He is too smart and accountable to leave us with the post-game image of a poor sport.
So, don’t be surprised when LeBron James reaches out to express his regret for the way he handled his team’s ouster from the 2009 NBA Playoffs.
After his Cleveland Cavaliers were defeated 103-90 in Game 6, James left the court without the customary handshake with the winning Orlando Magic players. It mimicked his behavior a year earlier in the final playoff loss to the Boston Celtics. James had spoken to the media after the loss to Boston, but this time left the arena without talking with the media, as well.
The next day, Lebron sent a congratulatory e-mail to Dwight Howard of the Magic, his former Olympic teammate. The message seemed more like an explanation, than a salute.
“It’s hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them,” he said. “I’m a winner. It’s not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you’re not going to congratulate them. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’m a competitor. That’s what I do. It doesn’t make sense for me to go over and shake somebody’s hand.”
LeBron James likely will go down in history as one of the best to have ever played the game, perhaps THE best. He carried his team to the best record in the league and was voted the MVP despite strong competition from Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Then he posted over-the-top numbers in the post-season, averaging 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists in the six-game Conference Finals.
Beyond his on-court talent and fierce determination, James has been more than just a solid citizen in the NBA. He has accepted the responsibilities that come with being a professional athlete and cultural icon. He has been accessible, affable, generous with his time, and has used his celebrity status to help charitable causes.
In short, he has done a lot of good things.
This was not one of them.
In this case, Lebron James was simply wrong.
For those who say that LeBron should have been given a “pass” on this issue since he has conducted himself so well as a representative of the NBA, I would respectfully disagree.
If you believe something is wrong, you should point it out, regardless of past “good deeds”.
It has been interesting to read and watch the defenses given.
The New York Post’s Peter Vecsey joined those who believe that LeBron’s post-game silence and “no-handshake” stance showed his “uncompromising competitive nature” and that he shouldn’t apologize for “caring so deeply.” Vecsey also referred to critics as “podium police” and wrote that LeBron has “earned the right many times over to keep his thoughts to himself”.
The other prevailing defense was the “political correctness invading sports” argument and that somehow, showing class at the end of a game is meaningless.
Are we now to believe that shaking hands with an opponent at the end of a game indicates a lack of competitiveness?
Boxers do it.
Hockey players do it.
Do they lack toughness?
Do you think they don’t want to win?
Shaking hands at the end of the game is a sign of respect, both for the game and the competition.
Exhibiting respect for your opponent does not mean you are less of a competitor. It shows that you can handle a loss with grace and dignity. It is an act of responsibility and sportsmanship that is part of our sports culture and should continue to be.
As for leaving without addressing the media, many fans view it as a non-issue, not caring if an athlete talks with the media. But that misses the point.
It’s about accountability – not to the press, but to the players’ teammates, who are now left to explain the loss and his absence.
No one suggests that this is easy.
But part of being a professional athlete is to handle those times when things don’t go your way. Walking off the court without a handshake and out of the locker room without a word to the media is not the right way to handle the adversity that is built into competitive sports.
That said, this will end up being no more than a footnote, a lesson learned, for LeBron James.
Players he respects will speak with him. So will NBA Commissioner David Stern.
LeBron will see that his actions showed a lack of sportsmanship that reflected poorly on him, his team and the league. He’ll understand that it sent the wrong message to young people.
He’ll apologize and we will move on.
And LeBron James will see that better handling “losing” is part of being a winner.
Founder & Executive Director
Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.