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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ya Gotta Like It—Or Do You?

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The mind reels at the notion, but sometimes the Observers make predictions that prove wrong. They deal with long-term errors easily; by season's end they've forgotten what they forecast and hope readers have done likewise. But the headline two weeks ago proclaiming "Rolling Thunder" for the NBA Finals is a little too fresh.

What happened? LeBron James validated his status as the league's top star, leading Miami to the title he expected a year ago after forming the "Big Three" with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Chastened by the 2011 failure against Dallas, James proved his greatness this time. But did he erase the image of arrogance that made some people eager to root against him?

Frank: I can guess how you felt after watching Game 5.

Artie
: The evening could have gone a lot better.

Frank: And I'll bet you skipped the Heat's post-game hoopla.

Artie
: The remote clicked off during the fourth quarter. I don't know what happened to Oklahoma City after winning the opener. I think it was the lack of a foul call at the end of Game 2, when Kevin Durant had a potential winning shot and James was all over him. It seemed to put Durant off for the rest of the series.

Frank
: The analysts say Miami's move to have James guard Durant after Game 1 was crucial. But still, except for Game 5, the Heat wins were real close.

Artie
: I really think games are called differently in the Finals, and those young OKC guys couldn't adjust and maybe let it get to them.

Frank
: But no sugar, even a teeny bit, for James? A premier talent fulfilling his dreams, a player in full, so to speak?

Artie
: He had a great series, no doubt about it. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Frank
: He came close to averaging  a triple-double with 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. And after Game 1 he pretty much grabbed the flag and led the charge.

Artie
: Charge indeed—like practically every time he drove to the hoop. That guy charges like he's some CEO's trophy wife!

Frank
: So he should get an endorsement deal from American Express?

Artie
: And one with Samsonite for all the traveling he does.

Frank
: Not just him. It seemed like every time ABC went to commercial they showed a layup or dunk by someone taking three steps—left, right, left—after his last dribble. I guess nowadays you have to take four steps for anyone to raise an eyebrow.

Artie
: If they'd taught us how to do that when we were kids, I'd still be playing! Well, anchoring the bench anyway.

Frank
:  I've got to tell you, the triumphant James said all the right things—how losing to Dallas was "humbling" and he "looked in the mirror and said I need to be better on and off the court." A year ago he sneered that his critics would "wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had."

Artie
: So he said the right words. Was it genuine or was he just following good advice?

Frank
: It looked sincere to me. And there's no doubt that James is more likable now than he would have been if they'd won in '11.

Artie
: After all the televised self-importance of "The Decision" to leave Cleveland and the preening debut rally with Wade and Bosh.

Frank
: The Heat had to show character throughout the playoffs. They were down 2-1 to Indiana, 3-2 to Boston and after the opener in OKC. The talk was pretty dire about what would happen if Miami failed this year—like breaking up the Big Three, which would have really come down on James.

Artie
: Rightfully so. And it ain't like they stomped all over OKC, except for Game 5. I keep going back to Game 2 and that last Durant shot from the corner. If that goes in or, heaven forbid, the whistle blows...

Frank
: I sense a little "NBA conspiracy" talk coming here.

Artie
: Like how David "Vince McMahon" Stern had a big interest in LeBron getting a ring? I'm on board with any theory like that. For most of the playoffs I thought the officiating was nearly acceptable, but with the Finals I was saying, "The fix is coming, it's WWE time."

Frank
: If Stern were orchestrating things, wouldn't the series have gone seven games for the TV ratings?

Artie
: Too risky; you never know about a Game 7. Maybe James would have cramped up again or choked at the foul line, whatever.

Frank
: Charles Barkley enjoyed LeBron's success, saying, "LeBron is so special; we should appreciate him."

Artie
: Fine. I'll acknowledge he's a truly amazing talent and leave it at that. Even David Stern can't order me to like it. People have always disliked certain players for whatever reason.

Frank
: The most frequent, perhaps, being the uniform a guy wears. And of course there's the reverse—rooting for a guy through gritted teeth. I was appalled that Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield became Yankees, but I didn't stop cheering when the team won.

Artie
: "He's a jackass, but he's our jackass," ain'a? And now it's so much easier to spot the jackasses because the media dig into their personalities and faults.

Frank
: And some athletes don't help themselves with so much tweeting, grousing and public jackass-ery.

Artie
: The less we know, the better.

Frank
: There are a lot of top-notch athletes who just aren't that likable. Clemens and Barry Bonds spring to mind, not even considering the drug questions.

Artie
: You don't see many of their former teammates rallying to support them.

Frank
: Here are two other guys I've never warmed up to. I know Lance Armstrong has done a lot for anti-cancer funding, but to me he's always looked like a cold, hard person. And Tiger Woods—even before his personal life blew up and took his game with it, I just didn't like him. I know he was the most popular golfer by far, at least in TV numbers, but he also was a guy who'd snarl and curse when things went bad.

Artie
: But wasn't that single-minded drive part of what made Armstrong and Woods so great?

Frank
: I suppose, but that doesn't mean you have to be a jerk to succeed. Jack Nicklaus was certainly more likable than Woods...

Artie
: Although it took a while for people to stop viewing him as the "bad guy" who eclipsed the beloved Arnie Palmer.

Frank
: Anyway, should a guy's personality matter in evaluating his status as an athlete?

Artie
: That's part of what makes sports appealing or addictive—being able to root against a guy or a team as much as rooting for them.

Frank
: Alas, it is true. I'm disappointed if the Yankees have a bad year, but it's just as important that a certain team in New England not succeed.

Artie
: The team that makes you see red! The way purple affects me in the NFL season.

Frank
: In sports, as in life, the heart wants what the heart wants.

Artie
: Along those lines, there are worse things than Wade winning his second ring—although my extremely high opinion of him from his Marquette days fell during these playoffs.

Frank
: For much of the season, in fact, he seemed to be angry. He said that since winning in '06 he'd had "a lot of things happen" in his personal life.

Artie
: A bitter divorce, then a custody battle that he won. They can sure wear on a guy.

Frank
: I suppose we'll be hearing a lot about how the OKC youngsters "hadn't learned how to win yet."

Artie
: I've never figured out what that's supposed to mean.

Frank
: OKC apparently knew how to beat Dallas, the Lakers and San Antonio. And last year Miami knew how to win three series before Dallas conducted a lesson in team play.

Artie
: What it really means might be, "Knowing how to foul without getting called for it."