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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

LeBron James goes from toast of the town to toasted by America

Miami's NBA Finals loss to Dallas, and James' no-show in the pivotal Game 6, have turned perception into reality, destroying what was left of the Heat star's carefully crafted image.

June 14, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Heat's LeBron James during the last timeout when he knew the Heat would lose Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.
Heat's LeBron James during the last timeout when he knew the Heat would… (Robert Duyos / Sun Sentinel )

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be global icons. . . .

How do you like your LeBron James, flaming, like Baked Alaska?

Or charred all the way through, like a briquet?

Not that our society tilts toward the sensational, but the day after James, whose image was already toast, trashed his basketball reputation with his mythic Wilt Chamberlain-like Game 6 no-show, the Atlantic Wire collected outrageous/outraged reactions under the headline:

"What to Read if You Want to Revel in LeBron James's Defeat"

If you haven't heard of it, the wire is an online feature by the Atlantic, a serious magazine whose founders included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Of course, there was Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's tweet ("Old Lesson for all: There are NO SHORTCUTS. NONE")

That was magnanimous, compared with Esquire writer/Cavaliers fan Scott Raab (". . . It was LeBron who, when it came time to put up or shut up, lacked the [manhood] and the grace to do either. Today, like every day, he'll wake up nothing but a loser.")

This is a basketball player they're talking about, right?

Unless James did something like manage the Little Old Ladies Life's Savings Hedge Fund and lose all their money, people are out of their gourds.

Actually, James is something that's worse: a disappointment.

This is about loyalty and it's definitely not about Cleveland, which no one outside Cleveland worries about.

It's about myth creation and myth deconstruction, or put another way, sales.

The media that's now tearing James down is the institution that set him on a pedestal in high school.

His unprecedented hype became even more crazed as he led his little team to the NBA Finals at 22 and won the first of his consecutive MVP awards at 24.

At 25, coming off his second MVP, and the Cavaliers' second postseason upset in a row, it all came crashing down around him just weeks before becoming a free agent.

If Miami looked like an easy choice to him, it had no-win aspects he's just realizing, like playing with Dwyane Wade, allowing/obliging him to take a step back, which was never possible in Cleveland.

Worse was the TV special announcing it, an ESPN clinic in self-importance, all around.

James had canceled his city-by-city free-agent tour, realizing it wouldn't play.

He missed the fact that this was worse, as did the grownups who knew more about image and perception than he did.

It was ESPN's script that held up the announcement for 23 minutes to draw out the suspense.

Nike may have sensed something, making sure no swooshes were visible on the set, but raised no alarm.

The show was a farce and the choice was unpopular, surprising James, who thought he'd be lauded for taking $25 million less from the Heat and doing the show to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Worst of all, it was James' time.

The clock started ticking in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals when Cleveland, seeded No. 1, fell to Orlando, and LeBron, who had been brilliant, was torched for not congratulating Magic players.

(When Miami beat Boston this spring, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo did 180s and left without congratulating anyone. No one said a word about it.)

The clock struck 12 last spring after the Celtics upended the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers, followed within weeks by James' decision to go to Miami.

That was all perception. What happened this spring was real.

Seemingly about to validate his choice, coming out of the Eastern finals in which Scottie Pippen said James was better than Michael Jordan, James went out with a Wilt/Hamlet, I'm-so-conflicted performance that suggested his critics had gotten into his head.

Until then his return to grace seemed inevitable, even if it took years, like Kobe Bryant, who was LeBron before LeBron.

Now James has real demons to overcome, not to mention the press, et al.

Happily for Jordan, he came along in a gentler time because he pulled a stunt or two himself.

With the Bulls and Pistons tied, 2-2, in the 1989 Eastern finals, coach Doug Collins asked him to pass more.

Jordan took eight shots as the Bulls lost Game 5 and, eventually, the series.

If that happened today, Esquire might brand Jordan's photo, if not his actual forehead, with a capital L.

Jordan came back to win six titles — even if he was 28 when he got the first one.

So, at 26, it's not over for LeBron yet!

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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