It’s unfortunate F. Scott Fitzgerald was unable to witness the rise of mass (electronic) media, for he surely would have had to rethink his now-famous maxim regarding second acts in American life. The unblinking omnipresence of the camera (professional and otherwise), the vigilant attentiveness of the microphone and tape recorder, the indefatigably of the Internet and the television networks; all require an endless stream of intriguing narratives in order to capture the hearts and minds of the bored and disinterested. And while the camera and mic and blog are quick to judge and condemn the disgraced and the corrupt, they are equally quick to pardon the contrite and the penitent. Rebirth and redemption sell, particularly in a nation with as insatiable an appetite for drama and scandal as the United States.
What’s more: from Tom DeLay to Eliot Spitzer to Newt Gingrich, and from Tracy Morgan to Charlie Sheen to Don Imus, the American public’s boundless capacity for forgiveness has proved beneficial for countless politicians and entertainers who, due to one offense or another, have found themselves the target of the public’s opprobrium. Seek penance from Piers Morgan, goof around on “Dancing With the Stars,” pen a tell-all book, and voila! your sentence has been commuted and the road to respectability reopened. With seemingly (very) few exceptions, there are no crimes or infidelities that are beyond the pale; all transgressions will be forgiven or, at the very least, forgotten.
The sports world has, of course, been subjected to an equally long parade of disgraced celebrities seeking, and usually finding, redemption. Ray Lewis may or may not have been complicit in the murder of two men; but oh, what a Super Bowl ring, some pre-game war dances, and a few (admittedly) funny Old Spice ads can do for one’s reputation! Michael Vick? His cruelty is of little relevance when he’s passing or rushing for touchdowns and leading the Eagles (this past season excepted) to the playoffs. Unlike in politics and entertainment, where the prerequisites for forgiveness typically include a teary-eyed press conference and ritual self-abasement on the talk-show circuit, athletes are required only to produce results on the court/field commensurate with the expectations of columnists, TV analysts, and fans to earn their pardon.
The NBA is no exception to this phenomenon; indeed, two of its greatest stars, future Hall of Famers both and perhaps the league’s most famous players, have at one time or another been forced to redeem themselves. But while one has proved largely successful in his efforts to cloud memories of his various transgressions (some of which would’ve sunk the careers of lesser players), the other has failed thus far to convince the public of his innocence, despite the relative harmlessness of his offenses.
The former’s is a peculiar case. His post-Eagle, Colorado fall from grace was a particularly rocky one, both on and off the court: allegations of rape; an embarrassing collapse suffered at the hands of an inferior Pistons squad in the ’04 Finals; an ugly and much publicized divorce with his co-star (Shaq) and head coach (Phil Jackson, who during his season-long hiatus wrote a book decrying his erstwhile star’s antics) that offseason; and, finally, a disappointing and injury-plagued ’05 campaign that saw the Lakers (now finally, and wholly, Kobe’s team) fail to qualify for the postseason for the first time in ten seasons. By the summer of 2005, his reputation had sunk to the lowest depths, and for all but the most diehard of apologists his hitherto stellar career appeared in jeopardy of descending into a sullied irrelevance.
But these prognoses proved premature. By sheer will, and through a remarkable string of performances (culminating in his 81-point outing against the Raptors in January) throughout the course of the 2006 season, Kobe shouldered a horrid Lakers team and carried it within a whisker of upsetting a powerhouse Suns squad in the First Round. If his return to prominence inevitably encountered some very serious roadblocks (the Game 7 flame-out in said series, a disappointing First Round exit the following year, his public pillorying of Mitch Kupchak and Andrew Bynum, his trade demands that same summer, etc.), his astonishing feats of scoring, and his resuscitation of a franchise that had fallen from its accustomed Olympian heights, were enough for fans and observers to forgive and excuse many of his various personal and professional shortcomings. His MVP, the Pau Gasol trade, and the Lakers’ subsequent return to the Finals (on three consecutive occasions, no less) were merely the logical outcomes of the redemptive processes he’d initiated with his own, demonstrative play.
His superstar counterpart, meanwhile, has faced far fewer obstacles in regards to his redemption, and yet has in large measure failed to dispel popular perceptions of his inadequacies, as both a player and a person. While on the surface the reasons for this may appear self-evident (his inexplicable meltdown against the Celtics in 2010, “The Decision” and the subsequent South Beach celebration, his no-show in the 2012 Finals, etc.), particularly when measured against Kobe’s aforementioned successes, the fact of the matter is that what LeBron has or hasn’t accomplished on and off the court matters infinitely less than how he has accomplished them.
For post-season and crunch-time failures aside, LeBron’s play has been exemplary since his arrival in Miami. He is not, in other words, Tiger Woods, whose golf-related struggles have subverted attempts to recapture old glory; indeed, few would or could dispute his singular brilliance, or that he’s arguably the brightest light in a crowded constellation of superstars. That he’s playing at a level rarely matched in league history and, as a consequence, grudgingly acknowledged as an MVP-frontrunner, only confirms this fact.
No, what differentiates Kobe from LeBron is not the former’s rings or game-winning shots, but rather his fortitude. We’ve come to accept and forgive Kobe precisely because he is unapologetic and ruthless; he is indisputably the “man” on his team, he will take the final shot (even if he’d be better served to defer to an open teammate), and he appears truly indifferent to what fans, writers, and analysts may or may not think of him. LeBron, on the other hand, has never appeared quite comfortable with who he is or what he’s done; his recent intimations regarding a possible return to Cleveland, coupled with his apparent refusal to attempt last-second jumpers (even if deferring to an open teammate is often the appropriate play), is for many yet further evidence of inherent weakness.
Thunderous dunks and triple-doubles are, in other words, inadequate displays of confidence and strength. And while vacillation and remorse may suffice in politics and entertainment, they are of negligible importance in the highly masculine world of professional sports; indeed, the disgraced athlete is almost better off not apologizing for his transgressions. Winning, or, better yet, dominating, are the only sure means of earning the forgiveness of the masses. Anything less (as LeBron has discovered), and past errors and vices will never lay very far beneath the surface of conversation.