We are witnesses, as the billboard states, and this stage we have witnessed it all. The vanity of LeBron James. The self-centeredness. The shots passed up early in his career, the subsequent misses and the makes. The Decision. The titles and the losses. The Return.
And now, dare we say, the evolution and the growth.
James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Boston Celtics by an 89-77 score in Boston last night, a game in which James finished with a forgettable (for him) stat line of 24 point, seven rebounds, six turnovers, three assists, two steals, one block and a partridge in a pear tree. Four days after the gritty Celtics pushed Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors to double overtime, James and the Cavs completely smothered and suffocated a Boston team that Cleveland unceremoniously swept in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
Bottom line: the game was completely and utterly uninteresting were it not for what James did smack dab in the middle of it.
At halftime, as part of their nightly “Hero Among Us” ceremony, the Celtics paid tribute to Aaron Miller, a 16-year-old who recently excelled in the Special Olympics. Based on all accounts, Miller was born with brain damage so severe that doctors said he would never walk or talk, odds that Miller has so greatly overcome that he now belongs to both his high school golf and basketball teams.
James saw this. And so he approached Miller, shook his hand and gave him a warm pat on the head, then returned to the floor.
Here’s what James told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald afterward:
“I wasn’t able to hear the whole story because I was actually in the game and coach was drawing up a play. But I looked up at the Jumbotron and I saw what he’s been through and where he is now, and I think the doctors said he would never walk again or talk again — or , something like that. I looked up there and I just, I mean, this game is so much more than basketball. And also seeing he had my shoes on. I designed those shoes for kids with conditions where they’re not able to tie their own shoestrings. It’s just one strap, and they’re able to get them on with one hand or whatever the case may be. Then when I saw his story it was just like, I don’t know — I felt like I was part of him, so I was just showing my respect and gave him my shoes. It was well-received.”
Look, maybe you’re a cynic. Maybe you’re not. Maybe you think LeBron James’ actions last night were contrived. Maybe you don’t.
But here’s the thing. I DON’T CARE. Neither should you. James will get his five minutes of accolades from this story, right up until his next late-game miss or inevitable act of self-absorption. And we’ll criticize him for it. When the final horn sounds, James’ gesture will mean a hell of a lot more to Miller than it will for James.
It’s called giving.
Remember Charles Barkley and his unwillingness to serve as a role model? Rightly or wrongly, James doesn’t subscribe to the theory. Maybe he’s just trying to sell us all more shorts, shirts, sneakers. Or maybe he knows what it’s like to not have a father.
In the end, if it’s a little of both, and that’s okay, too.
Look, I’ve never been a huge fan of James as competitor. There’s always been something missing there. James doesn’t have the killer instinct that Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan had, and that is at least part of the reason he has lost four of his six career trips to the Finals. But as any parent will tell you, you are who you are. James conceding the final shot to Donyell Marshall in 2007 doesn’t make him the winner that Kobe and Michael were, but it probably makes him an infinitely better guy.
Such is the paradoxical nature of professional sports, particularly in the NBA.
For kids, life can be confusing. The messages are almost always mixed. We teach them to share and be respectful of others and yet, once the game starts, we tell them that winning is important, too. Be aggressive, but not too aggressive. Don’t pick a fight, but defend yourself. Sometimes, it’s okay to be selfish.
As an adult, let alone as a kid, it can be enough to make your head spin.
Like everyone else, James has had trouble negotiating it all. At certain times, he has been too selfish. At others, he hasn’t been selfish enough. When you get right down to it, King James is the only athlete in American history — other than, say, Tiger Woods — whose every action in his entire life has been chronicled as if he were the star of The Truman Show. And LeBron gets it right much of the time.
As a winner in the NBA, sure, James has fallen short to date. But as a person, he looks pretty darned good from courtside.
Just ask 16-year-old Aaron Miller.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He 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.