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Monaco: LeBron garners deserved respect (Feb. 25)

Mike Monaco | Monday, February 25, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the first in a 10-part series discussing the defining sportsman (or woman) of this century. In this installment, Mike Monaco argues for LeBron James. Join the discussion on Twitter by using #DefiningSportsman.

The date was July 8, 2010.

In what has been dubbed “The Decision,” LeBron James sat at a Boys & Girls Club in Connecticut and announced he would take his talents to South Beach and sign with the Miami Heat.

In the hour-long telecast, LeBron James quickly became the most polarizing figure in sports.

As a result, LeBron is the defining sportsman of the first 13-plus years of the 21st century.

Simply put, he’s the best basketball player in the world. He’s one of the few athletes who can be compared to Michael Jordan without eliciting laughter. He transcends positions, fills stat sheets and dominates games.

During a recent torrid shooting streak, LeBron drained 49 of 65 shots. That’s a hair over 75 percent. That figure would be solid from the free-throw line, and not just for Dwight Howard.

LeBron has a dominant 31.65 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) right now. PER measures a player’s per-minute statistical production, and LeBron is performing at historic levels.

Not that this is at all new. LeBron has won three MVPs, should win the award again this year and should have won it in 2008 and 2011.

But, in this day and age, the best don’t necessarily define the era. It’s an era unlike those in which our parents and grandparents grew up. What you do on the court is not the whole story.

What you do or don’t do in the county court is.

Behind homerun titles are PED allegations. Behind major titles are extramarital scandals. Behind collegiate stars are NCAA investigations and sanctions.

Purity is a relic of superstars past. Today’s defining athletes are those who are polarizing.

And, though LeBron has steered clear of courtrooms, there is not a more polarizing figure in sports.

LeBron is also a microcosm of today’s era in sports.

He was a high school sensation and burst onto the national scene. LeBron had already appeared on the covers of ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated by the time he began his senior season.

James was a known national commodity before he could legally go to R-rated movies. He spearheaded an era where high school kids are negotiating their next shoe deal, where pre-teens get featured on “SportsCenter” and where college is seen as a one-year commitment or, in LeBron’s case, a non-entity.

LeBron has had his share of controversy as well. During his senior season of high school, James was suspended for accepting two jerseys, which happened after he received a Hummer for his 18th birthday, prompting an investigation by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

Such activity typifies today’s era, when the NCAA is constantly investigating illegal benefits and levying sanctions.

LeBron was the perfect story for a while, too. He was the hometown kid drafted with the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took a downtrodden franchise and turned it into the elite of the Eastern Conference.

It was a story everyone loved. An underdog team powered by the young star. It was a story sports fans still love, no matter the era. And it was all because of LeBron.

He’s been the best player in the sport for the past half-dozen years. LeBron is a nine-time All-Star and a physical marvel. He has the on-the-court requirements down pat to be the defining sportsman. He’s quite simply the best basketball player in the world, maybe ever. He might be the best overall athlete in the world.

But it’s been the hoopla since “The Decision” that has made LeBron the most defining sportsman or woman of this century.

LeBron made that decision and, though it raised roughly $6 million for charities, he got crucified. People wanted him to win championships, and he made the decision that put him in the best position to do so. But he still got skewered. It didn’t help when he made the now infamous prediction of “Not one, not two, not three…” NBA titles.

He was everyone’s favorite villain. He was Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Duke basketball and Notre Dame football all wrapped up in one.

In year one, James dominated but his team didn’t. Then, last season the Heat won the NBA title, and LeBron was named Finals MVP.

The monkey was off his back. He had finally silenced some critics.

He had won, but he had not won over everyone.

And, because of that, he’s our defining sportsman.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.