"Savior," "cancer," "hero" and now "redemption." Sport and the chroniclers of sport have a way of cheapening powerful words.
We co-opt and bastardize them until we believe a cancer really is a player demanding more touches, a hero is the guy who hits a game-winning home run and a savior is the newly drafted quarterback.
Or in the case of LeBron James, we confuse a ring with redemption.
In the days since the Miami Heat won the NBA championship, we keep repeating this narrative that LeBron redeemed himself by doing exactly what he promised when he took his talents to South Beach. This is disingenuous because it implies and furthers this idea that somehow LeBron had only a basketball problem.
He did have a basketball problem, much in the same way Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Reggie Miller did. LeBron was a great player who had yet to win. As a result, he, like the others, was judged as lacking — in leadership, in talent, in finishing skills.
When Malone went to the Los Angeles Lakers or Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns and eventually the Houston Rockets in search of a ring, though, they were not universally hated — or really even hated at all. That LeBron was, and still is by some, suggests his problem was not simply the lack of a ring.
This is why a ring alone cannot redeem LeBron. His was not simply a basketball problem, or a lack-of-a-championship problem. His was an image problem, an image he cultivated.
Nike presented him as The Chosen One, and he believed it. He actually told National Public Radio, “Maybe I am The Chosen One.” And he slowly morphed into this overly enabled, selfish, megalomaniac who appeared to give up on his hometown team twice — once in the playoff series against the Boston Celtics and again when he decided to “take my talents to South Beach.”
Whether this is who he really is, frankly, is irrelevant because this became the perception of him. He managed to turn off a good portion of the country. Nor were these simply “haters.”
Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was not kidding when he said he was hearing from people all over the country during the NBA Finals a year ago — including many former players and coaches — wishing him luck and offering help and advice on how to take down Miami. There was something not only about how LeBron handled leaving Cleveland but how he handled everything afterward that made people root against him.
A ring alone does not make this better.
This is not to take away from what LeBron accomplished, what the Heat accomplished or the ring itself. There is no doubt power in the ring, and LeBron changed how we saw him as a basketball player with how he performed in these playoffs. He was as good as Most Valuable Player implies — leading and dominating, handling pressure and finishing, and carrying his team for long stretches. So if the thing he needed to be redeemed from was a lack of a ring, then we have redemption.
The word means, at least to me, being saved or delivered from one’s own mistakes.
No amount of touchdowns or Super Bowls were capable of redeeming Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. His redemption came not in how he played but in how he changed, how he atoned for what he had done wrong. That is actual redemption.
I am not comparing dogfighting and The Decision. There is no comparison. One was a criminal act that caused unspeakable pain to sentient beings incapable of defending themselves. The other was a kid being immature and that immaturity manifesting itself in The Decision, the pep rally, a claim that the backlash against The Decision was race-related, the fake coughing, the lack of sportsmanship.
There is a video going around of Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scotty Brooks talking to his team in the huddle in Game 5. It was long after the game was decided and yet before the buzzer. There was talk about holding their heads high, but there was also a moment where he talked about going out there and treating Miami as champions.
“They earned it fair and square,” he said.
This was exactly not how LeBron handled losing in 2011. Whatever you think of Dirk Nowitzki, he deserved that kind of respect. He had gone through hell to get to his championship — been doubted and written off as soft and too European. And when he finally won with far less than Miami had this season, Dwyane Wade tipped his cap and LeBron unleashed his scowl, telling us we were all going to wake up to our own miserable lives.
Does a ring redeem this? Does it redeem what he did to Cleveland? Does it change how we view who he is? Or how he plays?
As I hear about LeBron, the Finals and redemption, I do not totally disagree in the premise, merely the tense. The Finals were a transformative moment for him and hold potential for real redemption, not in the ring but how he uses it going forward.
The word "redemption" always reminds me of "The Shawshank Redemption," and Red in particular. The redemption is not simply in being free but in what one does with that freedom.
“I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain,” Red said.
This, to me, is where LeBron is. He is free from having not won a title, from criticisms that he is incapable, free from The Decision viewed as his defining moment.
Redemption comes in what he does next.
I hope he does redeem himself. I hope he becomes somebody we can root for. I hope.