like Mike's: of class and of sophisticated cool.
But isn't class a constant? Shouldn't class be something a star athlete guards jealously?
I wish I could use the word "class" to describe any part of the King's five-minute rendition Wednesday night of a profane rap song. I don't know whose work the King sang; I do know he picked the wrong venue to perform it.
Yes, the King was in his domain, and the locker room has always been the province of the players, not the media. You hang out in locker rooms long enough and you'll hear sexist, homophobic and rude comments flow like the waters in the Amazon.
Vulgarity should have no platform when the area is open to outsiders; vulgarity, no matter the place, should not be the language of a sophisticated man.
Class is a trait he grows into, and he learns to value what a reputation as "classy" means. He doesn't turn class on or off like a water faucet. Either he has class or he doesn't. King James, a man obsessed with image, comes up short on it.
I concede I might be making too much ado about what the King did. I plead old school here.
I didn't expect to hear such foul language from the King of smooth. In rapping, he displayed his roughest edges. The lyrics were littered with the N-word and with a demeaning term for women (it rhymes with "witches"). The King kept spewing these two impolitic words as the crowd of mostly white media grew ever more uneasy.
His ambivalence angered me.
Neither word has a place in public, though I bring a Baby Boomer's perspective to the issue. Just because rappers from Tupac to Young Jeezy have used this crass language (and worse) in their work doesn't give them class. But who expects to see class in hardcore rappers?
Class doesn't come bottled in plastic; it can't be grabbed from a Walmart shelf like Gatorade or ordered at a neighborhood drugstore; and a man's reputation as the best basketball player on Earth doesn't bestow class in and of itself.
Perhaps in his private moments, perhaps when the locker room is closed to the prying eyes and attentive ears of the media, the King can use all the debasing language he likes.
An hour before a game, a gathering of mostly white men nearby, he acted the rube.
For the King rubs shoulders with the wealthiest men and women in America — Dan Gilbert,Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates and others whose net worth can keep the economically-distressed city of Cleveland solvent for years. Can you imagine the King walking into a meeting with Gilbert or inviting Buffett and his Berkshire Hathaway crowd to his mansion and having songs like, oh, Gucci Mane's "I Get Money" blaring in the background?
It would be an affront to his corporate guests; it would be classless.
I long ago lowered my expectations of star athletes. I learned over the years that many have no more class — or the moral compass — than anybody else in America. What these athletes have is a crafted image, and that image translates to dollars.
I can't judge how every journalist in the locker room felt. Perhaps white men — and they were nearly all white men — have such low expectations of a black athlete like King James that whatever he does doesn't bother them. Play the fool in public, and that's all right with them.
And King James played the 6-foot-8 minstrel to the discomfort of a white audience. He can have all the millions on his road to being a billionaire. He can have his Nike deals, his witty TV appearances, his movie; he's earned those. All the King's millions can't buy him common sense or what he should want as much as anything else: for people to judge him as a man of substance — and as a man with class.
Justice B. Hill writes regularly for NBCSports.com and is the author of the "Justice Is Served" blog.
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