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LeBron James is the best player on the planet


LeBron James

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Updated: July 13, 2012 6:23AM

What Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Saturday about LeBron James easily could be dismissed as just another particle of hyperbole in a sports universe crammed with the stuff.

Don’t dismiss it.

“I’ve never seen anyone under the scrutiny that LeBron James is under,” Rivers said.

You’d have to go back to Roger Maris to find a person chasing a goal who has been as vilified. Yankees fans didn’t think anyone should break Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record but especially not Maris, who was considered teammate Mickey Mantle’s inferior.

Barry Bonds? He was considered a cheater, not a “Decision’’-making egomaniac.

It would be going too far to say that nobody is on LeBron’s side. There’s his family. There’s Miami. And there’s a small collection of people that recognizes greatness and grace. I’m in that last group.

What can I say? The vow I made to hate him until death do him part has given way to admiration. I love his game, his attitude and especially the way he has carried himself in the face of unparalleled hatred.

He hasn’t pouted about his treatment. If anything, he has taken all the abuse and carried it nobly. He has gone into every road arena knowing he’s less popular than taxes and ignored it. That takes strength.

I know the two big arguments against him:

◆ He lacks “will.’’ The 45-point, 15-rebound effort he put together to force Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals apparently had nothing to do with will and everything to do with … I couldn’t tell you what. Fast-twitch muscles?

◆ He won’t take the big shot. And even though he won’t take the big shot, when he does take the big shot, he misses it. I’ll let you try to figure out that logic.

James can be sure that millions of people will be hoping he and the Heat lose in spectacular fashion to the Thunder in the NBA Finals, which start Tuesday night. He won’t complain about it. He’ll play hard, as always.

Rivers watched James take apart the Celtics in the conference finals, so you can’t blame him for being confused about the tidal wave of hate for the Heat star. But it begins and ends with “The Decision’’ — one of the poorest decisions ever made in sports — and the ensuing Miami pep rally featuring a dancing trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

If James had announced by press release two years ago that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami, the backlash would have been considerable but nothing like what it became. The story line would have been of a selfish superstar forsaking a team and a city to form a supergroup with two other standouts. But when James appeared on an hourlong TV special that ESPN called “The Decision’’ to announce his choice of teams, it was over.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, four U.S. sprinters posed and preened after winning gold in a relay. The crowd booed, and Americans were aghast. There was some of that involved in James’ announcement celebration, and it never went away. How could a player who had won no NBA titles get on stage with two other new teammates and very publicly envision five, six, seven championships for his new team?

We had seen the enemy, and he wasn’t us. An entire country rolled its eyes and shook its fist at the TV. It said something about the threshold that Americans have for outlandishly showy behavior. It said it’s not very high.

Some of us can separate LeBron from the monumental misstep of “The Decision.’’ Most people can’t. We appreciate his talent, his eagerness to be a good teammate and, aside from the idiotic prime-time special two years ago, his humility. You say he’s a villain; we say he’s a villain who carries himself like a hero.

If James wins one title, it won’t be enough. If he wins more than one, it won’t be enough. It will never be enough. In the eyes of many fans, he’ll never be Michael Jordan, even though he is as athletically gifted.

He seems to have enough self-awareness to know he’s to blame for all the scrutiny and criticism he receives. If he doesn’t, the angry screaming should give it away.

I’m not predicting a Heat victory or a Thunder victory in this series. I just don’t know. I guess that makes me a Finals agnostic. But I do know the best player on the planet when I see him.

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