The superstars: Life behind the walls

LeBron James thought Zydrunas Ilgauskas should have played, and he said so. Good for LeBron, and good for us. We'll take what we can get.

It was a minor issue, a news item that popped in and out of our consciousness in a matter of hours. Most people outside Cleveland -- or even outside the Cavs' locker room -- really don't care one way or the other about Big Z's assault on the franchise games-played record. It means nothing to most of us.

But LeBron said something. Granted, it wasn't a statement on child-labor laws, or the availability of guns in the inner city, or even the price of tickets in NBA games. But he said something vaguely controversial, and he said it to stick up for his teammate. He took a stance by publicly defending his teammate and friend; and as easy as that is to admire, it's remarkable in these days of spit-shined images to find an uber-athlete who says something that runs the risk of upsetting someone.

In this case, it was Cavs coach Mike Brown who could have taken offense; and with all due respect to Mike, most of us don't care who he plays or when he plays them any more than we care about Big Z's games-played record. He wanted to go small against Dallas, good for him. Big Z don't do small.

Here is the world as it exists today: Athletes at the highest level are prepackaged, image-controlled creations of marketers. There are millions of dollars riding on these guys' remaining as apolitical and uncontroversial and uninteresting as possible. They live behind walls and give us fleeting glimpses when they either need to compete or convince us to buy something they're selling. Then they disappear into a murky world that seems equal parts privilege, loneliness and paranoia.

Opinions are discouraged. Controversy is disaster.

Too often we're left with the impression there's nothing there, nobody's home, nothing gets through. So it can be construed as a victory of sorts -- a small, small victory -- when James turns up on "SportsCenter" looking a little bit peeved and saying something that he clearly believes. Even if it was about something relatively insignificant, it felt kind of important. It shed a little light on LeBron that went beyond the standard everyday Nike-created persona. LeBron cares about Ilgauskas, and he cares enough to stick his nose into it publicly and forcefully? Who knew?

Of course, you knew where this was going before it got there: Tiger Woods. For years, the boundary between Tiger and the world has been thick and impenetrable. Battalions of image-protectors have stood guard outside the gates, occasionally stepping aside to allow a carefully controlled morsel to pass through to the outside. We're grateful for whatever we get, and his unparalleled talent on the golf course has been enough to trigger a bizarre secular canonization.

And so the result is this: We don't know much; and what we do know, we aren't sure we can trust. There's really no way in. We know he routinely swears on the course, but who doesn't? We knew that even his caddie is a member of the guard -- part companion, part bouncer, more than willing to use his proximity to Tiger as a stick to wield as needed.

But now ... now we know something. His unidentified "transgressions" -- did Jason Giambi write his statement for him? -- allowed the world to see a side of him that all the image-makers probably knew but were paid to obscure.

And the people who believe Tiger's extracurriculars are none of our business are many of the same people who spent the past 15 years worshipping at the altar. I don't care what he's doing when he goes off the grid, but to say it's not a story is to miss one fundamental tenet: The relationship between an athlete like Tiger and the public is strictly commerce. He sells, we buy -- razors, cars, golf equipment and the very concept of who he is.

For 15 years, everybody's been asking, "What's Tiger really like?" Reporters have been rebuffed in their attempt to answer that question for as long as it's been asked, and now we're supposed to believe that it doesn't matter? That it's not a story?

Don't paint Tiger as an innocent. He made the decision to enter into this agreement with the public.

Every time he signed a contract to take money from GM or Nike or Gillette, he was putting his image on the line. Every time the pen hit the paper, he was forsaking a little piece of that privacy he now bemoans like an over-caffeinated Alan Dershowitz. He was asking us to believe him, to buy him as much as a sleeve of golf balls or a V8 Lucerne.

And if the subsidiaries of Tiger Inc. choose to ignore this little gap in the curtain, fine. And if you choose to continue to purchase the products based on the image, fine.

Just don't say it's not a story.

Because this week, we learned a little bit more about LeBron, and a lot more about Tiger.

And Big Z got his record Wednesday night. Outscored LeBron, even.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.