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As LeBron James takes the heat, Kobe Bryant suddenly looks cool

While criticism rains down on James over his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami, or at least over the manner in which he announced it, Bryant, fresh off his fifth title, appears to be winning renewed respect, even love, from fans and commentators.

July 10, 2010|Mark Heisler

LeLemmings Strike Back!

You know the guy on the 100-foot billboard in Cleveland with his head thrown back and his arms outstretched under the Nike swoosh and the words "We Are All Witnesses"?

He doesn't perform miracles there anymore.

After years of dreading this day, Cavaliers fans, who assured themselves LeBron James would never leave, knowing he was all they had going and there would be no reason for them to stay, either, learned he would spend the rest of their lives in. . . .

And now a word from our sponsors.

MIAMI?

Down came the billboard.

Up in flames went No. 23 jerseys. Out of the stores went the unsold ones.

Off his rocker went owner Dan Gilbert, who may ban the numerals 2 and 3 in the organization next.

Taking it as yet another personal betrayal, Gilbert charged that James "quit" in the Boston series, although it didn't stop him from offering LeBron $129 million.

How much can one owner take, especially if swollen to such self-importance that he can curse the Heat, guarantee the Cavaliers will win a title first (yeah, right) and vow:

"This shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our 'motivation' to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels."

So they weren't trying their hardest before?

Maybe that's why they acquired Drew Gooden in 2004 and signed Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall in 2005, and went for Antawn Jamison last season, rather than Marcus Camby, who would have helped more and had an expiring deal.

Instead, James wound up choosing between playing with Jamison, Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao and contending for a title.

Unfortunately for LeBron, the owner couldn't take all the heat off him.

A nationwide storm broke over James' head, suggesting how outrageous his choice was . . . or that he was finally old enough to be at the bottom of a worldwide pile-on, rechristened as Le(fill in blank), as in LeBummer, LeGone and LeCon.

TNT's Reggie Miller noted James was about to become Alex Rodriguez to Wade's Derek Jeter, a fair point.

TNT's Chris Webber said he'd never again compare James to Jordan, something he should know about, having never been compared to Karl Malone.

I'm in the minority — I think it's me, LeBron, his entourage and Heat fans — who think he was unfairly bashed for everything . . . his playoff swoon with an injured right elbow, his methodical recruiting process, even his decision to leave Cleveland. . . .

Right up to the moment his marketing people — a.k.a., the kids he hung out with in high school — got him to make his announcement in an ESPN special, "The Narcissism Hour."

James was going to get trashed if he stayed (It was always about the money!) or left (Heartless!), but it was nothing compared with the tidal wave of derision after ESPN withheld the announcement for 27 minutes — drawing a monster 9.5 rating for that 15-minute segment.

After that, much of America had to be sick, but ESPN's overall 7.3 rating was its highest non- NFL telecast this year.

Showing how well it went over, a new hero now towers over the NBA. . . .

KOBE?

Kobe Bryant's consecutive titles, giving him a total of five, made it the Age of Kobe — in fact, if not in fans' hearts . . . until "The Decision" aired and unsolicited salutes rang out on talk shows from coast to coast.

In Chicago, where people sneered at Bryant as the guy who (yeah, right) wanted to be Michael Jordan, former Tribune great Sam Smith of bulls.com says, "Now they're saying, 'You know what? Kobe's a classy guy! Kobe never would have done that!' "

With Chicago getting Carlos Boozer as a consolation prize and Boston closing in on Jermaine O'Neal, Miami will have to overcome the Curse of Dan Gilbert in a faster East.

Not that there's any doubt who'll be favored as Miami President Pat Riley, once underrated as a coach, then underrated as an executive, closes in on Mike Miller and targets Udonis Haslem.

"You can't be afraid to play somebody because they have three really good players," Boozer said in Chicago. "How are you going to win if you're afraid to play? We're going to fight. We're going to attack. We're going to go out there and see what happens."

Or, as Lakers opponents in the West say, "Anything can happen in the playoffs."

The Bulls, of course, started out as James' logical choice, before mysteriously falling by the wayside — amid reports they were dead as soon as they told LeBron they wouldn't hire his guys or let them on the team plane, as the Cavaliers had.

The Bulls didn't do it for Jordan. Of course, that was back in the 20th century.

Now it's the 21st century, they're still diva-averse and that's all there are out there.

In the good news, they're not the Cavaliers.

Not that all is lost in Cleveland. Dan Gilbert is REALLY mad now.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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