- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2011

The folks at Nike were amazingly prescient in November 2005 when they unveiled a 110-foot high by 212-foot wide billboard to introduce their new ad campaign for LeBron James - “We Are All Witnesses.” Yet they couldn’t have imagined how much the proclamation would evolve over five seasons, twisting and turning as James morphed into arguably the NBA’s best player and sports’ most-hated superstar.

Along the way, it has become difficult to determine exactly what was being seen, especially by the legions of newly minted “hostile” witnesses. Their account differs sharply from sympathetic observers, which is only natural. But the venom and vitriol from those who would testify for the prosecution is so acute, neutral onlookers can be pushed into the defense’s camp. It’s enough to make you sound like an apologist when you’re not even convinced there’s been any wrongdoing.

That’s the position I keep finding myself in, baffled by the level and extent of criticism heaped on James since he joined the Miami Heat. Previously, I enjoyed James as a player but was neither a fan nor a detractor. When he left Cleveland to team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, I figured there’d be championships in their future, though I didn’t want them to enjoy instant gratification by winning it all this season.

But now, I’m virtually rooting for James and the Heat, simply to spite all the haters against them.

The latest wave of fault-finding centers on James‘ fourth-quarter performances in the finals. Never mind his masterful close-outs in the earlier rounds, when he almost singlehandedly sealed the deal against Boston and Chicago. Never mind that James doesn’t need to be a one-man wrecking crew like Dallas’ forward Dirk Nowitzki, who has outscored James 34-9 in the fourth quarter. Never mind that James had four assists in the fourth quarter Sunday night - including the pass on Chris Bosh’s game-winning jumper for a 2-1 series lead.

Despite that, James faced a question of “shrinking” at crunch time and not being a true superstar. The question indicated how, in some folks’ view, James can’t win.

“No, I did win,” he told reporters Monday. “We won. That’s all it’s about. … Anybody that knows me throughout the years, all I care about is the W, no matter if I’m scoring. I’m not just a scoring guy. I’ve got a lot of points in my career. … But I’ve done other things. I don’t have to score points to be effective.”

In that way, James is more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, or even more Larry Bird than MJ. But the nonstop comparisons to Jordan have played a role in making James a villainous character, much like Kobe Bryant minus five titles. However, Bryant’s rings and scorer’s mentality highlight the similarities between him and Jordan, whereas James‘ “Decision,” lack of hardware and better all-around game have the opposite effect.

James‘ willingness to pass and defer - instead of shoot and dominate - should make him a more likeable fellow. I don’t see the same thing his critics see, an ego that’s out of control with hubris that’s run amok.

A self-absorbed egomaniac wouldn’t leave $30 million on the table; he’d grab every cent possible. He wouldn’t depart to play on another superstar’s team, willingly accepting diminished stats and stature in return. And he certainly wouldn’t give up the undying love and affection of his hometown, where he could have been King James forever.

Yes, he wants to win championships and he went to South Beach in pursuit of them. But he isn’t a selfish player along the lines of Jordan and Bryant. He’s more of a facilitator, filling whatever role is necessary. Like a rookie point guard who jumped center en route to the first of five NBA titles.

“No question he has that kind of capability of a Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and those types of players because of how versatile he is,” Wade said. “… His versatility is big. Not only for him as a player, but for what we are capable of doing as a team.”

That’s how I see it, finding James “not guilty” on all charges except the handling of his departure (a misdemeanor). I’m clearly in the minority here, but offer something that should be a unanimous decision regardless of your stance: Nike was right.

We Are All Witnesses.