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.
I didn't express any on-air doubt that LeBron had a cramp. He obviously did, and once your leg locks up, you're done -- although LeBron did return from an announced cramp in Game 4 of the 2012 Finals to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:50 left.
No, my first issue was how a superstar athlete plagued by cramps in the past could let himself fall prey to them again when it was clear in warm-ups that something was wrong with the air conditioning. It was LeBron's responsibility to immediately drink more, take salt pills, eat a banana to increase potassium -- whatever it took. Somehow 17 other players played in that sweatbox without cramping. The Heat medical/training staff also deserved some blame -- although a Heat insider speculated that LeBron puts so much pressure on himself for Finals games that anxiety might have contributed to the cramping.
Again, shaky intangibles.
But what compounded the crisis for the Heat was LeBron's body language. He can be such a Drama King. After missing a jumper with about eight minutes left, it wasn't clear whether he was cramping or just gassed as he walked back up court melodramatically waving at coach Erik Spoelstra to sub for him. When he returned with about four minutes left, he soon made a layup but appeared to cramp as he stopped along the baseline, this time waving for assistance. A grimacing LeBron had to be carried all the way to the bench. This is what "they" made fun of on the Internet.
He made such a spectacle of his cramping that it did appear to distract and deflate his teammates, who proceeded to get blown off the floor by the Spurs.
The point: In social media, LeBron isn't treated with nearly the reverence he is by the traditional media. Here LeBron has a point: He just might be the easiest Internet target in sports. He also has brought much of that on himself.
Of course, media colleagues have accused me of inciting Internet riots with my on-air criticism. But maybe "they" don't need me to tell them what they already know. Maybe non-Heat and non-LeBron fans are quicker to sense how shockingly fragile his psyche can be for a player so astonishingly gifted.
Fact: LeBron still has made only three buzzer-beaters in his career, a 2-point jumper at Golden State in 2009, the 3-pointer off an inbounds pass against Orlando in the 2009 playoffs and the layup that beat Indiana in last year's playoffs. Hence my longtime stance that he wasn't born with the "clutch gene." (In my opinion, he still shies away from having to shoot two stand-alone free throws to tie scores, as he did when he opted not to go up strong against Roy Hibbert in the final seconds of this year's Game 5 at Indiana.)
Fact: LeBron bizarrely froze up in a home Game 5 against Boston in 2010.
Fact: LeBron froze up so stunningly in the 2011 Finals against Dallas that even Stephen A. Smith agreed with me that LeBron had qualified as the "mentally weakest superstar ever."
Fact: LeBron had three Finals games last year that resembled the last three quarters of Tuesday night's game, when he went inexplicably passive on offense. Then, after a spectacular burst early in the fourth quarter of Game 6, LeBron came apart, committing three uncharacteristic turnovers in the final six minutes and missing the 3 to tie the game with seven seconds left.
But: Ray Allen saved LeBron's legacy by quick-triggering that corner 3 that sent the game to overtime and the Heat to a second straight title. If that shot had missed, LeBron would be 1-3 in the Finals.
I raved on air about LeBron's Game 7, albeit against a psychologically shot Spurs team. But, dared by the Spurs to shoot jumpers, LeBron made 9 of 20 outside the paint and certainly lived up to being World's Greatest ... as he did in Sunday night's Game 2.
When LeBron plays great, I see polls and hear analysts predict he'll be greater than Michael Jordan. When LeBron fails, all I hear is that the Jordan comparison is unfair. Which is it?
After each Finals game, I get more and more confused about how to view LeBron James.