MIAMI -- At the risk of damaging the "First Take" ratings, the God's truth is I do not hate LeBron James. I actually like the man, who seems as close to being a role model as any superstar can be. He seems to be a good father and husband with a sharing, caring heart.
But this question continues to plague me like South Beach humidity: Now that LeBron has re-established himself (post-Decision) as a Good Guy, and now that he has won two championships and four MVPs, should any criticism of him now be dismissed as unfair? Even un-American?
For media members, should LeBron James, universally acknowledged as the Best Player in the World, now be above and beyond questioning as a basketball player? Should all of his past failures be expunged from his record, never to be mentioned again?
It's beginning to feel that way.
On Wednesday's show, I dared to place the bulk of the NBA Finals Game 3 blame on LeBron, who in the final three quarters contributed 8 points, 7 turnovers and zero free throw attempts and became strangely disengaged on offense, even as Miami cut a 25-point lead to seven late in the third quarter. My debate partner, Stephen A. Smith, condemned me for being "so disrespectful" and let LeBron off the hook by saying he "looked tired." The world's greatest and fittest athlete got tired after a sensational first quarter (14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, 2-for-2 on 3s, 2 free throws) of a pivotal Game 3 in His House?
Sorry, Stephen A., not giving you (or LeBron) that excuse after you picked Miami to win this series solely because the Heat have "the greatest player in the world."
After Game 1 of the NBA Finals -- you know, the Cramp Game -- LeBron told ESPN's Michael Wilbon that he has become "the easiest target in sports." I was dumbfounded. Easiest target? How about most overprotected superstar? Didn't anyone else see this as a rather pathetic plea for sympathy after LeBron had let down his team?
I obviously can't read, watch and listen to everything. But of the media members I follow, all are pro-LeBron -- most of them passionately so -- and most are extremely slow to criticize him and quick to give him a pass. Maybe they are right in their approach and I am stubbornly wrong. But throughout LeBron's 11-year career, I have merely attempted to remain objective, applauding when he is all-time great yet pointing out on air and in print when his obvious intangible flaws get the best of him.
So I've always stood out like a, well, cramped thumb. I'm LeBron's "No. 1 Critic" and his "Biggest Hater." I feel a little like Shailene Woodley's character in "Divergent." The government is going to eliminate me because I don't fit in.
Sometimes I feel like the easiest target in sports. I've constantly heard during the nearly 10 years I've been on "First Take" (formerly "Cold Pizza") that I bash LeBron just to boost ratings. Wrong! I merely react to what I see or don't see from LeBron, great and bad, and I always back it up with facts.
Yet here's where we descend into attempting to analyze the quicksand that is social media. As the Cramp Game ended with LeBron on the bench, watching San Antonio pull away and win by 15, he was already being ridiculed across the Internet by "crybaby LeBron" memes. In this case, "they" got it right -- whoever "they" are.