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LeBron James deserves criticism, but his attackers go overboard

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Predictably, the evisceration of LeBron James continues after his no-show in the NBA Finals.

And James deserves the lion’s share of blame for Miami losing to Dallas because the Heat couldn’t overcome his disappearance despite Dwyane Wade’s brilliance. The moment was too big for James — and that’s all on him.

Still, James’s Finals flop doesn’t justify his standing as a Twitter piñata. His many public relations missteps haven’t resulted in felony indictments. No matter James’s lack of self-awareness, he shouldn’t be treated as an enemy of the state at only 26. Not with James still in position to learn from a young man’s mistakes.

Among many in the media, attacking James is a cottage industry. It grew after he partnered with ESPN on that ill-conceived infomercial last summer to announce his decision to leave Cleveland and sign with Miami in free agency. Some went after him years earlier, writing that “King James” personifies what’s wrong with the NBA, if not all of professional sports.

Obviously, “The Decision” was a narcissistic debacle. At best, James wasn’t completely forthright with Cavaliers management about his intentions. At worst, he outright lied to people with whom he worked for years and then rubbed it in their faces with the help of the NBA’s primary broadcast partner.

It’s also true that James has a sense of entitlement, a cadre of sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear and apparently no clue about the powerful impact of his actions and words.

James put his foot in his mouth again following the Mavericks’ clincher in Game 6 on the Heat’s home court, essentially saying his approach wouldn’t change and all the people who rooted against him were stuck with their depressing little lives. Pressure and criticism seem to bother James, which is a big problem for him, because he’s the most-scrutinized athlete on the planet and figures to be for a long while.

Backtracking on his comments a couple of days later, James explained he didn’t mean to suggest he considers himself superior to anyone. Again, he handled things poorly, but James isn’t alone among athletes in stirring controversy with their conduct and comments. We’ve seen a lot worse from people who have as much, if not more, star power than James.

In 2000, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was fined $250,000 by the NFL in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men following a Super Bowl party in Atlanta.

While with Atlanta in 2007, quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring and lying about it.

The NFL suspended Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games (it was reduced to four) last season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after Georgia prosecutors investigated allegations that Roethlisberger sexually assaulted a 20-year-old college student. No charges were filed.

Lewis, Vick and Roethlisberger are celebrated. What short memories and misguided priorities we have.

Then there’s Kobe Bryant, James’s chief rival for NBA Alpha Male status, whom members of the national media mostly praise. In 2003, the Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar was charged with rape.

Married with a child at the time (the couple now has two children), Bryant acknowledged having sex with his accuser but said he thought it was consensual. The charges eventually were dropped because the woman was unwilling to testify, but Bryant reportedly agreed to negotiate a monetary settlement, the terms of which were not revealed.

Even with the rush to judgment in the court of social media, being charged with a crime doesn’t mean you’re guilty. But Bryant needed just a couple of more NBA championships to largely repair his public image.

The guy confirmed he committed adultery. Perhaps that’s not a big deal to everyone, but just imagine if James faced sexual assault charges and then acknowledged he had sex with his accuser. Twitter might break.

Unlike Bryant, James has never publicly blasted ownership and management while trying to force a trade or issued ultimatums about front-office hiring. James never tried to shout his way out of Cleveland. Over seven seasons, he lifted the Cavaliers as high as he could without another superstar-caliber player to help him. 

About five years ago, I asked two Western Conference general managers whom they would choose first to begin building a championship team. Without hesitation, both said James.

Despite James’s disappointing Finals performance, both this week still said James would be their top pick because he affects the game more than any other player. They acknowledged, however, that James would benefit from finally developing a post game, and expressed doubt he would put in the time this summer because of his outside interests.

Each summer when he was in the league, Magic Johnson added something to his repertoire. Larry Bird refined this and that. Michael Jordan trained relentlessly to remain second to none. Bryant turned to Hakeem Olajuwon to become a force in the post as well as on the perimeter.

Eventually, the NBA’s expected lockout will end. That’s when we’ll know how much, if anything, James learned from the Heat’s frustrating finish. Either he’ll be ready to take the final step that would quiet his critics, or the target probably will grow bigger. 

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