MIAMI - Zydrunas Ilgauskas has seen it change once.
“Everybody loved him,” Ilgauskas said.
That was 2003, the year LeBron James was drafted straight out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron to play for the nearby Cleveland Cavaliers. That was when James was the NBA’s freshest face, his limitless potential and positive image — even after some controversy in high school — inspiring Nike to sign him to a $90 million endorsement contract before he had even participated in an NBA training camp. That was before James emerged as a legitimate superstar, took the Cavaliers to the NBA finals, won two MVP awards … and then announced during a one-hour national television special that he was taking his talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat.
That before James became a pariah to many in his home state and the most polarizing active athlete in the nation, his villain status cemented for many when the Heat hailed his arrival with a garish, raucous signing ceremony and he responded by flexing and promising “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven titles.”
Now James is closer to a title than he has ever been, making his first trip to the NBA finals since 2007, and with a much stronger supporting cast — including a sidekick (Dwyane Wade) who has already won an NBA finals MVP.
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Will he start winning in the court of public opinion again?
“Everywhere else but Northeast Ohio, yes,” said Ilgauskas, the 15-year veteran who joined James in Miami. “Because the move, it makes sense. He said it was hard to leave home, he didn’t want to leave, but it was all about the winning. He wanted to win, and this presented the best opportunity. So if that comes true, then there’s not much you can say. Because he got the job done, it puts a stamp on it.”
Steve Kerr, a five-time NBA champion who covered the Eastern Conference finals for TNT, agreed that, for many, the ends will justify the means.
“Then he breaks into the all-time great list,” Kerr said. “You can’t get there until you win a title. I think it changes everything for him.”
“I think a lot of that stuff will go away,” Kerr said. “It will never go away completely. But if he goes on and wins a title, any self-respecting basketball fan has to acknowledge his greatness, because the guy is a phenomenal player. The way he went about it was what got him into trouble. The decision itself was fine, he was a free agent, how can you blame him? He goes and plays with (Chris) Bosh and (Dwyane) Wade. They’re proving why they did it. They just didn’t handle it the right way at the time, and that started the avalanche.”
The decision, lower case.
The Decision, upper case.
The decision, as in choice, to leave Cleveland for Miami isn’t what bothered many as much as “The Decision,” the self-aggrandizing way he went about revealing it.
It hasn’t mattered to many that the ESPN event raised more than $2 million for charity, much of it used for computers at Boys and Girls Clubs around the country. Nor has it mattered that it reportedly wasn’t James’ idea; in his book, interviewer Jim Gray revealed that it was a collaborative creation between himself and the network. Nor has it mattered that James, over the course of the season, has repeatedly conceded that he could have handled the situation differently, and gone to even greater pains of late to explain.
Late on May 12, after the Heat eliminated the Boston Celtics in the second round, James emoted:
And, then, late on May 26, after James advanced to the NBA finals for the first time since 2007, he elaborated further:
“I understand a lot of the backlash that came with me going to Miami, but I understand also that I did what was best for me, what was best for my family and what was best for me being a professional athlete. I understand what this league is all about. I wanted to team up with some guys that I understood that would never die down in the moment. … You know, I'm happy. In anyone's job, they always try to find some way they can do their job and be happy doing it. And that's where I am right now in my life, as far as on the court and off the court.”
Where is the country, though?
Happy that he’s happy?
Happy that the team he fronts, the Heat, is on the verge of making good on its preseason promise, and promises?
PBT: Have the Grizzlies figured out San Antonio, or will tonight's Game 3 yield another win for the Spurs?
Are you a witness?
A look at the highs and lows of LeBron James' career.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
DPS: Is it really all about the rings?
DPS: Dan Patrick talks about Phil Jackson's comments about starting a team with Bill Russell now because of his championships and brings up the great question of, if it's all about championships, how come we don't talk about guys like Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey or John Havlicek who all have multiple rings?
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