Professional and amateur sports in this country face a lot of pressing, messy issues these days. LeBron James having fun is not one of them.
I finished work early last week and got to enjoy some rare time in front of the television. My choice? ESPN. The topic? LeBron James.
But the talking heads weren't discussing his unfathomable February statistics, which included 60 percent field goal shooting and multiple 30-point-plus games. They debated whether James should perform creative dunk routines during pre-game warm-ups - something he's been doing as of late despite his reluctance to participate in the All-Star weekend dunk contest - and whether it was OK for James and his Miami Heat teammates to produce a "Harlem Shake" video.
James has been a magnet for criticism ever since he bolted Cleveland to join the Heat. Fair enough. He silenced some of those critics with a championship last year. A few more critics were muzzled after he and the U.S. national team claimed gold at the London Olympics. And now, following several months of torrid play, he's won over some of his biggest haters.
So why are sports analysts and fans so concerned about some pre-game dunks and a 2-minute viral video? I don't know. But I have a few guesses.
For one, it's easier to criticize King James for innocuous reasons than it is to tackle the myriad of serious problems affecting sports today. What's worse: James donning a crown and dancing around the locker room, or Lance Armstrong lying to millions of cycling fans and cancer patients worldwide? What's worse: James ducking the dunk contest, or legions of football players experiencing dementia at age 45?
On national television, James clumsily announced he was leaving the Cavaliers to go to Miami. It was a horrendous display of egotism run awry. It broke the hearts of Cleveland fans. Let the record show, however, that "The Decision" raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Club of America.
Is any of that worse than a Pee Wee hockey coach from British Columbia tripping two players from the losing team, sending one to the hospital with a broken wrist?
No, no and a definitive no.
Don't get it twisted: We should be talking about LeBron. But we need to change the focus.
Rather than question LeBron's focus when he improvs some dunks before the game, we should praise him for understanding that sports, at the end of the day, are about fun and entertainment. They're also about sportsmanship, perseverance and hard work, but those things don't mean anything if the focus is 100 percent about winning. I'm not sure why some of us expect our sports stars to stalk around with this ultra-serious attitude. Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds took themselves pretty seriously. Look where it got them.
LeBron also gets criticized for passing the ball in big moments. The charge is that he shies away from the spotlight at the most critical moments. I would argue that in those crucial, waning seconds, LeBron teaches us all - especially our young athletes - that it's OK to trust your teammates. And guess what? If that teammate misses, LeBron is the first one to pat them on the back and say, "Next time."
I'm not a parent yet, but when that day comes, my hope is that my children will idolize teachers, service men and women, volunteers and the countless others who contribute to this country to make it a better place. But I'm also a realist, and I recognize that sports stars serve as role models. I have more memories of Patrick Ewing and Donovan McNabb than I do Bill Clinton. And when it comes to role models in sports today, LeBron James is at the top of the list, despite some of his missteps. Above all, LeBron seems to understand that he is blessed to be in the position he is in.
My message to LeBron: Keep dunking, keep dancing, and keep passing. And to the sports media: Next time you need to kill five minutes, let's worry about the real, actual problems in sports. LeBron isn't one of them. He is the solution. And that's coming from a Knicks fan.