Above all else, the only thing you need to know about the 2011 NBA Finals is that the Miami Heat represent all things evil and the Dallas Mavericks stand for all that is right in this world. There is no middle ground. A large segment of today's sports media would have you believe that the Heat are made up of a traveling gang of bullies, flying to and fro NBA cities across the country stealing the collective milk money of each team, leaving every victim hanging by their jerseys from a coat hanger, kicking their feet helplessly. We, Joe Sportsfan, have eaten this angle up, spewing contempt for the Heat and throwing our support behind the Mavs without taking the time to ask, "Why?"
To be fair, we don't really hate the Heat, just their villainous leader. LeBron James embodies everything we hate about sports: arrogance, lack of loyalty, inflated sense of self-worth. He was blessed with incredible God-given abilities, and seems to have no qualms with flaunting that fact right in our face. "The Decision" showed us that much. But, at the end of that one-hour debacle, was there any real harm inflicted? To James' legacy, sure. To Cleveland's economy, perhaps (although entrusting the well-being of a major city's economy to the whims of an athlete is equal parts irrational and short-sighted). In the end, however, all that happened was a basketball player traded in one uniform for another. Nobody was harmed. No crime was committed. In fact, James donated all of the advertising proceeds of the televised spectacle (over $2 million) to over fifty Boys & Girls Clubs across America, including three in the Cleveland area. The only true lasting effect of the most criticized career move in the history of sports is that a whole bunch of kids will get to spend their summers and after-school time in much nicer facilities than they would've had at their disposal if not for "The Decision." Is that a good reason for designating James "Public Enemy Number One?" We never really took the time to ask. Ironically, most sports fans are deprived of the very qualities (self-awareness and humility) that we despise James for failing to possess.
By no means should James be absolved of his complicity in the whole "Decision" fiasco. He should have known better. A simple phone call to the Cavs would've avoided all of the backlash that resulted. All of the traits attributed to him (arrogance, inflated self-worth, etc.) are appropriately given. The flaw in villifying James lies in the fact that he isn't much different from most of the players found on NBA rosters. Exorbitant egos run rampant throughout the league, not just in Miami.
The Mavericks, themselves, feature a few characters whose actions haven't exactly reflected what we consider wholesome American values. Jason Kidd, Dallas' aging, venerable point guard, pleaded guilty to domestic abuse in 2001 for assaulting his wife. In 2001, DeShawn Stevenson, then 20, admitted to buying alcohol for and having consensual sex with a 14-year old girl. Stevenson had another run-in with the law in 2007 when a friend of his was shot in front of Stevenson's house in the wee hours of the morning. No charges were filed, due to the failure of all the parties involved (including Stevenson) to cooperate with police. Both players play prominent roles on this Dallas team. Neither has had to answer questions regarding their criminal pasts with anything more than a "no comment."
If only life were so easy for James. Such is the reality of media coverage today. An athlete is more likely to be forgiven for committing a crime than for missing a big shot. James, himself, is experiencing this fascinating dichotomy during these Finals. Plagued by poor late-game performances throughout the series, the media (and sports fans everywhere outside of South Florida) are reveling in James' failure to live up to the lofty standards he set for himself and his teammates when he claimed the Heat were destined to win as many as seven championships. A reasonable argument can be made that James has invited all of the scrutiny being directed towards him.
The rub is that by demonizing James and the Heat, our natural inference is to label the Mavs the "good guys", worthy of the public's support and adulation. It's not my place to say whether they are or aren't. My hope, however, is that we (sports fans and media, alike) take the time to look at the character of the players comprising both teams, and recognize that most of them, like us, are flawed. Consider it a "Decision" of our own.