LeBron And Tiger, Two Legends On Divergent Paths

By Dan Bernstein

That their orbits existed concurrently was lucky enough for us, even if these stars shone brightest at different times. One burns hotter than ever, while the other has receded and dimmed.

In 2008 — eight years ago, already — LeBron James was the NBA’s scoring leader and All-Star Game MVP. He was named All-NBA for the fourth consecutive year. Title dreams were alive in Cleveland, with a belief that the Akron product would carry the Cavaliers to previously unseen glory.

Meanwhile, that summer, Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, outlasting Rocco Mediate in a playoff despite playing on what was later revealed to be a torn ACL and a double stress-fracture of his left tibia. It was his 14th major victory and third U.S. Open title. It placed him alongside Jack Nicklaus as the only two players to record the career Grand Slam three times.

Tuesday night, James and the Cavaliers demolished the Toronto Raptors, 115-84, in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals. It was their ninth straight victory in these playoffs. James made his first nine shots and finished 11-13 from the field, scoring 24 points while adding six rebounds and four assists in just 28 minutes. His thunderous windmill dunk and subsequent scream to the rafters in the second quarter was the image that resonated through the night — a force of nature still at the peak of his powers, bellowing west toward Oklahoma City and San Francisco that he’s coming.

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On Monday, Woods teed up a golf ball at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, DC to promote the tournament to be hosted there next month by his charitable foundation. In perfect conditions, Woods lined up a wedge from the tenth tee, 102 yards from the green, and hit it into a pond.

He put another ball down, swung again and left that one short in the water as well. A third try met the same sorry fate, and that was the end of the exhibition. He does not know when his surgically repaired back will allow him to play again, if at all. He speaks cryptically about his future, at times wryly hinting that he’s making progress, at others issuing only melancholy uncertainties.

Both men have aged noticeably in the last eight years, and each has had his own unique, self-imposed obstacles to overcome. For James it was the public relations disaster of The Decision, his tacky, nationally televised choice to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and the ensuing, off-putting parties. It took time and basketball for him to regain much of his previous standing, earning it back by proving his alpha stature even on a handpicked team, powering the Heat to a pair of NBA championships. Then an honest and thoughtfully managed return to Cleveland further healed old wounds.

For Woods it was the breakdown of his personal life at the same time his body began to fail him. The barrage of tawdry stories laid waste to what was a tightly conceived image, culminating with a tearful public apology for his behavior in front of all the cameras and his own mother. He has not returned from his exile, even as he remains a visible enough commercial presence through Nike and other brands.

On that front James is now otherworldly. He signed a deal with that very company that is believed to be worth as much as one billion dollars, the largest such contract in Nike’s history.

James was once mocked for embracing the nickname King James, a title that now befits him entirely. There’s no irony to his chosen Twitter handle, with few left to question his right to call himself what he indeed became.

Woods is like a certain monarch, too: King Lear.

James is the heart of a Cavaliers team peaking at just the right time, as much due to his influence on the coaching decisions as his ability to put the ball in the basket. He is the most significant element of the entire organization, and is in full command of it.

Woods, half-mad, wanders the heath after the storm, impotent and sad.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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