NBA

'Contraction'-gate shows LBJ's youth

Image: LeBron James of the Miami Heat (Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)
James is facing criticism for comments on league contraction.
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Bill Reiter

Bill Reiter reported on LeBron James' first season in Miami and has covered the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics and NCAA tournament for FOXSports.com. He also co-hosts Hawkins and Reiter on FOX Sports Radio (Sundays, 12-3 p.m. ET), which can be heard on the FOX Sports App, iHeartRadio, XM247 or your local station. Previously, he was an award-winning sports enterprise writer for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter.

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At the heart of the latest LeBron James publicity goof lies a deeper, more important meaning than the fact that one of basketball’s truest talents claims he doesn’t know what the word “contraction” means.

In this latest publicity blunder, we now know what has separated — and may always separate — The King from the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant and other stars: That growing up a prince did more harm than good to LeBron’s development.

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Last week, with his team on a roll, James decided it would be a good idea to suggest that the NBA cut some teams and thus reverse the diluting of talent taking place across the league.

Moving past whether this is a good idea, let’s just focus on this hard and cold truth: The guy who brought America “The Decision” — and torched his own reputation — called for a policy that would cost cities their teams and NBA players their jobs.

Master of public relations, LeBron James is not.

“Imagine if you could take Kevin Love off Minnesota and add him to another team and you shrink the (league),” James told reporters last Thursday. “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.”

Countdown to backlash in three … two … one …

Nets coach Avery Johnson probably summed up the are-you-kidding-me vibe best: “Maybe the league would be better if we didn’t have three stars on one team.”

Derek Fisher, president of the players association, played the diplomat while calling The King’s comments “surprising.”

Others grumbled in private that the guy just doesn’t get it.

Which, it must be said, he doesn’t.

Then came Monday.

LeBron, probably hearing some talk that people were unhappy with him, decided it would be best to offer another proclamation telling the good people of the land what to think.

Note: This is where being a child prodigy can get you into some trouble.

Because, LeBron, you’re not actually a king — which means people really are going to question what you say.

On to his response:

“That’s crazy, because I had no idea what the word ‘contraction’ meant before I saw it on the Internet,” he told reporters after Monday’s practice. “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.’”

Doesn’t know what contraction means?

Does he really expect people to buy this?

The answer is, yes he does.

Like any king, James was a prince first — a child prodigy for whom the normal rules, and the accompanying lessons they offered, didn’t apply.

Most all other NBA stars percolated for a time in the real world.

Before achieving their acclaim, each of those luminaries had their own struggles. Jordan got cut from the varsity team in high school. Bryant was drafted, gasp, 13th out of high school. Bird turned tail and left Indiana his freshman year.

LeBron? He was crowned The Chosen One by Sports Illustrated at a tender enough age to ensure, once chosen, he would never be the same again.

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That’s why other greats better grasped the struggle, work and common sense behind their station and stardom.

Magic Johnson had enough time outside the spotlight to understand that, if he were to shine his brightest beneath it, he must advance a part of his game every offseason.

Jordan had to start by proving himself under a legendary coach in college.

Bird had to get himself back to college and lead a real group of non-stars to greatness.

Bryant had to prove he was more than an oddity, some kid guard drafted in the first round out of high school.

LeBron was playing for coaches who were at best secondary to his teenage talent. He was surrounded by friends who still can’t look past his greatness to glimpse the real word. He knew about his talent before learning how to master it and its accompanying responsibilities.

That kind of knowledge can be dangerous for young people who don’t know what to do with it.

LeBron is, at his most basic, a child prodigy, surrounded from a young age by those yes-men and like-minded friends who know no world outside of The Chosen One’s spectacularly fun and distorting bubble.

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The latest evidence — “contraction”-gate — comes to us from LeBron himself, a man who takes the meaning of self-inflicted wound to a whole new level.

I’m convinced he and his entourage are convinced “The Decision” was not the debacle it was. That, instead, it was a mean-spirited media creation meant to soil a great man surrounded by the jealousies of smaller men.

Since no one in his camp will give it to the guy straight, I’ll try: “The Decision” was a stupid mistake enhanced only by your unwillingness to see that.

That’s why, LeBron, you’re booed in places like Memphis and Sacramento.

LeBron, you’re human. Learn to apologize. Learn to stand behind your statements. Anything but this notion that the public at large — media, fans, owners, whoever — will swallow whatever you offer up because you’re The Chosen One.

This is the difference between LeBron and other great talents.

LeBron didn’t learn how to manage, or not manage, his enormous ego and fame because both became a part of him during his youth.

Herein lies the trapdoor behind the man’s talent: He runs the risk, like many child prodigies encumbered by incredible fame — fame many adults cannot handle — of swaying away from reality into his own fantasy land.

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It can manifest itself in his ironclad belief that everyone will buy the notion an NBA veteran and two-time MVP doesn’t know what the word “contraction” means.

Or that “The Decision” was a really good plan and he’s going to just keep doing what he’s doing.

Or by convincing himself, during tough times, his coach is the problem and, man, why is he so dang hard on me?

Or that he doesn’t need to rebound quite as much as everyone else, if he just shoots one more three-pointer …

Yes, the silly to-contract-or-not-contract talk is a symptom of a deeper disease plaguing the lynchpin of a championship contender.

In his words about contraction are clear signs LeBron remains too much the child star, too little the wise adult.

Will it matter? Will it derail a team coming together, playing well heading in the right direction?

Hard to say. LeBron’s talents are as epic and undeniable as the impact of his childhood fame.

Which one wins out when championships are on the line may come down to who, in key moments, The Chosen One chooses to be — the child star with all its accompanying baggage or the transcendent talent rising with maturity and poise to meet the moment at hand.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter.

Tagged: Lakers, Nets

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