Tuesday, November 30, 2010

2010-11 NBA Season: Heat-Cavs MatchUp Hyped Up

Brace yourself. Three days and counting until touchdown at The Q, where LeBron James will make the most awaited appearance in Cleveland since ... well, since the Cavaliers drafted him in 2003, turning him into an instant civic treasure. And the spectacle will only be surpassed by the buildup, which promises to be both fascinating and insufferable.

Well, maybe it's just me, but is this really a good thing for the NBA?

This game is being hyped and anticipated for all the wrong reasons. Nobody's tuning in to see a potentially classic contest, or a terrific one-on-one matchup, or even a Game 7.

We're watching to see a scorned city give the finger to Public Enemy No. 1.

We're watching to rubberneck at LeBron's expense, wondering if anything more lethal than a boo will fly from the stands.

It has less to do with basketball and more to do with verbal mayhem, or the promise (hope?) of it, anyway.

The game is secondary. The abuse and anger and revenge factor and mob mentality? That's primary. That's the show. That's not the main attraction; it's the only attraction.

Folks wanna know: How will Cleveland react? What will the fans say and do? What about the homemade signs, will they be safe for children to read? Will Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner, bring along his LeBron voodoo doll? Will the sellout crowd blow talcum powder in LeBron's face? Will they stand in silent protest during pregame introductions? And how will he respond and hold up to the venom and the hate?

Boy, this is a sticky situation for the NBA. The buzz for this game is squarely focused on a negative. David Stern can't be thrilled about the circumstances and the reason this game holds such appeal for the masses, and yet like the rest of us, the commissioner will watch.

When additional security is needed for a December game on a Thursday, to protect a player not from a crush of adoring fans but from being crushed by someone who took "The Decision" a bit too personally, then it's not good for the league. Imagine if this game gets the highest ratings of the season. Sure, business is business, but is that really worth celebrating?

Actually, it's sorta been that way all season for the NBA and LeBron. Imagine: One of the league's best and highest-profile players is as welcome across the NBA as a fungus. Nobody comes to see LeBron play; people come to see LeBron fail. That makes him tough to market and promote in a league that relies so heavily on star power. The only folks with a trickier job when it comes to LeBron and his "appeal" are those who work for Nike.

How would the NFL feel, for example, if Peyton Manning was suddenly cast as a villain? Or in the NHL, if Sidney Crosby was booed in every arena outside of Pittsburgh? Or major league baseball, if the Yankees were despised everywhere they played? (Oh, wait.) Point is, LeBron is supposed to be one of the four or five league showpieces, someone to be respected in opposing arenas if not adored (like Michael Jordan was), but those days are gone, perhaps forever. And that point will be rammed home with authority come Thursday in Cleveland.

Yes, this game will draw high ratings, but will also cause a high degree of discomfort for the league. It will be the same squeamish feeling as when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal met following their tense parting of the ways from the Lakers in 2004. Strangely enough, and foolishly in hindsight, the league scheduled that grudge match game on Christmas Day, giving it prime-time real estate on the highest profile day of the regular season, essentially tossing logs on the fire. That was an awkward message to send: "Come See Two Guys Who'd Love To Clobber Each Other."

The Heat-Lakers game itself was secondary to the bitter backdrop. Would Shaq and Kobe shake hands or at least touch fists in a show of solidarity before tip-off? (They didn't.) Would Shaq give Kobe a hard foul? Would Kobe try to dunk on Shaq? The interplay between former teammates, their championship-rich relationship ripped apart by jealousy and greed and ego, overwhelmed all else.

That game appealed to the beast in all of us, just like LeBron's return to Cleveland will. It's almost like the reasons some people watch hockey, not for the sport, but for the chance to see someone get sucker-punched.

Oh, well. Such is the life LeBron made for himself, and by extension, for Cleveland. Come Thursday, we get a player whose silly and callous disregard for Cleveland transformed him from a local sports hero into a national outcast, and a battered but proud city ready and willing to issue a stiff and firm payback, rooted on by an entire country. Yes, come see anger, stripped bare and specifically targeted at one person, flow in all of its R-rated glory.

Isn't that why you'll watch?

by Shaun Powell

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