The first time I met LeBron James was not quite three years ago at the TD Garden in Boston. He was fresh off The Decision and sitting just off the court several hours before his first regular-season game as a member of the Miami Heat. A swarm of us reporters were hovering waiting wanting answers. “Man” he said as a Miami Heat employee shooed us away “I’m a fish in a fish tank. How fast can I swim?” Not fast enough it turned out. Not at first. That tank he’d created for himself meant every person in America would peer in and see through the distorted waters of his new post-Cleveland persona something different than they had before: A villain. A spoiled kid. A bad guy. A misunderstood unfairly maligned star. An incredibly talented athlete who in one moment turned himself from an icon into the butt of a million jokes. Take your pick. A lot has happened since that first day and over the 34 months that have followed. I went from one of his staunchest and most vocal critics to a deep believer that the turmoil and mistakes of that first year in Miami carved him into a better person and champion. LeBron has gone from ridiculed and loathed from a guy at the center of an argument about whether or not he would fail in big moments who then failed in the biggest to a two-time champion with a refurbished rep. I’ve argued repeatedly in my columns and on radio that his first year in Miami and all the difficulties that came with it changed LeBron. I’d seen the anger and discomfort rolling off him after The Decision I’d seen first-hand the frustration and off-balance approach to his critics and I’d unloaded in one column after another. I called him “petulant” “spoiled” a “choker” and more. Then he collapsed I left Miami and from a distance I watched what looked a lot like LeBron emerging from his failure in the 2011 NBA Finals. From an occasional encounter and the unreliable vantage point that comes with following someone from afar I thought he was transitioning into a likeable guy. I thought he was becoming a story about growing up and learning from mistakes. But I wasn’t quite sure. Not until two weeks ago when I walked into his old high school in Akron Ohio and had an extended one-on-one conversation with him at his charity event. Tuesday night on Fox Sports 1’s “Fox Sports Live” you can watch that interview and judge for yourself whether his new image is the result of an internal change or from better managing all those external forces. In our conversation LeBron and I talked about Johnny Manziel and the pitfalls of fame about his legacy and his next Decision about his relationship with Cleveland and his pursuit of Jordan’s greatest-of-all-time legacy about the critics like me and his views of them and his charity work and a lot of other deep and not-so-deep stuff. His take on who he believes to be the top three NBA players of all time was particularly fascinating. But it’s the criticism that always colors time with LeBron especially for me and that talk struck me as candid and revealing. Being routinely criticized isn’t fun. Rich and famous athletes don’t like it. Media personalities say what they will don’t like it. Readers and fans even if it comes from one retort on Twitter don’t like it. It’s in our nature to want to be liked to be accepted to be seen in our best light by both those we know and if strangers are paying attention to us by those we’ll never meet.
A changed LeBron is worth rooting for
Fox Sports | Aug 20