Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Exception to the Rule

I don’t like Cleveland. I’ve never liked Cleveland. Cleveland and I get along almost as well as Suzanne Somers and the rest of the “Three’s Company” cast. We’re like Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Anniston, Biggie and 2-Pac, Scar and Mufasa. If Cleveland was lying on the side of the road, beaten and begging for help, I would look the other way and cross the street. Cleveland and I would never be Facebook Friends. It is what it is.

Growing up in Cincinnati, I was bred to despise the “city on the lake.” For as long as I can remember, Cleveland and Cincy have always had this unspoken rivalry, and as a member of the Queen City, I have always felt compelled to uphold this aversion towards our northern counterpart. Most of this opposition is undoubtedly connected to sports; as a die-hard Bengals fan, the Cleveland Browns have always been the enemy. I hate the Browns, which in many ways has led to my distaste for the city as a whole. I detest the Indians and Cavaliers. Highlights of “The Fumble” by Earnest Byner and “The Drive” by John Elway put a smile on my face. The name Jose Mesa makes me giggle with glee. Replays of Michael Jordan hitting “The Shot” against the Cavs in the ’89 playoffs warm my heart to the core. If it wasn’t for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the fact that Halle Berry was born there, I would be in full support of selling the city to Canada. Oh yeah, I said it.

Nevertheless, with all the contempt I have towards Cleveland, with all the scorn that fills the blood in my veins, there is still an exception to the rule. I love LeBron James.

I’ve been keeping these feelings under wraps for quite some time now, unsure of whether my admiration for LeBron was legitimate. But no matter how hard I tried to dislike him, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was like I was Sandra Bolluck and LeBron was Hugh Grant in Two Weeks Notice. I couldn’t help but love him. Despite the fact that he was from Cleveland, that I had been raised since birth to root for him to fail, it made no sense to lie to myself. I am a “Witness.”

Obviously, it is no secret how incredible of a basketball player LeBron James is; acknowledging his prominence on the court was never something I had to question or struggle with. We have never seen a player quite like him. Since coming straight out of high school to be selected #1 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft, James has completely revamped the Cleveland Cavaliers organization. He won Rookie of the Year in the ’03-’04 season and has been a five-time All-Star and All-NBA member. LeBron has also led the Cavs to four straight postseasons and even led the team to the NBA Finals in 2007.

His career averages are basically 28 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists per game. He’s never missed more than seven games in a season, and has played in a remarkable 472 out of 492 regular season contests throughout his career. LeBron helped lead the 2008 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Beijing this past summer, and he is on track to take the Cavs to the Finals once again this year. He was also honored with his first MVP Award for the ’08-’09 season, and even finished as runner-up for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, too, just for the hell of it. They call him “King James” for a reason.

The man is simply amazing. He’s built like a power forward (6’-8”, 250 lbs), handles the ball like a point guard, and runs the floor like a freaking race horse. He can jump out of the gym and score at will. He rebounds, plays defense, and makes everyone around him a better player. It seems as if he was placed on this earth to record triple-doubles, and I just have this feeling that the MVP Award he recently received definitely won’t be the last to come his way. It’s impossible to watch the man and not respect how he plays the game of basketball. Ever since he was a junior in high school, I’ve never once had to consider whether he was an amazing athlete. All this time, I’ve simply questioned whether I liked James as a player, from a “fan’s perspective.” But I’m not questioning it anymore.

The thing that is so interesting about my fascination with LeBron – and in all honesty, the fascination of basically every sports fan in the world with LeBron – is that guys like James are usually very easy to dislike. Being incredibly rich, incredibly famous, and incredibly talented usually makes it effortless to detest an athlete, unless he plays for the team of your primary rooting interest. I have no problem hating Tom Brady, Alex Rodriguez and Kobe Bryant, but LeBron is different. He’s too engaging and entertaining for me to resent him. He’s too cool and too brilliant for me to have any ill feelings about him.

James is like a combination of Zack Morris and AC Slater. His game consists of a dash of Michael Jordan’s intensity, a chunk of Charles Barkley’s personality, and a hearty portion of the Teen Wolf’s skill set. I love the way he and his teammates pose for imaginary pictures when they announce the starters before every game. I love how he dances on the bench and jumps around like a 2nd grader when one of his teammates makes a nice play. I love how he jokes around with the media and hobnobs with Jay-Z and Beyonce after games. I love his SportsCenter commercials. So many of the things LeBron does should completely annoy me, but somehow he makes them amusing and enjoyable. He cannot not be funny. It’s as if he has the entire world under some kind of hypnotic spell.

In fact, the last athlete we’ve seen from the pantheon of the “Big-3 American” sports (basketball, football, baseball) that was as universally loved as much as LeBron...(get ready)…was Michael Jeffrey Jordan. That’s right, not since his Airness himself have we seen a professional basketball player garner this much adoration from sports fans everywhere. It’s remarkable how strongly people gravitate towards LeBron, regardless of what city they’re from or which team they root for. And to top it all off, James’s stardom is even more impressive than MJ’s.

Now before you light the torches, let me explain. LeBron is not yet the player Jordan was, and to be truthful, he may never be. No one has ever matched Michael’s intensity or desire to succeed. No one has ever come close to Jordan’s ability to dominate in the clutch; no one rivals Jordan’s killer instinct. By no means am I saying that LeBron has reached Michael’s level – maybe someday, but right now, there is no debate. It’s like comparing Moses to Jesus Christ. Sure, Moses was a great dude, but he wasn’t the Messiah. The point I’m trying to make by saying that LeBron’s eminence is more remarkable than MJ’s, is that James is a much more flamboyant and extravagant personality than Jordan ever was.

Jordan didn’t choreograph pre-game skits. He didn’t flex for the cameras after dunks or dance on the sidelines. He didn’t dress up like Bobby Brown at the ESPYs. Jordan was too intense for that. He had a good sense of humor and was incredibly marketable, but not to the grandiose extent that James is. Michael just scored points, won championships, and sold expensive shoes. He was an international icon, but LeBron has become an international celebrity. The things that LeBron does are much more polarizing and litigious than anything MJ did, and yet James is revered for all of it. His teammates genuinely love him, his opponents like and respect him, and the fans adore him. We’re all just drinking the LeBron kool-aid, and it doesn’t look like the well is ever going to run dry.

On top of all of that, despite everything James has accomplished at this point in his career, despite all the fame and accolades he has garnered, LeBron’s stock can only go up from here. He’s just 24 years old. He’s only in his sixth season in the league. He’s only been to the Finals once, only won the League Scoring Title once, only been crowned MVP once. The man still has a lot of championships to win and a lot of awards to receive. He’s good looking, funny, rich, built like a GI Joe on steroids, and talented beyond belief. Regardless of what we’ve already seen, we have only scratched the surface of LeBron’s potential. The future is wide open.

In 25 years or so, we might be looking back on King James as the greatest basketball player to ever live. We might remember him as the most unique and unparalleled athlete to walk this earth. We may even consider him a global icon, superstar, and personality by the likes of which no one has ever witnessed. And more importantly, more incredible, implausible, and unfathomable than any of those other things combined, we might look back on LeBron James as the one man that could do the impossible – the one man that could give my heart a soft spot for the city of Cleveland.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind.” Or, in other words, “Greatness, thy name is LeBron.”



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Friday, May 1, 2009

The Weight Is Over

With the sixth pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals select…Andre Smith, offensive tackle from Alabama.

My head immediately fell into my hands. I tried my best to muffle the expletives. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. I started to breath like I was in the middle of a Lamaze class. It was no use; nothing seemed to work. My biggest fear had come true.

For the past month or so, leading up to the NFL Draft, I have been dreading the Bengals selection at the #6 spot. I had this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that we were going to take Andre Smith, the much maligned offensive lineman whose draft-stock has plummeted in recent weeks faster than Wall Street; it’s the same terrible feeling I get right before watching anything that involves Patrick Dempsey. I knew we needed to draft a tackle (unless we wanted to send Levi Jones’s corpse out for another season), but I figured Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe – the top two tackles in the draft – would be off the board by the time we had to select. Luckily, to my surprise, there we were at the sixth spot, with Eugene Monroe sitting in the Green Room all ripe for the picking. But the Football Gods couldn’t pass up this golden opportunity to laugh in my face, so they sent out Roger Goddell to announce Smith’s name. I must have been a terrible person in my previous life.

Now you might be wondering, “Justin, why are you so distraught?”. Well, let us review Andre’s track record over the past 4 months: On December 29, 2008, Smith was suspended from the Alabama program for the Allstate Sugar Bowl – a BCS, nationally-televised game. The last game of the season, the biggest game of his career, and Smith is suspended for having illegal conversations with a professional sports agent. Strike one.

After declaring for the ’09 NFL Draft a few days later, Smith preceded to show up at the Rookie Combine over-weight and out of shape. Strike two. Following a few days of poor workouts, Andre decided to leave the combine early (strike three), and did so without informing anyone (strike four). He even admitted that he was unprepared (strike five), and then went on to have a sub-par “Pro Day” workout at Alabama (strike 684). He ran the 40-yard dash (with his shirt off?) in a blazing 5.28 seconds, which was barely faster than Stephen Hawking’s time. Everything he touched turned to crap; he was like the “bizzaro King Midas.”

But don’t think I gave up on Andre right away. I’ve spent the past week trying to talk myself into the draft pick, trying to rationalize and comprehend why we would take Smith ahead of Eugene Monroe (the offensive tackle from Virginia). I read every piece of post-draft coverage and analysis from every major sports-news outlet. I even read every last bit of propaganda they threw at me on Bengals.com. It didn’t matter. Regardless of how hard I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to support this pick – which is really saying something, because I have talked myself into a lot of ridiculous things concerning the Bengals over the past few seasons. I talked myself into Akili Smith and Dick LeBeau. I convinced myself that Carson Palmer would come back during the ‘05 playoff game, despite the fact that his knee practically went through a meat grinder. I fooled myself into thinking that Chad Ocho Stinko would stop whining and start acting like a grown man. I told myself that Chris Henry’s arrest was a one-time thing. And a two-time thing. And a three-time thing…

I induced myself into believing that Leon Hall could make a tackle, Chris Perry could be a starting running back, and that Shayne Graham could make a clutch field goal. I’ve even convinced myself that one night, owner Mike Brown will be visited by three ghosts, and then wake up, buy everyone in Cincinnati a ham, and hire a real General Manager. Over the years, I’ve talked myself into every single one of these things, and yet I can’t talk myself into Andre Smith. I want to, but I can’t.

And to top it all off, the Bengals have yet to give a reasonable excuse for passing on Monroe, who was consistently ranked as the better offensive tackle on nearly every “big board” of nearly every “draft guru.” The team’s front office hinted that they had slight concerns about a knee injury that Monroe had TWO YEARS AGO (and has shown no negative side-effects of since), but they seem to be perfectly “a-ok” with the laundry list of problems that Smith has had in the past TWO MONTHS. Does that make any sense? Plus, it’s not as if Smith’s knees are any safer than Monroe’s. And if you believe they are, then you’re ignoring the infallible laws of physics. Smith is almost an exact clone of the fat kid from Old School that flips over the vault. He wears ‘71’ on his jersey because it’s the same number as his waste size. Try balancing a boulder on top of two wet noodles, and then tell me that Andre’s knee are a safe bet. I can’t figure it out. No matter how many times I examine this selection, it still continues to make zero sense to me. As George Costanza once said, “This thing is like an onion; the more layers you peel off, the more it stinks.”

In the meantime, the Cincinnati organization – from Mike Brown all the way down to the water-boy – continues to stand by this pick. They swear that they did their homework, and that it somehow shows that Smith was the best fit for the team. They insist, despite what the “draft gurus” might say or the missteps Smith has had along the way, that Andre was the smart choice. I’m not buying it. Forgive me for being skeptical, but I have a hard time trusting the same people (notably Brown) that have drafted the likes of David Klingler, Big Daddy Wilkinson, Reinard Wilson, Akili Smith, Peter Warrick, and Chris Perry…all in the first round. At this point, I think I’ve earned the right to have the same confidence level as Eeyore.

Nevertheless, if there is any silver lining to this situation, it lies in the fact that technically, the jury is still out on this one. Smith still has a chance to prove himself worthy of the sixth overall selection. He still has the opportunity to prove that he won’t hold-out for the entire Bengals’ Training Camp while trying to get a huge contract, or that he won’t skip his offseason workouts and training sessions to go hang out at The Sizzler. He has the ability to establish himself as a dominant offensive tackle, a good teammate, and upstanding member of the Cincinnati community. He can show everyone that all those stupid mistakes he made were just a few minor growing pains, distant speed-bumps in his spotless rear-view mirror. Andre Smith can still prove everyone wrong.

If he does, I will be the first one to admit I was mistaken. And if he doesn’t, I’ll be the last one to be surprised.


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