NBA: LeBron’s image taking shots as free agency looms
By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — LeBron shames.
That's what Cleveland fans have been thinking about LeBron James ever since he disappeared and his Cavaliers collapsed in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Around here, win or lose, fans desperate to sip championship champagne once in their lives have always treated James royally.
Just not now.
In the wake of the Cavaliers' startling loss to the Boston Celtics, even some of King James' most loyal subjects are revolting. A typically fatalistic bunch, Cavs fans can't seem to shake their team's emotional defeat and the denial — again! — of this city's first major pro sports title since 1964.
They're mad, perplexed and disappointed, venting their feelings on the airwaves and Internet chat rooms. It doesn't seem to matter that James could soon be wearing another jersey if Cleveland won't show him some love.
They feel betrayed by one of their own, by the kid who grew up just down the road in Akron.
"Other than Tiger Woods, I don't know of a bigger fall from grace in our town," said sports talk radio host Tony Rizzo, whose morning show is one of many forums where LeBron bashers have expressed themselves since the Cavs bowed from the postseason. "People are heartbroken."
It's not just Cleveland, either.
James has been ripped nationally for disappearing in Game 5 of the Boston series, perhaps his farewell to this city. He has been condemned for atypical postgame comments when he publicly criticized (now former) Cavs coach Mike Brown. He has been blamed for an overall lack of leadership and accountability — all as he prepares to possibly leave as a free agent after July 1.
The outside detractors have always been present, ready to pounce on any misstep. This time, though, some of the most stinging barbs have been by those who know James best — Cleveland fans.
"Whether it's fair or not, it's going on," said Mike Polk, who directed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek "Please Stay LeBron" video to the tune of "We Are the World" with the hope that James re-signs with Cleveland. "A lot of the criticism toward LeBron started nationally — maybe they want us to resent him. Some people seem to feel like we're supposed to hate him right now until he decides what's next.
"But I also think he could have handled all this a lot better."
After weeks of silence, James may be ready to begin repairing his image.
James, who has not done any interviews since the Cavs' flop, sat down at his home with CNN's Larry King on Tuesday to tape an interview in which he addresses his impending free agency. In the segment, which will air on Friday, James said that Cleveland has "an edge" to sign him when free agency begins, according to comments provided by the network.
That may not be enough to help nervous Cavs fans — and owner Dan Gilbert — sleep better, but at least he didn't rule out the possibility he'll stay home.
James has kept a low profile around town since his seventh season ended short of a title. As even President Obama weighed in on his future, he took a short vacation. Then the All-Star forward was unavailable to the media during an awkward holiday weekend appearance judging a slam-dunk contest.
"There's not much he can say right now," said David Schwab, vice president of Octagon, a company that links corporations to athletes. "He's in a tough situation. He needs to block out the noise. If he stays in Cleveland, fans will forgive him and a lot of it will go away."
And what happens if he bolts?
"If he leaves," said writer Scott Raab, a Cleveland native, who recently profiled Shaquille O'Neal in Esquire and is working on a book about the Cavs. "LeBron could replace Art Modell as the most hated person in Cleveland."
It all goes back to Game 5 — or, the LeBacle, as it has been nicknamed.
In the pantheon of Cleveland sports misery, the Cavs' Game 5 loss to the Celtics has elbowed in for a spot alongside The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, Red Right 88, and, of course, The Move, when Modell packed up the beloved Browns and took them to Baltimore.
Slowed by an elbow injury, James had one of the worst games of his career in Cleveland's biggest of 2010. With the series against Boston tied 2-2, he scored 15 points on 3-of-14 shooting as the Cavs were throttled, 120-88 — the most lopsided home playoff loss in team history.
James' stats were troubling. So was his temperament.
There wasn't a hint of the normal aggression that defines his game. He rarely drove to the basket, and instead launched jumpers that were well off their mark. Other times, he simply stood and watched. When the Cavs began fouling in a last-ditch effort to cut into Boston's lead, James glared at Brown and Cleveland's assistant coaches as if annoyed.
He appeared distracted, disillusioned, disgusted.
Either something was bothering him or he simply buckled under the pressure of his impending free agency and the weight of carrying Cleveland's hopes.
"People have to understand he is only one man," said Browns Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs, who attended Game 5. "It was all on his shoulders. People are saying he quit and this and that, but if anybody has any question about his desire, watch some videotape on him, he has never quit.
"People can't always expect a miracle from him."
Really all Cleveland fans wanted was for LeBron to be LeBron, the two-time MVP and Olympic gold medalist. But he wasn't, not even close. James then deepened the mystery about his play by shrugging if off afterward, coolly saying, "I spoil a lot of people."
It's not what fans wanted or expected to hear from James, whose remarks seemed to be coming from someone else. Then, after the Cavs were beaten in Game 6, when James recorded a triple-double but committed nine turnovers, the only "team" the 25-year-old referred to was his group of advisers who will help him decide on where he'll continue his career.
Cleveland hasn't given up on James, whose loyalty to his home state is about to be tested like never before. Polk and others wish he would at least say what he's thinking.
"He doesn't owe us," Polk said. "But if he wants to quell this rebellion he could say, 'I love Cleveland,' and he hasn't even done that. I know this is a tricky time for him, but it is for everyone. This city wants him and needs him."