By Tony Massarotti

By Tony Massarotti

I have to come to respect LeBron James, to understand him, to appreciate his unique and selfless talents as the best basketball player of his era.

But I still can’t get past the fact that almost every time he opens his mouth, I feel like he’s talking to himself in the mirror.

Admiring himself.

LeBron is back in the Finals, folks, and that is no small feat. With last night’s victory by the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Atlanta Hawks, James reached the Finals for the fifth consecutive season, something done in NBA history only by members of the Boston Celtics teams of the late 1950s and 1960s. No one in his right mind would ever put James in the same breath as Bill Russell when it comes to winning, but only a stubborn old man would deny James of his rightful place somewhere in the pantheon of NBA greats.

And then, last night, James started talking.

“When I made my decision to come back here, I knew what I wanted to do, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” he told reporters following Cleveland’s four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference finals. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication, and it’s going to be the toughest task for me to try to get this team back to The Finals. I’ve had to step up my leadership. I had to be very patient, which I’m not very patient. I’m not a very patient guy, but I knew I had to work on that.

“To be able to sit at one point during the season and see us at 19-20 and watching my team struggle and me sitting out two weeks, they wanted Coach (David) Blatt fired, saying we needed another point guard, will LeBron and Kyrie (Irving) be able to play together? So many story lines was just happening at that point in time.”

Go back and read that again. I, my, I, I, I, me, I, my, I, I, I, I, I, my, me, LeBron. Holy smokes. Talk about narcissism. James even refers to the Cavs as “my team.” When it comes to self-absorption, James is to sports what Bounty is to the paper towel.

Look, I get it. The NBA is different. In many ways, the star player is the team. Kobe Bryant is every bit the egomaniac that James is and, seemingly, nowhere near as decent a human being. Shaquille O’Neal was (and is) obsessed with himself, too. To win championships, especially in basketball, a certain amount of ego is required.

So here’s the question: does it have to come at the expense of all humility? Michael Jordan was an egomaniac, too, but I don’t remember him being quite so self-absorbed as James. Jordan was obsessed with winning. James is obsessed with himself. Maybe that’s why Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals, never so much as reaching a seventh game, while LeBron could be looking at 2-4 if the Cavs lose to the Golden State Warriors.

Maybe it’s a sign of age, but I don’t remember Larry Bird using “me” or “I” as many times as James used it last night. Ditto for Magic Johnson, who feels far more absorbed now in his post-playing career than he did as a competitor. At the risk of sounding like my father, somebody really needs to teach the current generation – which includes James’ fans – that one of the greatest rewards in life comes in being part of something bigger than you.

It’s as if everyone in the LeBron Generation has been the star of his own home movie collection, like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show.”

Oh wait. That’s right. You all have.

You know who you young folk should really be holding up as a standard? Tim Duncan. He has five championships. He is generally understated and workmanlike, more substance, less flash. Just for kicks, I went back and looked up Duncan’s post-game interview after the San Antonio Spurs won the championship last year here’s what he said:

“What happened last year definitely helped our drive and stay focused for an extended period of time. It very easily could have hit us in different ways and we could have reacted in different ways. But we reacted the right way. We got great leadership from the top in Pop (Gregg Popovich) who came back absolutely fired up and ready to go, and to push us this far and this hard and to come out with the championship is amazing.”

Go back and read that again. Our, us, we, we, we, us. There isn’t a single “I” or “me” in the entire answer. Now, of course, I admit to some creative selection. There were certainly occasions following Game 7 where Duncan spoke of his personal achievements, his ring collection, what the championship meant to him personally. But he never came off even remotely as egomaniacal as James, who wouldn’t know what to do if he walked into a room as something less than the centerpiece.

Admittedly, perception and reality are two different things. By that, I mean there is every chance Duncan and James felt exactly the same things when they spoke, that they merely articulated them in different ways. But I doubt it. At the end of the day, the question is whether either really buys into the team concept for the greater good, whether each believes that he needs others to achieve success.

With James, of course, the irony is that he is a brilliant team player on the court, one who can elevate the play of teammates with a breadth of skill. He is, after all, a brilliant passer. How’s that for a paradox? During the earliest stages of his career, James was criticized for being too unselfish on the court. Now he’s too selfish off it, acting like the megacorporation that he, well, is.

Look, I’m coming around on LeBron. I really am. As the heir apparent to Jordan, he has lived a fishbowl existence that would distort reality for all of us. His narcissistic qualities aren’t entirely his fault. But James is also 30 now, and yet he keeps talking about himself as a leader – shoves it down our throat, actually – which suggests that he still doesn’t quite get it.

Leaders don’t lead by what they say, LeBron.

They lead by what they do.

***

Tony Massarotti covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, and now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.

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