Clearly, LeBron is Toying With His Audience

To say he was hated is to misuse the word. But LeBron James clearly was disliked in this country three years ago, after his regrettable role in the debacle known as The Decision, followed by a flameout in the NBA Finals. One does not declare during a gaudy, smoke-spewing, obnoxious, Vegas-like show in the Miami arena that he is going to win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” league championships, then collapse against Dallas in his first colossal test. LeBron was LeBum.

Now, with evidence mounting each day and night, he is LeBomb. You sense he is toying with us, capable of hijacking a nation’s attention span with something as seemingly insignificant as a black face mask, then wandering out on an otherwise uneventful Monday night in America and scoring a career-high 61 points. Remember the noise last month that Kevin Durant was your unquestioned Most Valuable Player this season? James buried that notion by challenging hinself with a notable media milestone — his assertion that he’ll ultimately belong on basketball’s Mt. Rushmore as one of the four best players ever — and a subsequent string of sensational moments that remind one and all of his continuing pre-eminence in the sport.

After making 22 of 33 shots, including his first eight three-point tries in a blowout of Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats, James spoke in the heavenly tones of one who grasps the special place he has entered. If he cannot be compared with Jordan until he wins not three, not four, not five but six championships, he certainly is the most prominent and talked-about athlete in America, positioned to win a third consecutive championship and elevate himself in the pantheon of sports royalty. He has withstood a rough patch this season in which the Heat struggled and James suggested, more than once, that he might opt out of his contract this summer and consider joining his third NBA team. At this point, James is a man in complete control, capable of commanding our interest with a relentless stream of headlines as sublime as his latest masterpiece, as controversial as his Mt. Rushmore omissions (no Bill Russell) and as sensible as his recent statment that he most likely will stay with the Heat.

“The man above has given me some unbelievable abilities to play the game of basketball,” James said afterward. “I just try to take advantage of it every night. I got the trust of my teammates and my coaching staff to go in there and let it go.”

And that MVP award? Between the recent surge of James and the Heat and the post-All-Star-break issues of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have stumbled since Russell Westbrook returned to join Durant, it now appears LeBron is headed to No. 5. Not since Jordan has a player ruled the league on his terms. “Every night I go on the floor I want to be the MVP, of this league, MVP of this team, MVP for me, myself and my family,” James said. “I’ve set a high standard and I have to live by that.”

His teammates, already in constant awe of his talents, were blown away by his latest footprint. “Once he sniffed 60, we knew he was going for it,” Shane Battier said. “And the amazing part is the efficiency. Good Lord. Sixty-one on 33 shots, that’s Wilt Chamberlain-esque. That’s pretty amazing. Incredible performance.”

Durant? The MVP talk only motivated him. “I’m sure it did,” Dwyane Wade said. “He watches more basketball than anybody. I’m sure that it did and refocused him. It’s time, it’s time to turn it up even more and he’s been doing it.”

“As a competitor, I’m sure that fired him up,” Norris Cole said, per the Miami Herald. “For him, he’s accomplished just about everything you can accomplish in this game. So he probably needed that motivation for himself. It wouldn’t surprise me if it did get to him, and it’s showing.”

Like Jordan, who even in retirement ranks behind only boxer Floyd Mayweather as a sports endorsement earner (thanks to his shoe line), James has an uncanny way of luring eyeballs to his ongoing personal theater. The new music video with Jimmy Fallon, we can do without, but last week, to shield his broken nose, he wore a black carbon-fiber mask against the Knicks. It looked superhero-esque, and most basketball fans loved it. “Only LeBron can make breaking your nose look cool,” Battier said. But the new NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, said it put opponents at a disadvantage because they couldn’t see his eyes. So he switched to a clear mask, not that it is hindering him. It appears he could wear blinders and be unaffected.

“It’s not a league rule, but it’s the league’s request that you don’t wear the black one. For the reasons that they told me, it didn’t make sense to me. But hey, I’m just a player in this league and I will abide by this request — I’m not even going to say rule, but request — by the NBA,” James said. “I’m good with the NBA. We’re good. I am not against the NBA. They had a request and I fulfilled it. Let’s just leave it at that. As long as the mask is transparent. As long as they can see my face, my opponents.”

The blistering play of James and the Heat, who have won 11 of 12, has changed the narrative on LeBron’s future. Now, league observers think he would be crazy to opt out. “This deal is pretty damned good if you’re there,” said Phil Jackson, who also told USA Today that he may return to the sport in a front-office capacity with a fraanchise that is not the Los Angeles Lakers. “It’s something that you don’t easily run away from and say, `Oh, there’s greener grass on the other side of the fence.’ ”

Nor it is a given, as it once was, that the Indiana Pacers will own the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in a likely showdown against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. The assumption now is that the survivor in the rugged and deep Western Conference playoffs will be so beat up, the Eastern winner will have an advantage in the Finals. Think about it: LeBron could have a relatively pedestrian ride until late May.

“He’s such a confident player right now, probably the most confident player in the NBA, and it’s not born out of arrogance or born out of anything else other than the main thing, which is winning,” said Heat president Pat Riley, who lured James to Miami. “He wants to win. That’s all it’s about.”

He’s winning, all right.

Winning us over, like few athletes who ever lived.