Money And Mouth

LeBron James got into some hot water this week for making some statements about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

The drama began when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted a message supporting the Hong Kong protesters:  “Fight for Freedom.  Stand with Hong Kong.”  The tweet provoked an angry backlash from the Chinese Communist government, which is trying to figure out how to deal with the pro-democracy protests, and caused it to cancel and change certain events surrounding the NBA’s annual tour of China — which is viewed as a big, and growing, broadcasting, merchandising, and sponsorship market for the NBA.

34siop24cjgffnpmwtq4iwgubqThe Chinese government’s response affected LeBron James, who was in China with  the Los Angeles Lakers to play a basketball game as part of the NBA tour.  James then spoke out, saying that Morey “wasn’t educated” on Hong Kong and had put the Lakers through a “difficult week” in China.  “So many people could have been harmed not only financially but physically, emotionally and spiritually. So just be careful with what we tweet, and we say, and we do,” James said.  He later added:  “Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of (Morey’s) tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”

As a result of the comments, LeBron James has been depicted in some quarters as a kind of sell-out who has kowtowed to the Communist government in the interests of the money that could be made in China.  His comments were popular on official Chinese social media platforms but drew criticism among the Hong Kong protesters, who accused him of supporting totalitarianism.  Some others have risen to James’ defense, arguing that there was nothing wrong with what he said.

One of the more interesting aspects of this little drama is that many people seem to be surprised that a larger-than-life public figure like LeBron James, who has not been shy about speaking out on social issues, might conceivably be motivated in his views by base considerations like making money and his own personal convenience.  I’m not quite sure why this should come as a surprise to anyone.  James is a human being, after all, and as prone to advancing his own interests as any other person.  Perhaps his Hong Kong dust-up will help to remind people who are interested in what Hollywood stars or pro athletes are tweeting about the public issues of the day that the celebrities and sports stars may not be acting altruistically and may well have their own special personal and financial motivations for their public positions.

The old saying refers to “putting your money where your mouth is.”  The reality is that, in many instances, the mouth follows the money.

The President And The King

President Donald Trump has a particular, head-scratching talent for creating controversies that are both unnecessary and divisive.  The President’s recent insulting tweet about the intelligence of LeBron James is a classic example of a problematic character trait that just won’t go away.

lebron-james-donald-trump-jamilIn case you missed it, CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed LeBron James about a school James established for underprivileged children in Akron, Ohio at which every student receives free tuition, food, a uniform, and a bicycle.  It’s a classic example of James’ continuing focus on his old home town and using his celebrity platform, and his own money, to help those in need.  Even Cleveland sports fans who are disappointed that James has decided to play in Los Angeles respect his commitment to his roots in northern Ohio.

So where does the President come in?  Apparently he was miffed that James, who was an outspoken supporter of Hilary Clinton during the last campaign, responded to a silly question from Lemon by saying he might have to run if there was no one else to oppose President Trump.  That evidently was too much for our thin-skinned President, who then tweeted:  “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”

The silly question and answer provides no basis for insulting the intelligence of either LeBron James — whose public statements, whether about sports or other topics, are typically careful and thoughtful — or Don Lemon.  And the President’s ad hominem attack provoked many athletes, as well as First Lady Melania Trump, to make statements supporting James.  It’s just the latest example of how our touchy President’s inability to restrain himself produces another gratuitous, divisive controversy.

I’m not sure President Trump really takes advice from anyone, but you’d think someone could convince him to put down the Twitter feed for once and just let the economy do the talking.

Against All Odds

Tonight the NBA Finals begin.  For the fourth straight year, the Cleveland Cavaliers will face off against the Golden State Warriors.

If you listen to the pundits, this will be the most uncompetitive, lopsided contest in recent sports history.   You’ll see headlines like “Everybody is counting out LeBron James, Cavs in NBA Finals Again” or “Is Warriors-Cavs IV the biggest mismatch in modern Finals history?”  You’ll read about how the mighty Warriors, with their entire roster filled with All-Star studs like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, are going to mop the floor with the poor Cavs, who can offer only LeBron James and a gang of unknowns and retreads.  You’ll see statistical analysis of why the Warriors are destined to win, and hear about how the Cavs are in the Finals only because the Eastern Conference of the NBA is like the minor leagues compared to the Western Conference, and see that the Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Warriors a prohibitive favorite and set a double-digit point spread for the first game.

b45567aa1369a5376fdf8d85c224c52aThe only way puzzled commentators think the Cavs might even win a game or two is if the entire Warriors team comes down with the flu, or Draymond Green and a few of his teammates get suspended for multiple games after a crotch-targeting binge that can’t plausibly be viewed as involving “basketball moves.”

Is this the biggest mismatch in sports — say, since the mighty Miami Hurricanes were supposed to wipe the field with the Ohio State Buckeyes in the National Championship game on January 3, 2013?  I guess we’ll just have to see if the know-it-all commentators and talking heads could possibly be wrong, and the Cavs can luck out and scratch out even a single win against the media darlings — which would no doubt happen only with the help of the officials and an overconfident Warriors team that doesn’t bring its “A” game against a feeble opponent.

Sometimes, in sports, the underdog does win, and the conventional wisdom proves to be wrong.  Will it happen this time?  I’ll be watching to find out.  But if the impossible does occur, and David does manage to slay Goliath in 2018, it will be one of the sweetest wins in the history of sports.  Because this time, it truly is Cleveland against the World.

Goodnight, Kyrie

Kyrie Irving wanted to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, and yesterday he got his wish.  The Cavs dealt Irving to the Boston Celtics in exchange for up-and-coming guard Isaiah Thomas, a forward, a center, and a number one draft pick.

636020081040379218-usatsi-9349709When a player wants to leave a team, as Irving did, it’s not uncommon for fans of the team being spurned to be mad and call the player an ingrate.  I hope Cavs fans are classier than that when it comes to Irving.   He’s still young, and he wants a chance to be, in Reggie Jackson’s immortal phrase, “the straw that stirs the drink.”  Irving indicated that he wanted to go to a team where he could be the go-to guy and have a chance to really emerge from LeBron James’ colossal shadow.  That’s really not so hard to understand for a player of Irving’s obvious skills and talent.

I’ve always liked Irving, with his flannel shirt personality and willingness to accept a lesser role in a quest for a championship.  Cleveland fans will never forget that it was Irving that hit The Shot that put the Cavs ahead for good in game 7 of last year’s championship series — the one that miraculously produced Cleveland’s first professional sports championship in more than 50 years.  How can you dislike a player who is a key part of busting up a lifetime of sports futility?

So I say, thank you, Kyrie.  Fare you well (except when playing the Cavs).

The Rematch Of The Rematch

Tonight the Cleveland Cavaliers square off against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA championship finals.  It’s the first time in NBA history that two teams have played each other for the championship three years in a row, and the ledger stands at 1-1 — with Golden State winning the first year, when two of the three Cleveland stars were out with injuries, and the Cavaliers memorably winning in seven games last year, as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and their teammates brought the first championship trophy to Cleveland since 1964.

curry-lebron-finalsThere are more story lines to this series than you can count.  There’s the tiebreaker angle, of course, and the fact that the lineups of the two teams are more studded with NBA All-Stars than any two prior teams that have met in the finals.  There’s the fact that Golden State hasn’t lost a game this post-season, going a perfect 12-0, and are pretty much invincible when Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant are on the floor.  (Cleveland, on the other hand, has lost only one game in its march to the championship series.)  There’s the fact that the gifted Durant joined the Warriors specifically to try to win an NBA championship, and now he gets his chance.  And there’s the weird, post-“off the schneid” vibe of a Cleveland team playing for a championship without the weight of 52 years of futility, bad luck, and bad karma hanging on their shoulders.  A Cleveland team, playing as defending champions?  Who’da thunk it?

The overwhelming consensus seems to be that the Warriors will win handily, just as they’ve done in virtually every other game this season.  In fact, some people are betting that the Warriors will end this post-season 16-0, which has never been done before.  That conventional wisdom is not surprising, because in the last three seasons Golden State has won more regular season games than any team ever has, even though they are playing in the much tougher Western Conference — so they logically should be the favorite.   Of course, the same arguments were made last year, when the Warriors were of course without Durant, and the Cavs ended up winning anyway.

I don’t pretend to have any great insight into how tonight’s game will go, but I’ll be watching for one thing:  can the Cavs keep the game close?  The Warriors blow out so many teams, you just wonder how they will react if the game comes down to the wire and they’re thinking their home-court advantage might be on the line.  I’ll also be interested in seeing what kind of impact Cleveland’s other key contributors — players like Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye — have in this game.  If the Cavs hope to win, they need a significant contribution beyond just the James/Irving/Love trio.

Two other points:  First, the NBA playoffs seem to take forever, and there are long layoffs between series, so let’s hope the two teams are not too rusty.  Second, why does the game have to start at 9 p.m. Eastern?  I know it’s out on the west coast, but can’t the NBA have a little regard for the working stiffs among us who’ll need to get up tomorrow morning and get off to work?

An Athlete For The Ages

I never got to see Babe Ruth up at bat in a baseball game, watch Jesse Owens run and jump, or cheer as Jim Brown carried the football on a sweep . . . but I am getting to watch LeBron James play basketball.

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so spectacularly gifted that they break all the records, bust through every preconceived notion, and change their sport and the expectations about it in fundamental ways.  Babe Ruth singlehandedly turned baseball from a bunt and steal, scratch for a run, “small ball” game to one in which home run hitters and big innings were what brought fans to the ballparks.  Jesse Owens set records that lasted for decades and thumbed his nose at Hitler and his racist notions about a “master race” while doing so.  Jim Brown crushed every NFL rushing record then in existence and was such a dominant player, in size, speed, and power, that he is probably one of the few NFL players of his era who actually could have played, and starred, in the modern league.

And, then, there is LeBron James.  He hasn’t had quite the same impact on his sport as Ruth, Owens, and Brown, because he’s working against a much longer history of NBA players — but he’s still steadily moving up the all-time records lists, routinely scoring 30+ points in the playoff games when the challenges are the greatest, and winning, winning, winning, wherever he plays.  He’s probably not going to catch Bill Russell or Michael Jordan when it comes to winning championships, or score the most points every year, but in every game he is the dominant player and, to use Reggie Jackson’s phrase, the “straw that stirs the drink.”

And, speaking as a non-athlete, it’s pretty amazing to watch a barrel-chested, 6-foot-8, 270-pound man who can run like a deer, jump out of the gym, dunk from the free-throw line, shoot three-pointers, and block shots from the cheap seats.  He’s basically unguardable, and he imposes his will on every contest.  Watching LeBron James play is simply an awesome spectacle.

Let’s not engage in petty arguments about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, or worry about whether LeBron’s team wins the championship every year.  Let’s just savor the fact that we’ve got an athlete for the ages in our midst, and we’re lucky enough to watch him work his magic in real time.

In Titletown

This morning finds us in the City of Champions — Cleveland.  UJ, Russell and I came up yesterday afternoon to watch an early edition of October baseball as the Tribe beat the Detroit Tigers, 1-0, in a brilliant display of bullpen management by manager Terry Francona.  It was a fantastic nail-biter that ended in triumph.  Then we walked to a nearby pub to learn that, thanks to a well-timed rain delay, we could watch the entirety of Ohio State’s epic beat down of Oklahoma.  

Today we’re going to swing by Octoberfest on Public Square, then it’s off to see if the Browns can resemble a professional football team against the Ravens.  Can we complete the Cleveland-Buckeyes trifecta?  Or will we learn, as Meat Loaf once sang, that two out of three ain’t bad?