Give James huge assist for helping NBA image

June 03, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

This column originally was going to be an observation about how the commissioners of each major professional sport were experiencing the worst of times. All faced present or brewing scandals, attacks on their own or their sport's integrity, fan outrage or indifference, and various combinations of them all.

But in the past couple of days, one leader has excused himself from his colleagues' pity party. David Stern, you and the NBA are off the hook. And you will never be able to thank LeBron James enough for rescuing you.

James is the name on everyone's lips and the athlete on everybody's mind. For the first time in a long time, an NBA game was the must-see event of the weekend. Thursday night's fifth game of the Eastern Conference finals in Auburn Hills, Mich., had men stammering and scheming their way to a seat in front of a TV and likely wrecking Saturday night plans and possibly relationships in the process.

This morning, James either is on his way to the NBA Finals at age 22, or is on his way to the ratings and interest magnet that is a Game 7.

The good news King James has represented has pushed the news of every other sport to the background. Most of all, he's pushed the bad news of his own sport, created by one of its biggest stars, out of sight.

Kobe Bryant's nationally broadcast foot-stomping temper tantrum had hijacked the headlines and taken the buzz-challenged NBA playoffs down to an even lower level. Then, 24 hours later, along came LeBron to drag it back to the surface, and then back to the heavens, where, in the larger scope, it hadn't been since a certain tongue-wagging, shaved-headed, famous shoe-brand-hawking iconic figure had taken it nearly a decade earlier.

Basketball is unique in the way one game, played at the right time and place, can become a transcendent moment. That one game took place Thursday night in, of all places, Auburn Hills, until then known most notoriously as the site of The Big Brawl of '04.

Now it can be known as the stage on which the NBA was washed clean. When LeBron baptized the Detroit Pistons, with 48 points, including his team's last 25, and dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to a double-overtime win, he created the NBA's biggest where-were-you-when-it-happened moment in years. Yes, bigger than Kobe's 81-point game.

His league and his sport needed one desperately. He had been anointed long ago as the one most likely to spend a decade providing them. In this postseason, the rest of the league's marquee teams and marquee players had long ago been sent to the sidelines, none more infamously than Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns after the polarizing suspension of two Suns players in the series against the Spurs last month.

In terms of real crossover appeal, the whole league was riding on LeBron being special. Nobody was hungering for a Pistons-San Antonio Spurs faceoff, or for the lecture about fundamentally sound basketball that would fill up the next two weeks.

If there was a hunger for anything, at this point in the postseason and in the league's bleak immediate future, it was for James to take the circumstances he faced and use them as a springboard to the greatness all had predicted for him, that certain companies had hyped for him, and that the public was getting frustrated waiting to see from him.

On Thursday night and almost into Friday morning, he did that, and more. He separated himself from the legends that had preceded him, and legitimized the controversial path he had taken.

As the latest in the too-long line of players prematurely and unfairly pegged as "the next Michael Jordan," James had suffered in comparison. For many critics, he had taken too long to seize moments that Jordan had perfected seizing at a much later age and stage of development. He had ridden into the NBA on an unprecedented tidal wave of publicity, and had taken on more at a younger age than any superstar before him, putting the wisdom of using a kid straight out of high school as the foundation for a franchise and an entire sport under constant scrutiny.

As recently as the first two games of the series against the Pistons, he'd given the doubters ammunition, by not being "Jordanesque" enough. In Game 5, he showed that "Jordanesque" was an inadequate adjective. The way he won that game could never have been duplicated by another player, and likely never will be.

It was the perfect antidote for what was ailing the NBA.

Stern had spent the entire spring putting out brush fires, a role he's not unfamiliar with, but one he long ago tired of playing. But for once, his league has something that can bring the public out of its seats in joy rather than anger.

Bud Selig still has to worry about steroids. Roger Goodell still loses sleep over player misconduct. Gary Bettman has to wallow in regret over a Stanley Cup Finals nobody is watching. They all need to find their own LeBrons, the way Stern did.

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points after

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