LeBron needs to rise up

Updated: February 6, 2006, 2:42 PM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN The Magazine

He has Michael's ad agency, Michael's 23 and Michael's throne. So what's wrong with Michael's dunk contest?

LeBron James is copping out again, copping out on his responsibility as face (or co-face) of the league. The dunk contest wasn't beneath a young MJ, and it wasn't beneath a young Kobe, but LeBron won't risk it. Just like he won't risk a last-second shot. It's getting old.

MJ
AP Photo/Kirthmon Dozier Michael Jordan was always up to throw down, taking part in 1987's NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest.

He has ascended to this sort of MJ status -- Super Bowl commercials, appearances on national TV every week -- but has not entirely deserved it. He has never been in a playoff game, much less won a playoff game, yet he shares the league right now with Kobe. He's obviously an electric player, a triple-double waiting to happen, but he's almost basketball's Peyton Manning -- no storybook endings.

He has no memorable buzzer beater, no signature pressure moment, and, at the tail of close games recently, he has clanked free throws or passed to a surrounded, frightened Aleksandar Pavlovic. MJ only passed if Wennington was all alone for a game-winning layup or if Paxson was wide open for a title-winning jumper. Otherwise, the shot was going up, hell or high water. But LeBron, who seems to have a nervous tic, gets a free ride from the public. Gets to act like a 10-year vet. Gets to skip dunk contests, no questions asked.

He can't have it both ways. He can't have a Nike miniseries, then opt for the skills competition. He's only 21. He needs to pay his dues like the rest of 'em. It's his duty to dunk.

He can't be afraid to fail. MJ risked it all against Dominique; Dr. J risked it all against David Thompson. But LeBron won't risk it all against Josh Smith and Nate Robinson? The talking heads on this network, from 5 to 6 p.m. ET, say the dunk contest is a thing of the '80s, that its days are long gone. But LeBron could bring it back in a heartbeat ... if he just said yes. Trust me, the kids in this country want to see that, deserve to see that. It would be LeBron's rite of passage.

But it'll never happen, because he appears to be all about image. His world's too perfect right now. Doing "The LeBrons" commercial. Being the squeaky clean antithesis of Carmelo. Visiting elementary schools. Why mess with that? Why even do in-depth interviews? He's getting by right now on reputation and marketing and stats and a seven-game Cavaliers winning streak in a bad Eastern Conference. He's obviously thinking, "Why take a chance? Why do the dunk contest and risk getting embarrassed by a 5-foot-9 New York Knick?'"

LeBron
AP Photo/Mark DuncanLooks like you have the stuff, LeBron. Join in!

For the record, he says, "I'm not a dunk competition type of guy" -- the presumption being he's a pass-first choreographer like Magic Johnson. How much you averaging LeBron? Thirty? That's not Magic Johnson. What's your vertical, LeBron? 30-plus? That's not Magic Johnson.

He says, "I can't think of a dunk and then go do it" -- the presumption being that he's not creative. He says, "I'll leave it up to guys who don't play as many minutes as I do. Those guys can throw it between their legs and stuff like that" -- the presumption being that he can't.

It's all talk, all an act, all politically correct. That's him. That's corporate LeBron. But he's coasting along here in his third year, and it's getting old. You just don't show up out of high school and get handed MJ's life.

You have to earn it.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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