I have long been called a LeBron apologist so please allow me to criticize when criticism is due.
Many moons ago, Shawn Kemp, one of the most authoritative dunkers of his generation, hung from the rim after dunking on his opponent. As he stayed there hanging with one hand, with the other that hadn’t just dunked the basketball, he grabbed his crotch.
It was the ultimate show of disrespect to his opponent, as if to say, I just dunked on you and there is nothing you can do about it.
While a fine player back in his day, no one would ever confuse Shawn Kemp with LeBron James, yet the two now share something in common. In a recent game against the Pacers, LeBron James did his best Shawn Kemp impression and grabbed his crotch in celebration, as if to say I’m better than you and there’s nothing you can do about it. So much for humility.
There was context to this gesture, which by no means justified the behavior. In fact, it only made it worse.
Prior to this particular outing against the Pacers, the Lakers played a game in Detroit, where there were fisticuffs. Positioning himself for a rebound in the paint, LeBron James’ arms became entangled with Isaiah Stewart’s, who was fighting for the same rebound.
Depending upon how you see it, LeBron’s elbow either intentionally, accidentally or somewhere in between, landed a cheek shot (a cheap shot?), immediately drawing blood from the eye and face of Stewart, an otherwise irrelevant player until the fifteen minutes of fame LeBron’s elbow afforded him.
Seeing blood, literally, Stewart went postal, chasing after LeBron to get his just due. Clearly, he felt the face of the league had just gotten away with one and he’d be damned if he was going to let that happen. Separated after the incident, Stewart broke free from the grasps of teammates several times, going so far as to run into the tunnel to meet the Lakers in their locker room for some unfinished business. It wasn’t quite the Malice at the Palace but it wasn’t far from it, at least in the eyes of the late commissioner David Stern.
Both Stewart and James were ejected and suspended for their actions.
A few nights later against the Indiana Pacers, after serving his one game suspension, a game which his Lakers lost to the Knicks, LeBron continued his questionable activity by going full Shawn Kemp with the celebratory crotch grab.
To call it in poor taste, especially after he had just been suspended for an “inadvertent” elbow, is being kind. It was as if LeBron made the gesture to tell the league he shouldn’t have been suspended, a hard case to argue considering he had another man’s blood still dripping from his elbow.
It was an eventful week for LeBron who by no means needs to stoop to these tactics. His actions even elicited strong words from another Laker great Kareem Abdul Jabbar who said in disapproval that “Goats don’t dance.” By “goat,” Kareem is referring to the fact that LeBron, is considered in some circles, correctly or not, as the G.O.A.T., which stands for greatest of all-time.
Without sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, Kareem is 100% correct and, in all fairness, has done more for the game of basketball than LeBron could ever dream.
There’s something amiss in Camp LeBron these days. He no longer seems to be playing with the joy of Steph Curry, the determination of Chris Paul or the will of Giannis Antetokounmpo, all of which he is perfectly capable of doing. Rather, he seems to be going through the motions which, to paraphrase Kareem, is another thing G.O.A.T.s don’t do.
Perhaps LeBron realizes that this Lakers team as currently comprised is not as much of a shoo-in for the NBA Finals as once thought, that he and his collection of aging, future Hall of Famers aren’t going to cruise through the regular season on their way to a championship. Right now, they’re a .500 ball club, which is good for sixth place in the Western Conference. They’ve already lost 12 games, which is more than the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors combined.
LeBron’s even been accused lately of trading in his team goals for personal aspirations, with one lofty goal in sight, that being breaking Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, which could conceivably happen next season. He’s less than 3,000 points behind the number. And lest you think Kareem’s comments came because he fears LeBron topping his once thought unapproachable record, I can assure you that is not the case.
Look, we all do stupid careless things, especially after nearly 20 years on the job. Goals might not seem as important as they once were. Shortcuts get taken, perhaps even a few details go overlooked. But as a commonly accused and self-professed LeBron apologist, here’s what I would like to have seen. After bashing Stewart in the cheekbone, LeBron could have come out and made amends. After all, this is not a guy we’ve seen involved in many altercations over the years. So why not, if he’s still the face of the league, ready to hand it off to another generation if he hasn’t already, do so gracefully?
Why not hold a press conference with Stewart or better yet, openly apologize and admit wrong-doing? Americans love a good apology. There’s no shame in it. It’s certainly better than making an obscene gesture two nights later all but admitting the opposite.
Regarding the $15,000 fine he just received for his junk-grabbing hijinks, I’d suggest doubling it and giving it to the charity of his choosing. LeBron’s already built a school. Perhaps standing in front of that auditorium full of high school kids and explaining why grabbing your crotch in victory is poor sportsmanship would have been just punishment. It’d serve as a trip back to the humility with which he once played.
This is a guy who has worked tirelessly to create an international brand for himself that is second to few. He starred in Space Jam. He’s on every magazine cover this side of Cat Fancy. The crotch grab is but a minor blip in the LeBron Empire but I can’t imagine his marketing gurus want too many more of these slip-ups to blemish an otherwise immaculate reputation.
There are arguably only two G.O.A.T.’s playing in their respective professional sports today. One plays quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The other’s career is waning on the women’s tennis tour. It is another G.O.A.T.’s legacy that LeBron James has been chasing ever since he first stepped onto the court. With every record he breaks, he puts himself one step closer to the man he’s chasing. With every inappropriate gesture, he lands himself that much farther away.