MIAMI -- Maybe this doesn't matter to you. Maybe you'd like your athletes to be athletes, and just that, their gifts presented to us always in packaging (commercials, photo shoots, cliched interviews) so that the illusion can remain pristine right up until Tiger Woods' wife takes a golf club to it. Maybe all you need to hear from LeBron James in sports is the cheering that surrounds his basketball skill.
But we're never going to get to know him this way, especially not in the contamination of the present climate.
James has tried to express an opinion twice in recent weeks, benign though it may have been. He said the league would be better, more competitive, without some of the worse teams. And, before it became a Heat tweet in retreat, he said on Twitter after watching his old team in Cleveland lose, 112-57, to the Lakers that karma was a "b." Both were the rarest of things in the arena, a superstar honest-to-goodness opining, and the media monster fed on this as it always does, gluttonously and taking sides. Both times, James backed away quickly.
It made him look either weak or not interested in the noisy monotony of another fight. These weren't the right causes, and this certainly isn't the right time. His radioactivity is such that anything he says will leave him outnumbered, so it is better, and easier, to just keep everything and everyone quiet by winning 21 of 22. That basketball is better equipped to win arguments at present than he is.
In another time, some sports heroes -- Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell -- would have gone into that subsequent mess chin out, but we've rewarded a different type of behavior for too long. Just be quiet, like Michael Jordan, like Tom Brady, like Derek Jeter, letting your excellence speak for you, and the mythologists will fill in the rest. There isn't any honor in that, but there isn't any hostility in it, either. And there are many, many financial rewards.
But here's the byproduct of that transaction: LeBron James has been a superstar for many years, and we don't really know him in any meaningful way.
His Heat teammates say he is, by consensus, the funniest guy on the team.
Have you seen any evidence of that outside of commercials made for him?
For as much of a disaster as his one-hour TV special was, there was something revelatory in it. Because he was outside his comfort zone, because he was away from the massaging and editing of the commercials and image-makers, it was the first time many of us discovered, "Oh, wait, LeBron James isn't as polished as I thought he was." That's not good for business, obviously, but he chose to do it himself, and it was real and jarring. How often does a brand looked scared on live TV?
James just turned 26 this month. Isn't that about when young men find their voice? It is just very difficult to find it in this climate, and not just because everything around James is poisoned. The media age has left any athlete with an opinion in an odd spot: We'll either rip you for not being honest or rip you for being disagreeable and tell you to just shut up.
Athletes are the most genuinely confident people I've ever met, by profession, in any line of work.
They've climbed over too many cutthroat obstacles with a belief in themselves to doubt it. They get rewarded for being just how they are -- in money, success, fame, glory, women -- so it doesn't breed the kind of introspection that produces normal human doubt. But James has to wonder, as he keeps stepping in it, as he continues to suffer a public backlash unlike any he has known in his life as a beloved child star, if it is easier, more peaceful, to just retreat and conceal. He never got into any trouble back when he did only that.
I don't know how much is inside all that muscled LeBron packaging. Great writers have gotten close to it without revealing much of anything.
Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had full access to James and wrote a book he considers soul-selling garbage. The mention of it brings him shame.
J.R. Moehringer is an extraordinary writer and reporter who followed James for GQ after The Decision. James was more interested in the photo shoot than anything else. About the only thing Moehringer uncovered is that James doesn't like to be alone and is always surrounded by the safety of a dozen.
In the scarring months after The Decision, James retreated to the safety of those commercials. And Nike produced a brilliant one. It was slick, funny and clever, and it spoke eloquently. But reach inside the gloss, and it said what, exactly? It said that a guy figuring out who he wants to be still doesn't exactly know what he'd like to be. It asked you if he should be what you want him to be without telling us what he wanted to be.
LeBron James actually showed us more with his opinions on contraction and karma then he did in that beautiful commercial. The next step in growing up in front of us is having the confidence and conviction to keep that vulnerable chin out after you've revealed yourself.
Maybe that'll get you knocked down, eyes stinging.
Or maybe it'll make you better at believing you can fight.