MIAMI -- I get criticized a lot.
Sports fans call me many names.
But people who know me find it odd that I'm viewed as "controversial." They see that I aspire to be nonjudgmental. But while I'm trying to extend empathy/compassion in sports discussions, I get shouted down as a contrarian/athlete apologist/homer or worse because explaining behavior, especially when I don't believe it my place to excuse or not excuse it, isn't as strong as simply calling Terrell Owens a jackass.
My friends dismiss the critics as haters. Or jealous. But that's too easy. And wrong. It doesn't require any introspection from me. Yes, I have an absurd job as a professional thief, blessed beyond words. And maybe envy is where a sliver of criticism is born. But I'm rightly burdened by my past as a young know-it-all with too much ego. And my strident tone, still obnoxious sometimes in judging the judgers, dilutes my message, the same way Bill Maher's sarcasm obscured his facts in a documentary about religion. The message can be killed by the clumsy delivery of the messenger, as we saw with LeBron James.
All of which brings me to this barrage of Heat Hate I've found confounding for weeks. Why does something that feels so good in South Florida feel so bad everywhere else? Haters? Jealousy? There's some of that, sure, but that's too dismissive. Something about this microwave tri-nasty has struck a sports nerve I've never felt stung this way in two decades doing this, not by the old Oakland Raiders or old Hurricanes, not by the Fab Five or UNLV or Duke basketball, not even by the bloated and gluttonous New York Bleeping Yankees. Teams that have won, in other words, and at least earned their jealousy and hate.
WHY SO MUCH HATE?
There are many reasons for Heat Hate, not just one. So often, too often, we are either-or in sports and sports arguments. That doesn't allow any room for nuance. And, in this emotional world, even though you are arguing over a hair, a bar fight can break out in the choosing sides over "Who is better? Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?"
Throw this in the cauldron, too: Because so much of sports entertainment now is arguing, the answer rarely is, "It can be both," even though in most cases that is probably the most correct one. Why don't the Marlins draw well? Because we stink as a sports town. And because the team's past is filled with betrayal. It can be both (as well as the heat and rain and a bad stadium in a poor location and the fact that everyone in our broke region is too busy windsurfing).
So the Heat Hate isn't just because people are jealous any more than it is just because James crushed the underdog fans of Cleveland in a cold way. It isn't just because that TV special was a bad idea any more than it is just because we aren't used to seeing three powerful players hogging all the power for themselves. It can be all of those things, and fractions of them.
And it can be because it doesn't feel very fair when the rich guy throws a big, public party to laugh at not merely the poor guys but the guys made poor by the rich guy.
A good deal of life, and sports, is about managing expectations. The higher yours are, the more likely you are to feel empty when they go unreached. History's best sports stories -- underdogs, surprises, etc. -- are about exceeding small expectations. But hope, by definition, isn't very realistic -- and free agency is a drug peddler that traffics in it. When you invest big emotion into buying that hope, and injecting it into your veins, you get the immediate high. But there can be a crash for addicts that makes you feel empty when you wake in a sad, dirty place filled with garbage and needles and the smell of urine.
Sorry, Cleveland, that analogy wasn't for you.
It was for New York.
Anyway, all that disappointment has to go somewhere. And when all the hope teams up to inject South Beach, the hate is going to land on our shores in wave after wave brought by the tide. Doesn't help that we, a bandwagon sports town with no right to all this excess, threw our joy in everyone's face. Only thing more annoying than arrogance is arrogance that hasn't been earned (talking to you again, Knicks and Jets fans). Chicago, Cleveland and New York were crushed.
The national anger merged and grew by the city, a rock slide gathering debris and momentum, until it swallowed South Florida -- and will now grow for years, when the actual winning starts.
James went from likable to unlikable somehow in an hour of TV, and that is instructive. Fans will extend a great deal of love or hate based on nothing more than whether they like you or not, rationalizing arguments on your behalf or against you.
Derek Jeter can do exactly the same thing as Alex Rodriguez, positive or negative, and it would be viewed differently. Never mind different athletes. Let's make it the same one. If someone had told you 10 months ago that Tiger Woods used steroids, maybe you dismiss it. If someone tells you that now, maybe you don't.
That's what James, clumsy messenger obscuring message, gave up by making that choice that way -- the benefit of the doubt. Anything this team does now, whether it is Dwyane Wade making an awkward analogy to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or James whispering in Chris Paul's ear about a trade, is going to be run through that prism, defended here and excoriated everywhere else. The University of Miami's football fans live in this place, owners of a persecution complex but also persecuted.
Doesn't help that we overanalyze everything in sports because we care so much. So this super-serious discussion about The Decision somehow becomes about James' legacy and his character and his lack of courage and his ego and blah, blah, blah when maybe it was just a young guy who wanted to bounce a basketball and have fun on the beach with his friends.
BILL SIMMONS ARGUMENT
I have been having an argument with my friend Bill Simmons for weeks. He is America's most popular sports columnist, and he has been criticizing and questioning this Heat team without relent. It is odd, considering his beloved Boston did this same thing a few years ago, winning a championship by bringing together three monster talents.
So I say all this is fun; he says this is disappointing. I say Miami loves James sacrificing for winning; he says Boston doesn't like people who take the easy way out. I keep pointing to the message; he keeps mocking the messenger. I remind him that he loved it when Boston did this; he says Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett weren't natural rivals in their prime playing the same position.
The arguments all end up in the same place, with me accusing him of displaced anger he has to put somewhere because this doesn't feel good/fair/sane, even though I'm guessing he would find it good/fair/sane if it were his. There is truth in all that each of us says. It can be both.
And this isn't easy to admit upon introspection:
I might be borrowing all his arguments if James, Wade and Chris Bosh had decided to team up instead in New York.
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