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An expensive distaste for James

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 14, 2011

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MIAMI — As they waited to face the music Sunday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, Heat superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade stood near the interview podium as Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle gushed about his team’s effort and togetherness in winning the NBA Finals in six games.

James and Wade were next to explain their side of the story, but before that came the uncomfortable moments of listening to Carlisle while reflecting on their collapse. As a security guard built a fort around the duo with chairs so media couldn’t approach them, James’s close buddy, Maverick Carter, walked through the semicircle of chairs and stood next to James.

It didn’t seem that Carter offered James advice about how to handle the questions regarding his fourth-quarter disappearances or the queries about how such a gifted player could look timid at times on the court. It just seemed that Carter wanted to stand near LeBron, as if to show the media he was free to penetrate that inner circle, like a made man.

James stood there stoically, seemingly not interested in interacting with the segment of the NBA world he finds most dis tasteful: the media. And he seemed unprepared and reckless during his interview following the 105-95 series-clinching Dallas victory.

James should have known he was going to be pressed about his performance, the hype surrounding his departure from Cleveland and signing with Miami and the bravado he and his teammates displayed all season. Yet, it seems his public image and the perceptions of outsiders carry little weight with James. He made a fool of himself Sunday night when he said those who criticize him are highly unlikely to enjoy the same lavish life, the same adulation, and the same success he has.

“At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail . . . they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,’’ he said with little emotion. “They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.

“They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.’’

Regardless of whether that statement is true, the worst thing a professional athlete can do is flaunt his wealth and lifestyle in the face of the working man. For someone who wanted to be Michael Jordan as a youngster, this was about as far from MJ as one could get.

Jordan was fiercely protective of his image and remains that way. And he spent his career saying the right things, increasing his brand, and making his image and marketability larger than just an NBA superstar.

Right now, LeBron James is just an overhyped superstar who badly needs an image makeover. He desperately needs a mentor to coach him through these difficult career moments because, quite honestly, he’s blowing it. And his crew isn’t helping him much.

Because of his decision to sign with Miami, James turned from an NBA darling to one of its few villains. Let’s face it, the NBA is a nice guy’s league. There aren’t many hated players. This isn’t professional wrestling, where fans come in droves to see Ric Flair get pounded. However, there was a reason this year’s NBA Finals was the second-most-watched in seven years.

There are millions of sports fans who took pleasure in the public meltdown of James, and he responded the only way he knew how, by using his wealth and stardom as weapons, chiding the working-class folk who had the nerve to jump off his bandwagon because of perceived disloyalty to Cleveland.

The resentment toward James stems from not only “The Decision’’ but the fact that he doesn’t maximize his vast natural talents. James is more of an athlete who plays basketball than a true basketball player. Unlike Jordan and Ray Allen, who spent hours during sweltering summer days working on their games to not only keep up with the oncoming rush of talented youngsters, but exceed them, we’re not really sure what LeBron does on his offdays besides stay physically fit.

He enjoyed a spike in his 3-point shooting during the playoffs but has yet to develop a consistent midrange or post game. And when those points are brought up by the media, he responds by becoming sensitive and not showing humility. And we have yet to see LeBron fully respect his coaches, pursue guidance, or admit that this life that he chose and its demands are overwhelming him.

Instead, we are witnessing mental breakdowns on the court, stretches of ambivalence followed by uncertainty, and finally desperation.

He needs help, an older person to pull him aside and explain that bravado and arrogance are not always appropriate.

And big paychecks, large houses, and extravagant parties on South Beach will do nothing to camouflage the pain and embarrassment that riddles him.

If Sunday night showed anything, it revealed that LeBron James needs a change of his inner circle. The man-child is still indeed a child in many ways, and finding maturity on this most public of stages is a painful process, especially when it’s being done alone.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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