Friday, July 30, 2010

On One-Hit Wonders

I was driving on a two-lane road in South Carolina, listening to a football game on the radio. It was February 3, 2008, and that game happened to the Super Bowl, the first one of my lifetime that I didn't see on television. I was on my way to watch Len Bias's mother speak to a group of high-school students when David Tyree made the last catch of his pro career; I specifically remember, despite the apopleptic exhortations of the radio broadcasters, not being able to comprehend exactly what had happened. There was too much to describe without the pictures to accompany it. How does a man catch a football with his helmet?

You may have heard that Tyree retired today, completing one of the most distinctive careers in sports history. Here's what makes it distinct, at least to me: Over at Yahoo!, Chris Chase examines whether Tyree's catch was indeed the greatest in NFL history; I disagree with his logic, but what I found most interesting is the comparisons he makes, likening to Tyree's catch to clutch plays made by Franco Harris, Dwight Clark, Alan Ameche, and Bart Starr. Three of those men are Hall of Famers. The fourth, Dwight Clark, is a two-time Pro Bowler. Most of the time, this is how it works; it's almost unthinkable for a marginal player to wind up with the ball in his hands in the final moments of a game.* The most memorable catch in baseball history was made by Willie Mays, in part because it was made by Willie Mays.**

David Tyree was not Willie Mays, or Franco Harris, or even Dwight Clark. David Tyree played 83 games in his NFL career, and made 54 catches. He never averaged more than 13.2 yards receiving per game over the course of a season. Pro Football Reference rates him as the 8,413th best receiver since 1950. The only reason he earned the cache to call a press conference announcing the end of his career is because of a single play that essentially won the Giants, a prohibitive underdog, the Super Bowl over what otherwise would have been the greatest team in the history of the National Football League. And that one moment, in itself, makes David Tyree the greatest one-hit wonder in the history of sports. He is to athletics as Dexy's Midnight Runners are to pop music. He will be remembered as long as professional football exists. And if sports are all about establishing a legacy--hello, LeBron--what could possibly comprise a better career than David Tyree's single towering accomplishment?

*There are exceptions, of course, like, say, Steve Kerr, but Kerr played 17 seasons in the NBA and was one of the best shooters in league history.
**Even Bill Mazeroski, long defined by one hit, actually played 17 seasons and had more than 2,000 hits in his career.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Bigger Than the Game: The First 759 Words

I've shown you the first draft of the introduction to Bigger Than the Game. So here, without further ado, is the final draft (with perhaps a few last-minute edits excluded) of the first five paragraphs. It goes on from there for a little while longer. And there are pictures (like the one below, courtesy of my old school newspaper, The Daily Collegian) in the middle!

And on a side note, the timing of this list seems fitting.

He came screaming into the picture from some faraway place, helmet in hand, a mongrel’s mane of spikes and curlicues and rattails glistening in the artificial lights of an aged football stadium. He may have been barking; on television, it was difficult to tell. And while it is true that he did not actually belong on this field at that particular moment, it is also true that he did not abide by traditional rules or social mores. His heroes had never been football players: He saw himself more as a modern-day version of Randle McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as an insurrectionist amid the asylum of organized sports. He drove a white Corvette, he wore an extremely large earring, and he had a standing appointment with a hairstylist. He had taken to calling himself The Boz.

New Year’s night, 1986: I was thirteen years old, watching the moment unfold on a nineteen-inch RCA television in a family room in State College, Pennsylvania. It was the second quarter of the Orange Bowl, and the winner between Penn State (my hometown team) and Oklahoma would take home the national championship; there was little understanding or concordance between the sides. And here was The Boz, the most dynamic linebacker in college football, looming and smirking on our screen, celebrating a University of Oklahoma touchdown pass (one that would ultimately win them the game) by smothering his quarterback in a bear hug, thereby guaranteeing himself a few extra seconds of screen time while his teammates boogied in the end zone. He was an inscrutable and terrifying figure dressed up in a crimson jersey, the manifestation of a flamboyant and calculating new-age dogma which I did not yet comprehend.

A few years earlier, Penn State’s coach, a Brown graduate named Joseph Vincent Paterno, had classified Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, the son of an Arkansas bootlegger, as among the least honorable men in his profession. Paterno had since apologized and walked back from his remarks, but the contrast between their programs remained obvious: Oklahoma’s quarterback, a freshman named Jamelle Holieway, carried a Louis Vuitton purse (“my little clutch bag,” he called it) and wore a diamond stud and a gold watch and a gold chain, and had a tattoo on his arm that read JAMMIN’. John Shaffer, Penn State’s tin-can quarterback, possessed no such adornments; he was so slow and unremarkable that he had once managed to dislodge his shoulder from its socket while leaping up for a high-five. A few days before the game, The New York Times reported, The Boz—proper name: Brian Kenneth Bosworth—had passed by Shaffer underneath the Orange Bowl stands, wearing a pair of gold chains over his jersey, wearing sunglasses in a steady drizzle. And Shaffer eyed him from head to toe without moving his head, “not unlike the way hard hats once sized up hippies.”

All of this raised questions about whether a college football game could somehow mirror a social divide in the 1980s, about whether we were bearing witness, in the Orange Bowl, to a generational schism, about whether The Boz and his embrace of glamour and status on a football field was a sign of the impending breakdown of modern society, about whether Penn State and their prison-issue uniforms and their square quarterback and their seriousness were the last embodiment of a bygone era. “The Penn State players,” wrote John Ed Bradley in The Washington Post, “carry on as if on some dire, portentous mission of the soul.”

This book was born of the curious contrast displayed on my television screen that evening; the stories contained within are no doubt shaped by the visceral experiences of a teenaged boy coming of age in central Pennsylvania in 1986. But I would like to think that this is actually a story about how sports shaped and defined the cultural perceptions of a generation of American youth—of all those kids like me who grew up largely within the mythological confines of our own television screens, gawking at strange creatures like The Boz. It is a story that culminates precisely one year and one day later, on January 2, 1987, when Penn State again played for the national championship against a group of rogues and miscreants from the University of Miami. Each of these games was marketed and packaged as a morality play, and yet, as with most morality plays of the era, the personalities I grew up watching on that nineteen-inch RCA were not as nakedly uncomplicated as the imagery often made them out to be.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On Bigger Than the Game: The Deleted Scenes (Part 2)

Just in case you aren't jacked enough about the impending release of my new book, I've decided to include some excised (and abandoned) material here. The following is an early draft of the prologue to my book; the final version touches on many of the same points, but in a much different manner. I apologize for any incoherence, as this is kind of a patchwork version pieced together from many, many early drafts.

This book was born of an event that took place during the final days of 1986, the year I turned 14 years old, the year the space shuttle Challenger vaporized on our television screens, the year a young basketball star overdosed on cocaine twenty-four hours after he became a millionaire, the year a wildly popular president chose to defy the directives of Congress, the year several Wall Street brokers affirmed, both with their words and their deeds, that greed had become a virtue in America. It was a year marred by duplicity and scandal and self-involvement, a year when so many things seemed to be going well in America, and then so many things suddenly and inexplicably seemed to go wrong.
All of this had already occurred by the time two diametrically opposed football teams arrived in the Arizona desert for the annual Fiesta Bowl steak fry, an occasion marked in the past by pomp and ceremony and general malaise. But this year, something was different. This year, one team wore suits and and ties to the steak fry, and the other team wore black sweatsuits. This year, one team, Penn State, was coached by an Ivy League graduate who preached academic integrity and cited the Aeneid as his favorite book; this year, the other team, the University of Miami, was coached by an ambitious man with an elegant coiffure who had sarcastically dubbed his counterpart as “St. Joe.” The theme was country western, and the mood was High Noon tense, and then the dinner theater portion of the evening began, and that’s where things suddenly and inexplicably went wrong.
It began with a punter making jokes.  
The punter’s name was John Bruno, and in my hometown of State College, Pennsylvania, he is regarded as one of the last heroes of a bygone era. That night at the steak fry, as per the instructions of the Fiesta Bowl organizers, John Bruno performed a skit. In fact, Bruno took so much pride in his duties as the skit’s emcee that he wrote out extensive notes beforehand; when the moment arrived, the punter stood up and made like Don Rickles. He ridiculed the opposing coach, Jimmy Johnson, for his ridiculous coiffure, dragging out a garbage can labeled with masking tape as Jimmy Johnson’s Hair Spray. Then, facing a University of Miami team that had been basking in immodesty and self-regard all week long, a team that had endeavored to display its solidarity by dressing in camoflauge combat fatigues, Bruno said this: “We’re (also) close at Penn State. We even let the black guys eat with us at the training table once a week.”
Now it was Miami’s turn. All week long—hell, all year long--they had been portrayed as the villains, as rampant egotists, as insolent upstarts, while Paterno and his Penn State players, dressed in suits and ties, were portrayed as less talented yet unconceited, as the last great hope for the withering notion that success and arrogance need exist in tandem. And this was partially a media creation, for Penn State’s players were not immune to fights and bluster, and Miami’s players were not entirely immune to introspection; but in this moment, in an age of American myth, in the era of the movie cowboy-turned-president, the dichotomy had become entirely real. When Bruno stepped down, Miami’s 290-pound defensive tackle, Jerome Brown—agitated by what he perceived to be an obvious racist remark--took to the stage, unzipped his black sweatsuit to reveal the combat fatigues he and his teammates had been sporting all week.

“Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?” he said. “No. We're outta here.”
Out toward their buses went the men in the fatigues, cementing a reputation for bad behavior and rebelliousness that their school still cannot shake, more than fifteen years after Brown's death in a car accident. Then Bruno stood up again, made an extemperaneous crack about Miami having to leave so the players could begin filming “Rambo III,” and delivered a quote that Penn State football fans still evoke, more than fifteen years after their noble punter’s death from melanoma.

“Excuse me,” replied the punter. “But didn't the Japanese lose the war?”  
True, this was just a football game, but already, it was the most-hyped college football game in history (The Game of the Century, the organizers were calling it, embracing their inner Barnums), and the subtext had an epic feel to it, even if quite a bit of that was a hyperbolic set-up, for this game was being sold as a confrontation between Good and Evil. At this time, at this moment in American history, the power of mythology was as strong as it had ever been: Our president, after all, had once been a celluloid cowboy, and once referred to our Russian enemies as the “Evil Empire.” And so: The Suits versus the Sweatsuits. Why not? As a teenager living in central Pennsylvania, as an unabashed fan of the Suits, I bought into all of it.

Of course, I realize now that this steak fry, and the truly epic football game that followed a few days later, was not a battle of Good vs. Evil, for such a definition is far too simplistic. This was a confrontation between the Past and the Future. It was not about two teams, but about the perceptions of these two teams, and what they represented to sports fans. This confrontation was a symptom of the ongoing battles within the cultural Zeitgeist, about the virtues and vices of objectivism and welfare and racial identity and television and money, money, money. And it wasn’t just exploding like this in the desert: It was happening in Chicago, where a young quarterback was stubbornly determined to simultaneously defy the establishment and make a profit; it was happening in Washington, D.C., where a young basketball star seemed so caught up in stardom that he appeared to have lost sight of his own mortality; and it was happening in Alabama, where the greatest athlete to emerge in a generation embraced his own mythology on the way to becoming a cultural catchphrase. It was, in turn, about the dawn of a new age—a modern age--in American sports, and the repercussions and influences of that age have long since overwhelmed every aspect of the games we watch. For better or worse, we are living it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On Bigger Than the Game: The Deleted Scenes (Part 1)

Just in case you aren't jacked enough about the impending release of my new book, I've decided to include some excised (and abandoned) material here. The following is a piece that I originally wrote for reasons to complex to explain, the story never ran. It was one of the first (and most popular) posts on this blog, and I always kind of assumed I'd find a place for it in the book. But then I didn't. So in case you missed it the first time around, here it is again.

In the spring of 1985, days after leading his team to the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history, the point guard for Villanova University stood in the Rose Garden of the White House, marveling at the copious amount of dandruff on the back of Ronald Reagan’s head. Gary McLain would later admit he found this moment exceedingly weird, and not just for the obvious reasons. He was paranoid and confused. He thought, What if I pushed this dude’s head?Just a little? Would I cause an international incident? He watched as Reagan read from the notes he’d been given, and from McLain’s muddled synapses, a rather provocative sentiment emerged.

He thought, “This guy is the smoothest con artist in the world.”

At the time, McLain was a pretty wise grifter himself. On the bus ride from Philadelphia to D.C., he had managed to snort half a gram of cocaine in the bathroom, a remarkable feat of deception (not to mention balance). He had been doing drugs for years, before practice and during games and after games, and despite repeated “warnings” from his coach (“If I hear it again...”), he had gotten away with it each and every time. He had done cocaine before the first game of his freshman year. He had smoked an obese joint before a game against North Carolina, scoring 10 points in 34 minutes in a 56-53 win. And the primary reason he hadn’t snorted anything before that iconic 66-64 NCAA championship victory over Georgetown (where he scored eight points) was because he used it all before and after the semifinal victory over Memphis State (where he scored nine points).

We know all of this because McLain, the MVP of the title game, laid out his story two years later, in the March 16, 1987, issue of Sports Illustrated. By then, we had embraced the mythology: Top-seeded Georgetown, with its 7-foot center and 6-foot-10 coach and its cadre of scowling angry young black men, played the thuggish bully. And No. 8 seed Villanova, with its rumpled Italian dumpling of a coach, swept through the tournament as the peppy underdog.

But what else could we expect? This was the eighties, after all, and the smooth-talking commander-in-chief apparently in need of Selsun Blue was a celluloid cowboy who rode into office on the power of his own mythology. And there is no better exemplar of the what myth can accomplish than the War on Drugs, which, between the time McLain sniffed lines at the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky, and when he emerged from rehab to share his story (reportedly for $40,000), became a political tool for both Reagan and Congressional Democrats. Here was a distinct brand of American fear-mongering, with policies that demonized drug users and generally scared the hell out of white America. By the end of 1985, according to Dan Baum’s book Smoke and Mirrors, “the depiction of white cocaine users fell by as much as two-thirds while that of black users rose by the same amount.” The death of Len Bias in 1986 and the subsequent adoption of mandatory-minimum sentences only heightened the paranoia. And those of us who watched The Wire know little has changed since then.

So, given two decades of perspective, and given what we now know, let us re-examine the two coaches in that seminal game, at a moment when drugs were plentiful and the NCAA was in its wild-west period (in the same ‘87 SI in which McLain spilled his guts, the magazine reported that the Governor of Texas, while head of Southern Methodist University’s board of regents, had approved payments to football players from a secret slush fund).

First, there is Villanova’s huggable little Cabbage-Patch doll, Rollie Massimino, who declared that a lack of “solid evidence” against McLain prevented him from taking action. This, despite the fact that McLain took to dealing small amounts of coke in his junior year. Perhaps Rollie, in the spirit of eighties conservatism, was practicing a laissez-faire policy. Or perhaps Rollie was merely ignorant, “not as up on drugs and the drug culture as he was on Xs and Os,” according to Rev. John P. Stack, then Villanova’s dean of students. Yet it is worth noting that Rollie eventually moved on to UNLV, where he was fired after cutting a side deal with the university president to raise his salary by $375,000, and Cleveland State, where he was let go after a series of questionable recruiting decisions.

And then there is John Thompson. Derided for his militance and an intimidating overprotectiveness of the athletes in his Georgetown program, Thompson, once referred to as the “Idi Amin” of sports by a Utah columnist, appears to have been far more prescient than most of us realized, even before he showed us his softer side by becoming the Barbara Walters of the NBA. In 1989, according to a story by Mike Wise of The Washington Post, Thompson heard that his star center, Alonzo Mourning, had befriended a notorious drug kingpin, Rayful Edmond III. Thompson called Edmond into his office, tore into him, and told him to stay away from his players. Before Edmond was sentenced to life in prison without parole, he apparently did as he was told.

Meanwhile, these days, Gary McLain is—what else?--a motivational speaker. It is a second act we are accustomed to seeing these days, another example of a man both embracing and defying his own mythology.

(Photo: Villanova University)

Monday, July 19, 2010

On Tiger (and Joe)

Let me state the obvious first: Joe Posnanski is an outstanding writer, and one of the nicest people I've met in this business, and I would say I agree with him at least 87 percent of the time. But yesterday Posnanski wrote a curious piece about Tiger Woods--headline "Writing Off Tiger"--and for once, I find his logic specious. His point was essentially that Tiger thrives on being overestimated rather than underestimated...that he wins by intimidation...that he's nearly 35 years old and most golfers that age are on the downside of their careers. "The difference between good and great is a whisper," Joe writes.

It's true...something is missing from Tiger's game at this very moment, but this argument also presumes that Tiger can never recover, that the aura of invincibility that defined his career has been irrevocably spoiled. It's an argument based on the presumption that Tiger Woods is now nothing more than a very good golfer, that he fits within the statistical norm, that his career from here on out will match the arc of, say, Mark O'Meara or Vijay Singh or Padraig Harrington.

Here's what we know: Tiger needs to win four more major championships to match Jack Nicklaus' majors win total of eighteen. Joe writes that Jack Nicklaus won four major championships after the age of 35, but this is deceptive, since Nicklaus also won two majors at the age of 35, meaning that, if Tiger follows Jack's precise path from here on out, he'll wind up with twenty major championships.

So, just to reiterate: Tiger Woods has already won fourteen major championships. He's already 75 percent of the way to his goal. Even if he's not the player he once was, even if his skills are diminishing, he is still the greatest golfer of his generation. He still scares you. Most people, including his fellow tour players, will likely overestimate him for the rest of his career, even if he never wins another tournament. When Michael Jordan was playing in Washington, his body and his reputation crumbling around him, there was a sense that he could channel his former self at any moment, that on a given night, tongue wagging and shorts sagging, he could pour in fifty. Personally, I think Tiger Woods is nowhere near the Jordan-in-D.C. stage; I think he's in the Jordan-Playing-Minor-League-Baseball Stage. His downfall is largely mental. It may take him another year or two to regain his cerebral equilibrium, but I'll be shocked if he doesn't regain his physical form at some point. And once he wins a single major, than the Overestimation Factor falls right back in his favor, and he could easily win several more in succession.

Here's the other thing: Tiger is only the second great golfer in history (beside Gary Player) who actually resembles an athlete. He's strong, and he's conditioned--if anything, maybe he's been a little too conditioned the past few years--and that should buy him several additional productive seasons. As Joe points out, only two golfers spread out their championships over an exceptionally long period of time: One is Nicklaus, and there is little doubt that Tiger is in Nicklaus's class, in terms of ability. The other is Player, and Tiger is in Player's class, in terms of conditioning.

It's true, what Joe says: Tiger Woods is not a movie, and he's not a fairy tale. But he is the greatest golfer of his generation. He elevated a game into a sport. He is, we now know, a deeply flawed individual, and a perception of weakness can be a difficult hurdle to overcome when your career thrives on an aura of invincibility. But the fact that Tiger built that aura in the first place was the most miraculous sports story of the modern age. To presume that he can't build it again is to ignore that a whisper can pass in both directions.

(Photo: Alastair Grant/AP)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On Self-Promotion and Self-Hatred

Donald Trump was on SportsCenter last night, talking about George Steinbrenner, and Trump was recounting a long-winded story about The Apprentice that had as much (or more) to do with his own ego than Steinbrenner's generosity, and I thought to myself, "Is this the apex of self-love? Could there be a more ego-weighted friendship in the history of American capitalism than that of Trump and Steinbrenner? When they went to dinner together, did they compete to see who could get more members of the waitstaff summarily fired?"

I find Trump to be one of 20th century America's greatest caricatures. It always amazes me to watch The Apprentice and realize that there are a whole generation of young aspiring blowhards who genuflect before him, who hear him utter things like, "Golf is one of our nation's fastest-growing sports," and find it edifying. How I feel about Trump is how I feel about self-promotion. So let me apologize in advance for the inevitable bombardment of the next few weeks: My book comes out very soon, and I received my first finished copy the other day, which is exhilarating and vaguely nauseating, and this means I have to spend the next several weeks unfurling my inner Trump.

Obviously, I intend this blog to be something more than a self-promotional tool, and I find myself to be pretty terrible at blatant self-promotion, anyway. I'm hoping to run a few excerpts on here, and to let the book speak for itself as much as possible, but let me point out two things, because this is a precarious business I work in, and sales do matter, and I am not very skilled in The Art of the Deal: 1.) There is now a Facebook group for Bigger Than the Game, and I'm hoping to at least attract enough people to form a quorum (or at least avoid embarrassment), so if you have 12 seconds to spare and can head over and click "Like," I'd be forever indebted. 2.) If you have friends who might be interested in a tome like this, please let them know or direct them to that little box to my right. If you'd like an autographed copy, or a signed bookplate to insert into your copy, just contact me directly (michael (at), and we'll get it done. If you are a media member/blogger and would like to talk with me or lobby for a free copy, contact me, or my publicist, Anne Kosmoski (Anne.Kosmoski (at)

Thanks. Now we can go back to talking about golf.

P.S. I've finally updated my website, as well. More TK.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On The Decision

 1.  I lived in Akron, Ohio for five years. And then I left. I was 22 when I arrived, and 27 when I departed, and I'm not going to lie: It was a bizarre place to be a young and single and unmoored. The first piece of advice I received from a co-worker when exploring places to live was that a certain township to the south of Akron had no property taxes; at that point, I didn't even know how property taxes worked.

So I guess what I'm saying is that there's an inherent hypocrisy to me criticizing anyone for leaving Northeast Ohio, because I once left Northeast Ohio myself. It wasn't the place I wanted to live my life--though my memories of it grow fonder as the years pass--but it is the place where several of my friends live their lives, and quite happily. Many of them were born there, and many of them have never left. And yet none of them expected LeBron James to stay at home. They have been conditioned to presume the worst. They have been conditioned to believe that nothing good ever lasts.

2. Maybe it was my own naivete, but I thought they were wrong. Even as the Miami rumors built to an inevitable pitch, I kept thinking it was all a ruse. LeBron was different, I thought. LeBron is not like me at age 25--a transient, in search of something bigger. LeBron is one of them. He came of age in Akron. At heart, he was a nativist; this was what set him apart from every other high-profile athlete of the modern age. He wouldn't possibly grind his hometown into his heel like this. Beneath the unavoidable bubble of egotism, his loyalty to his hometown and his sense of humor and his inherent showmanship made him appear surprisingly self-aware. And so I had a theory: The television show, the rumors flitting about on Twitter, the whole ridiculous years-long free-agency was a ruse, and once LeBron chose Cleveland, he would reveal that this had all been an exercise in media criticism, a statement on our own misplaced mores and outsized passions. Once LeBron said, "I'm staying in Cleveland," it would all make sense. It would become the biggest Rope-a-Dope since the heyday of Muhammad Ali. It would be a thumb in the eye of New York, a fist in the face of Chicago, and the greatest victory for Cleveland since the heyday of Otto Graham.

3. One of my close friends, Ryan Jones, once wrote a book about LeBron James. He also wrote this piece in the hours before the announcement, and managed to put my upcoming book into a modern context in a way far better than I ever could. "They might not see it, because they don’t live in the same world the rest of us do," Ryan wrote of LeBron's handlers. "Or they might agree and not care, because they’re committed to doing this their way, all the way, trusting that history will eventually prove them wise."

I was at the beach last week when it happened. I watched it on a tiny, standard defintion television, and for that, I am grateful. Outside of live reality television, I have witnessed few events more uncomfortable than The Decision. The thing is, I didn't blame LeBron for doing it. I didn't blame him for doing it because I presumed it was all part of an orchestrated fake-out, that it was more of a comment on what sports have become than an unironic and tone-deaf event. I didn't blame LeBron because I presumed he knew that history would prove him wise, because he had his mind made up all along.

About that, I suppose I was correct.

4. "Remember MORE THAN A GAME?" my friend Bob wrote from Akron the morning after. "Practically the first event that is recounted in the film is LeBron deciding to not play for the public school (Buchtel), but instead going to St V.  Anyone who has a kid playing sports in a public school is familiar with the phenomenon - the gifted athletes running off to the moneyed schools.  In GAME, LeBron even says that he 'knew it would make a lot of people angry.'  And that he was going to play with his friends. To do 'what was best for him. To win.'"

There's no way an athlete or a fan can grow up in Northeast Ohio and not feel the weight of losing. It trickles down. It's in the bloodstream. My guess is LeBron felt it, too; maybe that self-doubt is what made him choose to escape, to take an easier path, to embrace almost certain victory. (He was a Yankee fan, after all.) At 25, every male is conflicted, and LeBron was, too: He loved his hometown, even if his hometown had trouble loving itself. He could either attempt to alter that self-image almost entirely on his own, or he could do what people have done for years now: He could escape. And it is to his credit, and to his blame, that he presumed the worst.