Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Choice of the Chosen One

I didn't watch the LeBron special on ESPN Thursday night. I had planned to at least catch it on radio, but since I was on the radio myself at the time, I had to modify those plans. I was broadcasting a high school baseball game between the Spartans of West Bend West High School and the Cedarburg Bulldogs. It was senior night at West Bend, the last conference home game. The Spartans had already wrapped up the conference championship before the game began, but they did have some unfinished business. They had lost only one game all year, and that was to Cedarburg.

Cedarburg took a 4-0 lead, and then they were up 6-1, before one of the three Spartan seniors hit a solo home run to make it 6-2. Things were still looking bleak going into the sixth inning (the second-to-last in high school baseball), but the Spartans scored four to tie it. And that's the way it stayed for a long time. Most high school games last less than two hours (which is why I had every intention of catching the LeBron show), but this one ended up going well past the three-hour mark. Both teams had excellent relief pitching and made some terrific (sometimes gave-saving) defensive plays over the next hour.

Finally in the bottom of the 11th inning, the same senior who had a home run earlier in the game (a kid named Eric) came up. In the middle of his at bat he fouled a pitch off. When I looked back at him he was down on one knee, in obvious pain. He limped over to his dugout and was thrown a sports drink. It became apparent to everyone that he had a cramp. He took a chug, went back to the batter's box, and lined a single to center field. Two outs later, he was at second base, and the Spartan batter hit a grounder to the right side. When the Cedarburg fielder threw wildly past the first baseman, Eric came around third, and he started cramping again. He stumbled toward home plate, and then belly flopped on it, scoring the winning run in dramatic but less-than-convincing fashion. Instead of being mobbed by his teammates, he was given some distance as he lay on the ground and writhed in a combination of joy and agony after winning his final home conference game.

I did a short post-game show, and as I was taking my headsets off a little bit after 9:00 p.m. Central, I turned to a couple of guys still sitting in the stands behind me. I asked if they heard where LeBron said he was going. One guy shook his head, while the other stared at me blankly as if I had asked him if he heard what time the Martians were landing.

It would be very easy for me to use this high school baseball game as a counterpoint to the much-maligned LeBron show, to use one as an illustration of all that is right in sports and the other as a sign of all that is wrong with sports. I could easily join the cacophony of critics, claiming that LeBron's prime time announcement was a travesty to the sensibilities of middle America, that anyone with a true sense of how to appreciate sports was sitting on a set of bleachers somewhere watching kids battle through cramps (or eschewing ESPN for some small town radio station, listening to the likes of me intoning about the exploits of high schoolers).

But in the final analysis, I don't think LeBron needs to apologize for anything. I'm unmoved by the chorus of voices accusing him of being egotistical or "vainglorious" (a word that, incredibly, I saw in multiple places). I'm unmoved by Will Leitch's already much-circulated article in which he asked "Why are we watching these awful people?" and histrionically lamented that "the NBA, the hunger laid bare and the wound gaping for all to see, may never be the same. And the fear is that we won't be the same. The fear is that we've truly seen the ugly, dark heart of sports, and we won't be able to come back." I'm unmoved by a personal e-mail I received in which someone asserts that "it is one of the moments that does make you step back and just look at the barrenness of it all."

I'm unmoved because nobody said the same two weeks earlier when the NBA held their player draft. Granted it wasn't all about one individual on June 24, but there are a lot of similarities. Fans waited in suspense while teams announced who would be playing for them in the years to come. There was a sense of spectacle, with tall man donning baseball caps that clashed with suits, ESPN commentators interviewing athletes and debating and discussing with each other, and frequent commercial breaks (though commercials on draft night didn't benefit any charitable causes). We're just so used to rituals like this we don't even notice the absurdity anymore. It sometimes takes the perspective of a non-sports fan to point out the obvious. When I explained the LeBron James situation to my mom (who couldn't have told you where the King has been playing for the last seven years any more than most of us can name the Prime Minister of Lesotho), she was equally unmoved by his supposed show of egotism. Her exact quote: "Isn't that what sports is always like?"

So it's not that fans are opposed to the idea of sports being made a spectacle. Heck, LeBron himself has long been a spectacle-- he who was put on magazine covers on high school, he was declared "The Chosen One" at the age of 16, he had a biography written about him before he played in an NBA game, and he has individually accounted for millions and millions of dollars in ticket sales and merchandising revenue for not only the Cleveland Cavaliers, but for the entire league he plays for. And in recent days, he picked up over 400,000 Twitter followers almost immediately after opening an account.

The evidence above would seem to indicate that LeBron not only should have gotten away with his TV stunt without criticism, but that he should have been rewarded with even more attention and adulation. Factor in that he took a pay cut (he could have made more in salary with the Cavs and more endorsement money with the Knicks or Nets) in order to play for a championship, and this should have been PR gold. What went wrong?

There are two problems here. One is that by all accounts, the show was ultimately boring. Maybe sixty minutes was too long; maybe if he had Magic Johnson's charisma and smile it would have been more appealing; maybe not having some vuvuzelas playing in the background doomed the show to tedium. In our society, asking for our time and then not giving us entertainment in return for that investment is downright sinful.

But the other sin that LeBron committed pre-dates the age of entertainment. While our culture is programmed to manufacture heroes, we still don't want them getting too cocky. In many ways, we still take our cues from the ancient Greeks. At the first sign of hubris, we want to see our heroes learn humility. We want to see their wax wings melt. It's okay for ESPN to show your face all day long, until you make the move to request that they show it. It's okay for someone else to call you "The Chosen One," but when you start acting like you are special, you can expect a backlash.

But whether or not LeBron James wins a ring in Miami, I don't see his Nikes melting anytime soon. His story isn't the real tragedy here. The tragedy belongs to anyone who chooses to let this incident have any bearing on their ability to appreciate a good game. After all, there is more than one way to cross home plate to score the winning run.


Anonymous Tim said...

Very well written. I'm still not convinced that being disappointed in the public spectacle is a "tragedy." There's a huge difference between celebrating someone else and celebrating yourself.

But if I was disappointed in the Lebron show (and it hardly ruined my day), that was more than made up for by the hard work and success of Wes Matthews. There's certainly nothing wrong with appreciating athletic ability for its own sake, and doubtlessly people will still be awed by a Lebron highlight. But for me it's a lot richer when there's a strong character to go with it.

1:24 PM  

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