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DIANE PUCIN ON SPORTS MEDIA

Rafael Nadal and LeBron James handle agony of defeat quite differently

The basketball star avoids media after Cleveland's elimination from playoffs, proving he has much to learn from tennis star, who takes his lumps after shocking loss at French Open.

June 01, 2009|DIANE PUCIN

There was Rafael Nadal on Sunday after a shockingly disappointing upset loss to Robin Soderling at the French Open answering questions in two languages and manfully owning his disappointment and emotions.

There wasn't LeBron James on Saturday night after his Cleveland Cavaliers exited the NBA playoffs being reminded that having the best regular-season record means, well, not so much after the playoffs start. There wasn't any James at the postgame media podium. That dirty work was left to lesser teammates. There wasn't any James with a headset on talking to the TNT studio show stars. Sideline reporter Craig Sager told us James had slunk out of Orlando's Amway Arena with his mother and without a backward glance.

Hey, LeBron.

You want to be a star and have puppets cavorting in your honor on television commercials? You let talk ebb and flow about how you need the bigger stage that New York might provide in another year when you are a free agent and everyone will beg for your otherworldly basketball talent and indisputable will to win?

Then show up when it hurts too, when the world isn't being operated like a, well, puppet on a string in your favor.

In its way, Nadal's early departure from the tournament in which he had won 31 straight matches was just as big a deal as James' premature exit from an NBA playoffs in which most all the world was hoping for Kobe against LeBron. Nike ads, VitaminWater commercials, the puppets, all humanity seemed to demand a Lakers-Cleveland Finals, and the Cavaliers let them down.

But whatever limelight moments tennis gets in this country right now mostly center on the enthralling rivalry between Nadal and his personality and game-type opposite Roger Federer. And Nadal blew his chance for another week of personal adulation as well as being an ambassador for tennis by losing too early. But, hey, that's sports.

James waited until he got back to Cleveland on Sunday to open his mouth.

Too little, too late. For the next year, as his free-agency drama plays out, James is going to be the biggest story going in the NBA. He's going to face questions most every day about the quality of the team around him, about the quality of coaching, about what might await him in New York, Chicago . . . pick the big-market NBA city of your choice.

And will James just walk away every day?

His teammates and coaches excused his Saturday behavior. Winning meant so much to him, they said. He played so hard, tried so hard, wanted it so much. Maybe he was embarrassed about all that creative advertising brainpower wasted. Not that Nike's LeBron/Kobe puppet ads weren't cute and funny and who wouldn't go out and buy colored VitaminWater (I guess it has vitamins in it) because LeBron and Kobe guzzle it, but shouldn't these companies know a little bit about sports? Such as the winner isn't always who you think it will be?

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, James addressed a question Sunday about whether he will sign a contract renewal with the Cavaliers this summer with understandable vagueness.

"I don't know," James said. "I haven't thought about it just yet. I'm just going to take time off from basketball and not think about contracts or the game, period, and relax with my family. We'll figure out once it comes from" the Cavaliers.

James could have said that Saturday night and also maybe congratulated the Magic, shook a hand or two, praised a teammate even for helping the Cavaliers achieve 66 regular-season wins.

Even in his sadness over losing his first-ever French Open match, Nadal looked at a camera and said of Soderling, "I congratulate him and I'll keep working hard for the next tournament."

See, it's not that hard.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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By the numbers

A look at some of the key statistics in Rafael Nadal's fourth-round loss Sunday to Robin Soderling:

4 consecutive French Open titles for Nadal, a streak that ended Sunday, one short of Bjorn Borg's record.

31-0 Nadal's lifetime French Open match record before Sunday.

51 victories by Nadal in his last 52 French Open sets before Sunday.

0 Grand Slam fourth rounds reached by Soderling before this tournament.

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