I was a freshman in college and a group of us were having some off-topic conversation at the end of an American studies class on science fiction as cultural history (which, I know, I know, sounds like an eminently useless American studies class, but which was nevertheless fascinating and awesome), and the subject of Anna Kournikova came up. I think we were talking about athletes as celebrities. In any event, my 18-year-old self pffft-ed at the mention of her name and said something like “yeah, she sucks!” This was me, I guess, expressing my distaste at style overtaking substance; her picture seemed to be everywhere that fall, and she had just done some music video, despite the fact that she hadn’t accomplished anything of note on the court. At which point the professor stopped me and said, “She sucks?” with an arched eyebrow. He was a serious fellow and all of us desperately wanted his approval, so I sort of gulped and said “Well, I mean she’s ranked 50th or something.” He paused a second and replied, “In the world.”
Which brings me to LeBron James. I was in the wood-paneled locker room of my buddy’s fancy New York gym when “The Decision” originally aired. It was up on every screen in the room. And when it became clear that the 59 minutes of fluff were out of the way and that LeBron would soon announce the eponymous, every dude in the room sort of stopped what they were doing and watched. When King James said he was taking his talents to South Beach, the universal reaction of the locker room — young and old, black and white — was a groan of derision. Sure, a lot of them probably wanted him for the Knicks, but the fact was that we were witnessing a man who had booked a bloc of prime-time television for the sole purpose of breaking the hearts of an entire city — Cleveland. And even in the minutes that followed, the chatter in that locker room prefigured what would become all the major story lines of the season to come: that LeBron was a coward, and wanted to hide behind Bosh and Wade; that the Heat were now the evilest of evil empires, the team to root against; that if they failed to win a championship it would make LeBron the lynchpin in one of the most spectacular chokes of all time.
And so it was! Look, I’m a Yankee fan, and in the interest of penance I root for as many underdogs as I can find. Like everybody else in the country, I was pulling for the Mavs, and like everybody else I am taking pleasure in LeBron’s ego writing checks his body can’t cash.* But surely calling James “nothing but a loser”, as Esquire’s Scott Raab did today, is taking it a bit too far (the piece contains the phrase “the Whore of Akron’s flaccid legacy”. . . .) The fact is that James is the child of a teenage mom and an absentee, ex-con dad who is now a millionaire many times over, and one of the five or ten best ever to play the game. He is also, quite scarily, still in his prime. He’s yet to prove he can carry a team, and he’s got a world-historic PR problem, but he’s not, in any way, shape, or form, a loser. He’s not even Anna Kournikova.
*Most tellingly, the Heat were outscored in the series while LeBron was on the floor, and outscored the Mavs while he was on the bench.