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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

LeBron's Return

Has there ever been a team covered with as much scrutiny at the beginning of a season than the Miami Heat has at the dawn of the 2010-11 NBA season? I would only say... be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. The scrutiny has been brought on by their actions and now that they've made their own bed, they must lie in it. So is it justified? Lebron has been set up for this scrutiny since high school, some he brought on himself, some of it no fault of his own. The national media exposure (TV games, books, documentaries, etc) was not his fault, although those around him allowed it to happen and benefitted from it is well. However Lebron contributed to it as well as he embraced the MJ comparisons while saying he wanted to be "a global icon." That will turn up the expectations, across the board, for sure. At that point you better play, and act, accordingly. Jordan was the first real global basketball player and in such made the largest impact on the game today. LBJ was expected to carry the torch. Instead he may have taken the baton from Wilt "nobody loves the giant" Chamberlain. Wilt had the ability to be the greatest, but for a myriad of reasons played on a number of teams and had the misfortune of playing in the same era as Bill Russell. By changing teams, Lebron tried to avaoid the plight of Oscar Robertson, playing in a small-market with limited resources, and never getting as much credit as he may have deserved.

I'm not certain I've ever heard anyone dispute the fact the players had every right to choose their team, based on the free agency that they had earned. In fact I don't hear anyone being very negative about Bosh joining the Heat, and I certainly hear nothing negative about Wade re-signing. HOW Lebron made The Decision and the ensuing dance party in Miami to introduce the players is what really turned fandom against them.If LBJ did everything the same but chose to stay in Cleveland it would have been a love-fest. The fact he essentially broke up with his girlfriend on National TV it turned him into the villain in the general publics eyes. Imagine calling a big party to announce whether you're going to marry a long-time fiancee - or break up with her. You could name it "The Disaster." Especially after pledging lifetime allegiance, as LBJ did when he was quoted as saying he had no interest in "...chasing rings, he The Decision was Lebron's version of The Bachelor..."Miami...will you accept this rose?" When that happens on the TV show, there is always nationwide sentiment for the lover scorned. This is no different. A simple press-conference (like every other free-agent in the history of sports) would have tempered much of the anger.A disaster of equal proportions was the ensuing dance party in Miami to introduce "The Three Kings." The rock-star entrance followed by the on stage interview was filled with bulletin-board fodder for all. From the moderator saying "visitors beware... enter at your own risk!" to Wade saying they are "...arguably the best trio to ever play the game of basketball" might cause those of us that remember some great trios of the past to take pause and also cause comedians to joke about "Two-and-a-Half Men". Following that up with saying "I feel sorry for the team that's gotta guard both of us" might have been enough bulletin board material to last a career. That is, until Lebron spoke, saying that after practice "once the game starts things are gonna be easy" and talking about the number of expected Championships "not 4, not 5, not 6 ..." which immediately set the Heat up as the team everyone loved to hate. The perceived arrogance to believe that a simple accumulation of "talent" could produce those kind of results has been the cause for piling on after every loss.

As to their early season on-court woes "The Big Three" might be a bit of a misnomer. While Bosh is a nice player, he still is just a skilled, face-up 4 man that piled up a bunch of stats on a bad team. In my opinion he is no more worthy of being called one of a "The Big Three" than is Lamar Odom to go with Kobe and Gasol. He certainly isn't an inside presence that will live up to Pat Riley's mantra - "Rebounds Win Rings!" With all their resources going to three players, the rest of the TEAM is seriously lacking in point guard play and any sense of physicality inside. As the roster evolves - this could change, but the Heat need to learn to use each others talents to create a bit more synergy, and at the moment they are simply limited.

While Wade and Lebron are two of the most gifted players in the NBA - they also possess similar skill sets. In the half-court system they are presently playing, they are simply taking turns "doing what they do" while the other one watches and awaits his turn - while Bosh just "chills." If Wade and James were not each others teammate they might just do the same thing - just twice as often and still be as effective. Every once in a while it seems they remember Bosh was in on the deal and throw him bone too, while they watch him do his thing. Having both Wade and LBJ does not necessarily cause an additional quandary on defensive matchups because you need to use different size players to guard them anyway. The braintrust of the Heat, whether that's Spoelstra or Riley, really need to do some work to find a way for the players to complement each other and find some more complimentary players.

If anything, this proves how difficult it is to blend talent and mesh personalities. It makes Pat Rileys accomplishments with the Showtime Lakers (who actually DID have a "Big Three" of Hall of Famers) and Phil Jackson's run simply amazing feats they don't get enough credit for. It's not so easy coaching great talent, is it? Organizations that are successful understand that (Spurs, Lakers, Celtics, etc) and others may learn from the Heat. I hope it makes an impact all the way down to the youth level, where "great coaches" are considered those that assemble the most talent - not those that get the most out of their talent.

Miami's first visit to Cleveland, marking Lebron's return the region in which he grew up and built his reputation really "turns up the heat." How will everyone react? Will Lebron throw the powder? Will the fans boo? Will LBJ play well? Every angle will be covered by possibly more media than ever for such an early season matchup in the history of sport. We should all keep things in perspective and remember to Honor or Respect the Game. Respect is a word oft used in sport, but not always understood. Player use being "disrespected" to justify their unsportsmanlike acts and ask for "respect" from management, when they really mean a higher salary.Positive Coaching Alliance (http://positivecoach.org) says we need to respect the ROOTS of the game and gives us a framework in which we can do that. We need to respect the Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates, and Self. Everyone involved needs to respect the fact that Rules were followed when free agents signed with the team. No "lack of respect" occurred there there and we all need to respect their right to do so.

One of the biggest downfalls in sports today is the lack of respect for the Opponent. A player doesn't need to hate their rival to "get up for the game", but this is often fostered when the other team is painted as "the enemy." Unfortunately, this is present in youth and high school sports far too often. Lebron set a bad example with his behavior after his loss to the Celtics when he stormed off sans handshake. It will be interesting to see is interaction with his former teammates (and they to him) during this first returnto the place he said he'd always call home. Much of this lack of respect also comes from fans. Fans feel they can have an impact on the game by negatively influencing the other team, when the reality is they can make a bigger impact by supporting their own. I don't expect fans not to boo LBJ, but the excessive vitriol should be avoided. A great Opponent is a gift that creates an amazing opportunity to shine. The Cavs, and their fans, should look at this as a great opportunity to compete and try to defeat the Miami Heat and do so with class.

I appreciate the effort on the part of the NBA to clean up the excessive whining at the Officials. As we find a happy medium, young players and coaches will see the type of behavior that will shape the future of the game. At all times those involved should think about their actions and realize their actions are being emulated in gyms around the country. I expect the Officials to call this one closely due to the high emotions. We'll see how players react and if that affects the game.

Players so desperately want their respect, but how do they show they respect their Teammates in this "get mine" industry... and world. Not only with their play and their attitude - but how they go about their business. That's what shows true leadership. I'm consistently impressed with the leadership shown by athletes like Donavan McNabb who always try to say and do the right thing, with class and integrity, even in the toughest circumstances. How a player behaves during tough times or after a loss shows a lot about the man. If reports are true, I think Lebron has a ways to go in this category. Teammates include all those in the organization - owner, GM, locker room attendants, and ballboys. Refraining from "throwing them under the bus" and taking some personal responsibility is the sign of a true leader. A huge lesson to be learned from Lebron is to be careful what you say, it may come back to haunt you. When you say your are loyal (as emblazoned on his chest) and say you are going to get it done in Cleveland without chasing rings, you need to be expect to be called on it when you prove that not to be true.

Finally, the most important thing to have is respect for Self. This takes time to develop and the culture surrounding elite level youth sports that Lebron grew up in does not, typically, foster that respect. Corners cut, promises, made and broke, rules violated, jumping from team to team and, yes, even accumulating talent rather than developing it. We often hear coaches tell superior athletes "Don't play down to the level of your competition" - but the same must be for the manner in which you conduct yourself. Set high standards for yourSelf and refuse to lower them... even when those around you do. I believe Lebron is still finding himSelf. He may mature... other pros did, as they went through rough times when they were doubted as well. The problem is the system enabled him along the way. If young athletes, through sports, learn to perform their best at all times in everything they do - even when facing inferior opponents AND act to their high standards when those around them are encouraging them to do do otherwise, those habits will build to the point they know no other way - and it will be a life well-lived.

THAT is the power of sports.

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