MIAMI -- Pride. Such an interesting yin-yang word. It'll make a parent's eyes sting at a school play or graduation. It'll help you be better at your job if you have it in your work. It is a positive trait right up until it isn't, right up until you have too much of it, right up until it interferes with your ability to say "I'm sorry" when you might be wrong. Then, in less time than it took LeBron James to trash his image, it transforms into something unlikable.
Then, everywhere from sports to society to spirituality, it becomes one of the deadly sins. All over the church we've made of sports, people want James to genuflect and ask forgiveness. He has not. He will not. Not in a GQ magazine interview over the phone. Not when sitting down in front of CNN's cameras. Not in his new Nike commercial sculpted for months by image artists to address this mess for him in his voice. He'll take the worship and the collection plates from the congregation in this particular church, but he isn't at all interested in the confessionals or the sermonizing from the masses.
Perhaps you find something noble and brave and bold in that pride if you are a Heat fan. Perhaps you find something arrogant, stubborn and dumb in it if you are not. Regardless, James has made his choice about how to handle his PR mess, and it is a fascinating and prideful one, more revelatory and echoing than even The Decision, if you can believe that. He has Decided he isn't sorry. You don't hear "I'm sorry" in his words, and you certainly don't see it in his actions. He hasn't uttered a syllable that would indicate he thinks he has done anything wrong for leaving Cleveland how he did. And that's why his popularity has plummeted. People aren't going to like what feels like ego and defiance when they feel like they've been wronged.
But James isn't going to say he's sorry just to say it, just because America seems to want him to do so. In fact, in that Nike ad that debuted last week, in the commercial world where image and public relations and perception mean everything, he was as defiant as you can be in that setting when accompanied by Don Johnson. The only sorry America got from Nike was that, sorry, LeBron James wasn't going to be whatever it is you wanted -- and he did this while asking you to buy his sneakers.
All over sports, you'll find athletes apologizing insincerely just to make a problem or image hit go away, trafficking in contrition by giving fans and media the moral superiority the judgmental always crave.
These counterfeit apologies filled the news cycle for steroid-soaked baseball, the millionaires not sorry for the action that made them millionaires but rather for all the hysteria in the reaction once that action was exposed. That's not real contrition; that's real commercial.
I don't know what an apology buys James anyway in this contaminated climate. Everything is being run through a hate-clouded filter. Point out that he's making less than Michael Redd and Rashard Lewis to be in Miami, an uncommon sacrifice, and critics will point out he's already a millionaire who can recoup some of that money on state taxes and endorsements. Maybe James gets back some goodwill if he stands up this minute and says, "I really screwed up my exit. I should have shown Cleveland more care. I'm embarrassed, and I'm sorry."
But his pride isn't going to let him say he's embarrassed and sorry if he isn't. Nor will it allow him to give those who already despise him the ammunition of seeing him appear weak.
WOODS AN EXAMPLE
Has Tiger Woods bought himself anything with that broken groveling he did before us in front of that blue screen before hugging his mother? Ten years from now, who will look back with more shame at their awkward moment of TV? Woods saying "I'm sorry" so publicly in a weird news conference? Or James very much not saying it in the way he handled The Decision?
This has to be so very confusing to James. Unlike Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, James didn't make his mess while under contract. However awkward and cold and me-me-me it was, he left his employer after fulfilling the terms of his deal. All he did, in the name of winning and team, was make some sacrifices (of money, glory, game, image, etc.) that have no precedent from someone of his stature in the history of American sports.
It was a breathtaking and stupefying thing Friday, seeing him in Miami's first home game. Team captains? Wade and Udonis Haslem, not the reigning two-time MVP. Speaking to the crowd before the game? Wade, not the two-time reigning MVP. The last name introduced? Wade, not the reigning two-time MVP. And then James went out there and happily took his 15 points -- half as many as he usually would get in an average game.
Some people have a bad habit of turning athletes into either unicorns or demons, one-dimensional, painting with a nuance-less brush that doesn't allow James to be, like all of us, selfish in some aspects of his life and unselfish in others.
But it can't be denied, no matter how angry and emotional you are, that he has given up more to get closer to winning than any superstar ever has.
But words have drowned out actions, and perception has replaced reality, and emotion and anger have clouded and contaminated everything around him. The easiest way out would be a humbled "I'm sorry," but James has chosen the prideful path instead, and it reminds me of one of the great scenes in the movie Pulp Fiction, when the crime boss finalizes a deal with a boxer to take a dive in a fixed fight.
"The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting," the crime boss says. "That's pride - - - - - - - with you. - - - - pride! Pride only hurts. It never helps."
Like the Bruce Willis boxer who created an unholy mess by listening to his pride, James has Decided that he will not go down and will take whatever consequences come from fighting for real.
His pride might have helped create this mess. But if he wins this fight with his friends, his conviction intact and then rewarded, pride is what will feel strongest and most rewarding, too.