Sports

Is ESPN, Media to Blame for NBA's Coddling of LeBron James?

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The sport of basketball is dying.  Maybe the game will still be played and people will still watch, but the actual game of basketball is dying.

“Whose fault is this?” you may ask.  The media is the sole culprit of the assassination of basketball.  The media – including, but not limited to – ESPN, Fox, Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Magic Johnson and every other reporter or columnist, have killed basketball.

Now, before I start on my rant, let me say that I think LeBron James had a phenomenal finals performance.  He deserves his Finals MVP.  He defended every position expertly, and scored inside and out.  He made the right basketball plays.  But that does not mean I have to like him, or think that he plays the game the right way.

Think about the flagrant foul called on Derek Fisher.  I look back on that play, and what strikes me the most about the play is not the contact itself, but LeBron’s reaction afterward.  He immediately opens his hands, looking to referees for the flagrant foul call versus a regular two-shot foul.

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Really?  I remember watching tape of Rick Mahorn clobbering Michael Jordan in 1989 playoffs on one of Jordan’s drives to the basket.  Why?  Because in that era, there had to be a penalty for getting to the hoop.  No flagrant fouls, no suspensions, just two shots and getting back on defense.  How about the so-called “Jordan Rules,” a defensive strategy used by the Detroit Pistons to contain Jordan in their intense playoff battles of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Chuck Daly, the then Pistons’ coach, was quoted as saying, “…play him tough, physically challenge him as to throw him off balance.”  Daly also said to Sports Illustrated, “…the other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him.  If he was coming off a screen, nail him.  We had to make contact and be very physical.”

How many thousands of dollars does Daly get fined if he makes that statement in today’s NBA?  How many flagrant fouls and suspensions are doled out?

Again, this is the media’s fault.  By bringing attention to superstars like LeBron James, referees give them the proverbial “superstar treatment.”  Fouls are called a bit tighter, contact is exaggerated.  In fact, check out these few videos…

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

Check out the wink after the first “foul.”  That means, to me, that not only does LeBron know that he did not get fouled, but he knows that he can get away with faking it because of his standing within the circle of referees.  As Jeff Van Gundy says in the second video, “what kind of league are we becoming if that is a flagrant foul?”

Again, let me say that I do not believe that Oklahoma Citywas the better team, or that they should have won the series against the Heat.  Looking past the non-call on LeBron James at the end of game two, Miami played well and OKC didn’t match it nearly enough to capture the game. The Miami Heat deserved to win the series and LeBron deserved his ring.

However, back to the point…the PROCESS to which this ring was won is flawed.  Many objective observers of these finals, including those in the media monster, have agreed that many a call went against OKC.  In Game 4, when Russell Westbrook had his amazing performance, sinking 20 of 32 shots while attacking the basket over and over again, he went to the foul line three times.  Three.  If you’ve seen Westbrook plays, he reminds me of Allen Iverson if Iverson was three inches taller and 50 pounds of explosive muscle bigger.  Iverson hit the floor over and over, just like Westbrook hit the floor over and over…and Westbrook shot three free throws.  LeBron shot three times that amount, while taking 12 fewer shots.  Dwyane Wade shot three times more, while taking 11 fewer shots.  Mario Chalmers shot more free throws than Russell Westbrook did.

My theory is, again, media driven.  Russell Westbrook takes criticism from analysts and media outlets for being reckless and sometimes out of control while being a point guard.  The perception about him is that he should not get rewarded for not getting the ball to scoring machine, Kevin Durant.  Therefore, he does not.

On the other hand, LeBron James is the first headline on SportsCenter if he takes a tough you-know-what in the morning.  He is rewarded for exaggerating contact.  In the morning, when he turns over to see his fiancée and she kisses him, Joey Crawford pops out from under the bed and LeBron shoots two free throws

Success breeds success.  If LeBron is allowed to get away with this behavior – if he is allowed to get free throws for the most minimal of contact, if he is allowed to be treated the way he is, then there is no reason for him to stop.  His behavior is constantly reinforced by the media, by referees and by results.  Therefore, he will continue to behave as such.

On the contrary, after Michael Jordan continued to lose to the Pistons in the late 80’s, a different behavior was reinforced. Phil Jackson, who had been preaching to Jordan that he would have to play his game within the system of his famed triangle offense, which emphasized ball movement and getting others involved, was finally vindicated.  His lessons to Jordan were reinforced by the results of the games. Jordan listened to Jackson, and six championships later, his behavior was rewarded.

For James, that team-first behavior has never been rewarded.

Follow me on a journey.  We’re taking a trip back to 2007.  LeBron James, the young star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is taking on the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.  We’re seeing a young LeBron dribbling at the top of the key, looking at Tayshaun Prince, ready to attack the basket with his team down two points.  The clock is ticking down—there are only seven seconds left before the final buzzer.

As he has shown he can do, James drives past Prince with ease, only Rasheed Wallace is standing between him and a game-tying dunk or layup.  Instead of taking that shot, however, James dishes the ball to his right to a wide-open Donyell Marshall, who, in the previous game, had drained six 3-pointers.  The basket would have won the game at the buzzer, giving the Cavs a 1-0 lead in the series.  Instead, Marshall missed the shot off the side of the rim, the Pistons gathered the rebound, and the clock expired.

After the game, LeBron said, “I go for the winning play. If two guys come at you and your teammate is open, then give it up.  Simple as that.”

Wrong.

The media killed the man.  Headlines told the story of a different game.  “LeBron James’ decision making was a pivotal part of a Game 1 loss to the Pistons.”  Even Marshal ldescribed a different scenario, “The play wasn’t designed for me to get the shot…me not having made a three all night, they probably didn’t even know I was in the game.”

The media condemned LeBron for making the perfect basketball play.  In doing so, they created the abortion of a league that we now behold.  LeBron’s attempt at playing basketball the right way – making the best basketball plays – was thwarted from the very beginning.  Therefore, when it came time to make the infamous “Decision,” it was a simple choice for LeBron.  Why would you try to stick around in Cleveland to be ‘The Man’ and try to win a championship with you as the centerpiece and possibly 11 role players, when you can join two superstars in Miami who get the same treatment as you do?  You wouldn’t.

Therefore, I believe that basketball will never be the same.  The sport is broken.  In order to fix it, a scenario would have to be put in place that I do not think is possible – the media would have to change.

Instead of embracing athletes like LeBron – athletes who have had their butts kissed since middle school and are taught to be treated like superstars – the media must embrace those who play the game the right way.  Unfortunately for those real basketball players, their era is over.  The Spurs just saw their team demolished by sheer athleticism.  The Thunder just saw their team demolished by superstar treatment, hot shooting and the best player on the planet.

When I think about this season, the worst part about it is that many former players who did not get a chance to benefit from a star’s treatment.  Imagine how many free throws Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone would have shot in this era.  Imagine how many championships Shaq would have won (in addition to the collection of rings he already has) if the fouls he took were called flagrant fouls, like they would have been this year.  Imagine if the “Jordan Rules” led to suspensions instead of just fouls and morning soreness.

So, for now, I say to the NBA – Rest In Peace.  Before this season, I sincerely thought that the Mayan prediction of 2012 was a joke.  Honestly, I still do.  But I will not be surprised if LeBron wins his ring and basketball dies in the same year that the world ends.

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