It will happen tonight, no doubt: At some point during the Nuggets-Cavs game at the Pepsi Center, probably late in the first quarter, LeBron James will step into a passing lane. He'll lurk, and lurk, and lurk, carefully measuring his distance from things -- close enough to make the steal, far enough a way to not raise the suspicion of the passer. And when the ball takes flight, he'll magically appear in the lane, on his way to posing for a new Fathead.
There are few more thrilling sights for basketball fans these days, and the Pepsi Center crowd, Nuggets and Cavs fans alike, will react accordingly. They'll stand as one, to see if James can get to the hoop without impedance, and dunk the ball with that uncreative but unrelenting fury that's become his trademark. And you know what? Against my better judgment, I will too. I'd like to think I'd stay seated in protest, nursing my ten-dollar beer in the shadows of the crowd's anticipation. But I'll stand too, I'm sure.
Even if James once shamed me out of his locker room.
It was a little less than a year ago, in February. I was working on a story about James's coach, Mike Brown. The locker room was "open" -- there's a 45-minute window during which reporters can interview players, and that window was still open. But whoever I wanted to interview -- probably Damon Jones, my favorite Cav to talk to -- wasn't there at the moment. So I just stood there, waiting.
Suddenly, James -- I think something on TV prompted him -- started asking, repeatedly, a question of a few teammates: If Jason Kidd gets traded to the Western Conference, which All-Star team does he play for? It was the Cavs' last game before the All-Star break, and Kidd, who'd been selected to the East team, was on the verge of being traded from the Nets to the Mavericks. It was an interesting question: Would he still play in the game? For which team?
I watched silently as James quizzed his teammates, who were as stumped as he was. I wasn't taking notes. Just listening. But suddenly, James stopped mid-conversation. His body was still facing his teammates, but his head was now turned toward me. I was clear across the locker room.
"You need something?" he bellowed, his voice booming with sarcasm. "You cool? You got everything you need?"
In fact, I didn't. But it was clear by the look on his face that he wasn't really interested in what I needed. He was interested solely in my departure from his locker room.
"No, I'm just listening," I said, probably meekly. "It's an interesting conversation."
"Well, we're done," James responded, and then silence. They weren't done at all; the conversation had just started. But James just stared at me, and it became utterly clear that he wasn't going to stop staring at me, or start talking again, until I left. So I did. Shamed out of doing my own job by a 23-year-old kid who never even learned how to leave a tip.
Naturally, I went drinking.
This isn't to say James is the new Starbury or Spreewell. In the scores of press conferences I saw James do, I never heard him light up a reporter. He was either indifferent or jovial, depending on the circumstance. He did have that tendency, like plenty of pro athletes, to treat perfectly reasonable questions like they were the dumbest inquires in the history of journalism. But he was never downright rude or demeaning -- at least not when the whole pack was around.
But he was that night. And it troubles me that, instinctively or not, I'll soon find myself standing in anticipation for the feats of a guy who was a complete asshole to me. It's one thing to root for Barry Bonds, as I did for years. I grew up in the Bay Area and was nursed on Giants baseball from birth. Bonds was a full-time punk, sure, but he made our team watchable, and you could always keep his personality at arm's length. You made excuses for him so you could watch in peace as he hit balls into the Bay.
That's something fans of almost every team have done at one point or another. In Cleveland alone, they've cheered for Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, John Rocker, and Jim Brown -- a venerable Mount Prickmore of sports.
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But rarely do fans get a chance to be the direct target of the disrespect. And moreover, the Cavs aren't even my team. Sure, I came to admire the organization during my time in Cleveland. I was the ranking member of the Mike Brown Apologist Society. After spending a few days on a story about owner Dan Gilbert, I was so energized I half-considered a career in online-mortgage sales. Their PR staff -- folks I was preconditioned as a reporter to dislike -- were the nicest, most helpful bunch I've met. But they're not my team. (That, sometimes unfortunately, would be the Golden State Warriors.) So you'd think I'd be able to stay in my seat when James steps into the passing lane. Maybe even muster a clever heckle.
But I won't. I know it. I'll stand with everyone else, and marvel with the rest of the arena. The question is: Why? Shouldn't I sit on my hands in protest? Or is this just what sports fans do: Forgive sins in exchange for a little diversion on a Friday night?
I have no idea. But I do know this: Just like the night when James stared me out of his locker room, tonight's going to require a lot of beer. -- Joe Tone