LeBron James changed the game, attitude

Reporter and Reporter

Never in a million years could anyone have convinced me LeBron James, not even two years removed from the highly-censured “Decision,” would receive cheers on the road again.

As New Jersey Nets fans belted out “MVP!” chants Monday to pay reverence to James’ remarkable fourth-quarter run — when he scored the Miami Heat’s final 17 points to close out a 101-98 win — I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

Maybe it’s because James has been doing and saying the right things lately.

Less than a month ago, he and teammate Dwayne Wade organized a congregation of Heat players in their Detroit hotel to make a public statement regarding the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, which happened back in February. In a call for justice and to speak out against racial stereotyping, the team posed for a picture donning hoodies — Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was allegedly gunned down by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in a residential housing community in Sanford, Fla.

Then this past week, after Boston’s Ray Allen and Wade spoke out in favor of compensation for Olympic athletes, James went against Wade — whom James has been criticized for following around like a lapdog and genuflecting to in the fourth quarter of games — when he prudently chose to take the high road.

“I love representing my country,” James said last Wednesday. “I’ve done it since 2004 and I’m looking forward to doing it in London. As far as (pay), I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a part of the team, to be selected again.”

The truth is I tried to suppress my fanatical devotion to my favorite NBA player after he left Cleveland without so much as calling owner Dan Gilbert to let him know, but James just isn’t an unlikable figure. I admit, he made some unflattering remarks when he and Bosh were introduced, ushered by Wade, to Heat fans in July 2010, and some of his interviews this season have been saturated in self-pity over the scrutiny he receives from the media, but that’s not the real him.

James tries to pretend the talking heads don’t faze him and embraces his role as a villain, but it’s not very difficult to see past the bravado. How can one easily find comfort in a role they have never played before?

From AAU ball up until the end of his stint in Cleveland, James was adulated by teammates and fans alike. In a 2008 documentary, “More Than a Game” — a film about James and four of his teammates, three of whom played on the same AAU team as him at St.Vincent-St. Mary — he was cast as a boy who, as a result of being an only child with an absent father, embraced his teammates as brothers. As evidence, the four would escort James to midcourt in place of his parents on their senior night.

When James was stripped of his eligibility by the Ohio High School Athletic Association for accepting throw-back jerseys valued at $845 his senior season, he showed up to the next game in slacks and a shirt and was the loudest voice of support heard from the bench. The suspension was reduced to two games after an appeal by James and he would lead the Irish to their third state title in four years.

In an article, “The mistrial of LeBron James,” appearing in Monday’s edition of “ESPN The Magazine,” Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote that those closest to James say he still considers his high school days the happiest of his life, and they speculate his exodus to Miami to team up with Wade, one of his closest friends, “reflects his desire to recapture that joy.”

One of James’ chief criticisms — aside from not winning a championship, of course — during his seven years with the Cavaliers was he had too much fun with teammates. Choreographed celebrations and pregame handshakes convinced some analysts he wasn’t taking the game seriously enough.

And then there was the deplorable “Decision,” which aired on ESPN for all to watch “The King” end his reign in Cleveland and simultaneously crush the entire city’s fan base, and the Heat’s demise in the NBA finals against the Mavericks — when James notoriously shrank in the fourth quarter on several occasions and averaged just 17.8 points per game for the series, nearly nine less than his regular season average (26.7 ppg)  — this past June.

Now, the microscope hovers over James like never before, and it zooms in even closer when the game is on the line. Up until recently, James has given his detractors plenty of ammunition. That is another reason why James’ fourth-quarter sizzle against the Nets on Monday was so satisfying: the guy finally caught himself a break.

It’s also because, despite critical assertions from Gilbert — that James quit on the Cavaliers in the 2010 playoffs — and ESPN’s Tim Legler — that James shied away in big moments during this past year’s finals  — in the past two years, he cares about winning, a whole hell of a lot.

While the dispute over to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement drug on during the offseason, James crafted his skills to a whole new apex. He’s polished his post-up game around the basket and is more selective shooting from the perimeter, as evidenced by the fact he is shooting a career best 52.8 percent from the field.

He’s been doing everything in his power to win, albeit he’s come up short a few times down the stretch on offense, including guarding the opposition’s power forwards. When the Heat played the Lakers back in March, James, a 6-foot-8 wingman, jostled with Los Angeles’ 7-foot Pau Gasol in the paint as Miami held him to 11 points.

Two weeks prior, James led a fourth-quarter surge by the East to cut a 21-point deficit down to two in the All-Star Game, before passing up the final shot and turning the ball over in the process, as the final seconds waned. With a dejected visage in a post-game interview, James responded to ESPN’s Craig Sager’s query about the turnover.

“I’m not going to watch any highlights, man,” he said. “I can’t turn the ball over like that. I feel like I let my team down.”

But in spite of his late-game downfall, he didn’t forget to show class.

“All and all it was a great weekend,” he said. NBA All-Star Weekend was definitely a success once again and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

I’m not really sure, but James may be the first player in the history of the All-Star Game to rankle over the outcome. It’s the All-Star Game: a spectacle for fans where the players neglect to play defense. But it shows the type of competitor he is.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel sorry for James. He gets paid millions of dollars to play basketball and guff from the media is part of the gig. I’m just done rooting against the guy. He may put his foot in his mouth at times, but he gives his team everything he has each night on the court and is an upstanding citizen, as it is well documented that he does oodles for charity. Perhaps most importantly, an unfortunate rarity among athletes, one will not find a “legal issues” section anywhere on his Wikipedia page.