On LeBron James, Michael Scott, and Saying Stupid Things

May 11, 2011

LeBron James’ probably-now-abandoned quest to become a Global Icon had been going so smoothly for years. In Cleveland, LeBron pretty much nailed all four items on the checklist: Be obscenely good at something people like to watch, host Saturday Night Live, star in commercials, and avoid making a public gaffe at pretty much every turn.

Things haven’t gone nearly so well for him post-Decision, though.

Item number one, of course, is fine. LBJ has been as spectacular as ever on the court, a hurricane of size and skill that has — despite some popular sentiment — not been made any less effective by the presence of All-Star teammates. He still has an SNL hosting on his resume (and nobody can ever take it away from him, dammit) and he’s still in at least one really dumb commercial.

It’s item four that’s proving troublesome. We’ll even leave aside The Decision and all its social/cultural implications, its effect on his legacy, and the fact that it was one of the most uncomfortable hours of television ESPN has ever aired (which is saying something).

The Decision would receive votes in a poll on the biggest sporting PR fiascos of all time. But even if you leave it completely out of the discussion, the guy had a pretty awful year from a media perception, foot-in-mouth standpoint. Let’s break down the list of head-scratching LeBron moments.

Playing time complaints

The controversy — After a November game, LBJ simply said his 44 minutes were “too much.” Nothing too bad here, really. But it was the first month of the season. He was just getting warmed up.

The clarification — “It got blew up out of proportion, saying that I told coach Spo [Erik Spoelstra] that he’s playing me too much and he’s a bad coach… You kind of understand sometimes what Randy Moss was talking about when he said, ‘I will not be answering any more questions.’ Because every time I say something, it gets turned out of character.”

Moving on.

Craig Sager interview

The controversy — After Miami routed Cleveland in LeBron’s first return, TNT sideline reporter Sager asked James if there was anything he wanted to say to Cleveland fans. LeBron’s answer included this gem: “I have the utmost respect for this franchise, utmost respect for these fans, and just continue the greatness for myself here in Miami and try to get better everyday.”

Continue the greatness for myself here in Miami. Did he stay up all night thinking of that one?

The clarification — A couple hours later, he tweeted: “Did a post game interview with Craig Sager and I mentioned “Greatness” and I didn’t mean my self individually, I meant to say US as a TEAM working towards “Greatness”. Anyways Great Team Win for US tonight!”

This was the first in a string of incidents where LeBron says something stupid and then, apparently forgetting that the internet and ESPN exist, clarifies his comment by claiming he never said it. His capitalization of the words “team” and “us,” though? Now that’s convincing.

Contraction 

The controversy — LeBron basically advocated for contraction, and volunteered Minnesota and New Jersey as candidates. “Imagine if you could take Kevin Love off Minnesota and add him to another team and you shrink the [league],” James said. “Looking at some of the teams that aren’t that great, you take Brook Lopez or you take Devin Harris off these teams that aren’t that good right now and you add him to a team that could be really good. Not saying let’s take New Jersey and let’s take Minnesota out of the league. But hey, you guys are not stupid, I’m not stupid, it would be great for the league.”

That would make him an enemy under pretty much any circumstance, but with the upcoming labor negotiations, this was a boneheaded thing to say. Players Union president Derek Fisher called LBJ’s comments “surprising,” which was his diplomatic way of calling them “He said that? Son of a bitch.”

The clarification — This is where it gets really good: “That’s crazy, because I had no idea what the word ‘contraction’ meant before I saw it on the Internet. I never even mentioned that. That word never even came out of my mouth. I was just saying how the league was back in the ’80s and how it could be good again. I never said, ‘Let’s take some of the teams out.’ “

Ahem. Here, we see The King trying to wriggle out of something that is literally impossible to wriggle out of. Fortunately for him, things famous athletes say are never written down or recorded, and he can just claim it was made up and everyone will believe him.

The Tweet

The controversy — While Cleveland was suffering a 112-57 smackdown to the Lakers, LeBron tweeted: “Crazy. Karma is a b****. Gets you every time. It’s not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!” This was seemingly in response to a nutty letter Cavs owner Dan Gilbert sent to Cavs fans that said James would be cursed, and Cleveland would win a title before him. In fairness to LeBron, it was a silly thing for Gilbert to say. While clearly combative, I’d say LBJ’s tweet was borderline justified here.

The clarification — “It’s just how I was feeling at the time. It wasn’t even a comment from me, it was someone who sent it to me and I sent it out. It wasn’t toward that team…I think everyone looks into everything I say. Everybody looks too far into it. No hit toward that organization.”

Let’s break this down. First, LeBron said the tweet was just an expression of his feelings. Almost certainly true, and enough justification for me. Then he says it wasn’t his tweet, but something someone first sent to him. If this was the case, it would’ve appeared as a “Retweet.” It didn’t. Next, he says it wasn’t toward the Cavaliers. Which wouldn’t be believable even if he were to say who it really was toward. Finally, he plays the victim card. The poor guy was forced to make inflammatory tweets about the team he ditched. Leave him alone!

Skipping the Introductions

The controversy — Before his second game back in Cleveland, LBJ no-showed the visiting player introductions, where he would have been lustily booed.

The clarification — After the game, he offered an annoyingly conceited explanation: “I was just using the restroom. Am I allowed to do that?”

Yup.

“That’s retarded.”

The controversy — When Dwyane Wade was asked if a play in which he injured Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, LeBron muttered “That’s retarded” under his breath (What I don’t get: Why can’t these guys face the media on their own after games, like everybody else does?) The microphone picked it up, and he had support groups all over him in minutes. Oops.

The clarification — Well at first, there was none. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” LeBron said at first when questioned about his muttering. “I didn’t understand the question. It’s definitely blown out of proportion. I don’t think Dwyane is a dirty player. So it’s the same as me saying, ‘I don’t think that’s a great question,’ or, ‘I think it’s a stupid question.’”

Of course, that’s not the same thing. A day later, he formally apologized. But for 48 hours, he acted like he didn’t understand the fuss.

I think that completes the list of public slip-ups, though there very well may be a few I forgot about.

It’s true that LeBron has perhaps unfairly become a media lightning rod and is more closely scrutinized than any other athlete. It’s also true that he’s still the best basketball player in the world, and that any arguments to the contrary are likely centered on “intangibles” and fueled by dislike for his persona.

But he’s as bad in front of the microphone as he is good on the court. For a guy who has in the past been so image conscious, he’s been remarkably not-media-savvy. And it really is comical to see him waffle between “muscle-flexing villain who isn’t afraid to say controversial things” and “apology guy,” and often get lost in between.

His cycle has been: Say something embarrassing, offensive, or both, then backpedal, clarify, and outright deny until he thinks everyone believes him. It reminds me so much of Michael Scott in each episode of The Office that I half-expect LeBron to answer a question about his penetration with “That’s what she said.”

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