First Cup: Tuesday

  • Bill Livingston of The Plain Dealer: The clash of perception vs. reality will occur again in the NBA Finals, now that LeBron James' Miami Heat is in its second straight such series, beginning today in Oklahoma City. Most of the local media members, including me, were guilty of selective sight with James when he played for the Cavaliers. Rudeness to underlings and habitual tardiness went unreported. The sycophants with which he surrounded himself were tolerated and even employed by the Cavaliers. The reason so many said so little was that they were seemingly small things. The worst trouble James ever got into with the police was a 101 mph speeding ticket. ... There is no argument here with how good he can be. James was the most talented player I ever covered. I thought he had a chance to be better than Michael Jordan. But his performance in this Boston series is even more startling when compared to his valedictory game in Cleveland against the Celtics. It was also a rather big change from his craven clutch play against Dallas in last year's NBA Finals. Sports history is what players make, not what anyone reads. We saw what we wanted to see here with James, almost until the end. His apologists now, however, are not fans or media members who neglected many little things until they grew into an astonishingly big and ugly thing. They are people with a stake in LeBron Enterprises, Inc. They have bartered independence for access, criticism for apology.

  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: It’s time Northeast Ohio forgives James, or at least moves on and forgets him. Not in the way you forget an ex-girlfriend by burning her pictures while listening to Adele and wishing a lifetime of failed relationships on her, but in the way that her marrying a wealthy, buff and tanned Brazilian wouldn’t completely destroy your summer. Hatred, bitterness and inferiority are too exhausting, too painful for the soul. Bury the LeQuit jokes, the Lyin’ King T-shirts and the Queen James monikers. Two years is long enough. I write that as a native Clevelander, born and raised 20 miles outside city limits. I crumpled up the sports section in disgust and tossed it across the room the day the Indians traded Ron Hassey. Of all the guys to get worked up about, I picked a journeyman catcher who batted .266 and hit more than nine homers only once in a season, so obviously my compass has been skewed before. Not now. ... Given how he closed out the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, it might be happening right now. If it does, I won’t begrudge him. I won’t burn his Heat jersey in protest. I’ll wish him well and turn my attention back to the Cavaliers’ draft. I’ve moved on. You should, too.

  • Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle: So who do you root for? The scoundrels on the court, who put together a mini All-Star squad and in the process became the league’s top villains, or the scoundrels in the front office, who stole a team from a city after the league’s blackmail plot failed? Oh yeah, let’s not forget that the Thunder are owned by a couple of Oklahoma City billionaires whose tactics in acquiring and moving the team fromSeattle led one columnist to dub them “snakes on the plains.” It was a kind description. Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon did Seattle a worse turn than Bud Adams did Houston, but the owners are behind the scenes. LeBron James is front and center, and guard and forward, for the Heat. All eyes will be on him, watching his every move to see if he does the magic disappearing act he pulled in last year’s Finals. What is there not to like about former University of Texas star Kevin Durant, the Thunder’s high-scoring forward, who is among the most respected players in the league? Portrayed by some media as Good vs. Evil — James being the devil on one shoulder, Durant the angel on the other — vying for the soul and integrity of the game, James and Durant aren’t distant rivals who don’t particularly like each other, as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were when they met in the Finals for the first time. ... If we’re lucky, these Finals will be the start of a transcendent championship rivalry, the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen since Magic vs. Bird. Those two played against each other just three times in the Finals, but their rivalry defined the NBA of the 1980s. Everyone, it seemed, had to pick a side. Everyone, it seemed, came away thrilled. It is a ridiculous notion that either James’ or Durant’s legacy will be cemented by what happens in the next two weeks, but the result will be an important chapter in each of their stories. We are fortunate to be witnesses.

  • Mike Wise of The Washington Post: If Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and other of the game’s champions embraced the bad-guy role, LeBron shunned it — to the point of volunteering this past season that, sure, he could see himself playing in Cleveland again after all the ugliness associated with his departure, even though no one asked the question. “He wants to be liked, that’s who he is,” Dennis said. “All the different schools he went to as a child, moving all the time, he became a chameleon — he learned to fit in. “The bravado and the posing after every play isn’t him. I know that’s what everyone does now, but that’s not who LeBron is, trust me.” Walker spoke to LeBron before the playoffs began, but they don’t talk as much. Dennis, who stopped running his basketball camp before the 2007 NBA Finals, saw him last fall when Durant had come to town to work out with LeBron and the two played in a flag football game together. The circle is different now. Carter is still head of Team LeBron, which also includes childhood friends Randy Mims, Rich Paul, the agent Leon Rose and William Wesley, “Worldwide Wes,” friend to the stars. “You can only be what you’re surrounded by,” Dennis says. “You don’t have a strong male figure in your life, what happens? “‚ÄČ‘The Decision?’ There’s no way that would have happened if he had a dad. Things would have never been formulated like that.”

  • Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post: He won't stop Kevin Durant from stealing his crown as the best basketball player on earth. Worse, LeBron James is about to get posterized by a bespectacled guard from a tiny college nowhere to be found on the hoops radar. The real mismatch of the NBA Finals: Sam Presti vs. James. While stars will make TV ratings rise, the more compelling basketball question is: Does how you build a champion still matter? Presti is the general manager of Oklahoma City, a contender built with sweat and love by a 35-year-old man who never played above the Division III level in college. James is the de facto architect of the Miami Heatles, a South Beach party thrown together by winks and nods among friends. ... There is no more powerful force of nature in the NBA than James rolling to the hoop for a dunk. It's a thing of awe-inspiring beauty. But what Presti has might be even more important in sports. He leaps into the light, doesn't calculate the odds and never looks back when opportunity gives him a tiny crack to succeed. James vs. Presti? It's no contest. The MVP of this series never has and never will hit a jump shot in the NBA.

  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press: The most ridiculous complaint among the chronic LeBron James whiners is that he took "the easy way" to serious NBA championship contention. This has been "easy"? James doesn't merit much sympathy or compassion because he willingly placed a bulls-eye on himself, first crowning himself king before he even won a ring and then masterminding the assemblage of a proposed super team on South Beach. But the volume of animosity directed at him and the Miami Heat for their hubris reeks of hypocrisy. I suppose those same people who cry that the Heat violated some code of competitive ethics by amassing as many excellent basketball players as possible and unabashedly boasting about it will greet the 20th anniversary of the original Olympic Dream Team this summer with equal disdain. After all, the concept of the "super team" and the bravado it wrought was born during the 1992 Barcelona Games.

  • Howard Beck of The New York Times: So much has changed in a year. On Monday, James said he was “happy” and “humbled that I can actually be back in this position” with a chance “to do a better job of making more plays, more game-changing plays out on the floor, on a bigger stage.” And while the Heat are still resented in many precincts, they apparently no longer inspire the fear and loathing that shrouded the first year of the James-Wade-Bosh alliance. They are not even favored in this series. Las Vegas oddsmakers are listing the Oklahoma City Thunder as the favorites to win the championship — at 10-to-17 odds by the sports book Bovada.lv. The Heat are listed at 3 to 2. This is not just about public sentiment, the lingering anti-James backlash, but the tangible sense that the Thunder are simply the better team.

  • Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register: After being traded and as he announced his signing with the Thunder this season, Derek Fisher offered 254 more words – again some of them "Los Angeles," none of them "Lakers." Even as he focuses on this potential sixth NBA title, it seems appropriate for Fisher that he left a team that breaks its huddles with the word "Ring!" for one that breaks its huddles with "Family!" For their part, the Lakers did wind up decreasing their title chances this season by replacing Fisher, 37, with Ramon Sessions, 26. But that swap was never meant for just this Lakers season, and assessments on it must wait for other days. With no plans to retire, Fisher will also play other days somewhere next season. He likes Oklahoma City as much as Oklahoma City likes him, though currently injured backup point guard Eric Maynor, unlike Fisher, is under contract for 2012-13. Considering how long Fisher has toiled to reach the moment at hand, the future – including an offseason power struggle with union chief Billy Hunter – isn't even on the radar, though. He gave up $3.4 million in certain earnings for next season to have this opportunity to end this season the way he dreamed. He's awfully close to his sixth championship. And considering the rocky private road he traveled in his negotiating business suit and new-colored uniform to get here, it might be the one that means the most of them all.

  • Lynn Thompson and Bob Young of The Seattle Times: Mayor Mike McGinn met with NBA Commissioner David Stern in New York City on Monday to tell him Seattle wants to bring back professional basketball. "We met so the mayor could show his commitment to bringing an NBA team back to Seattle," wrote McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus in an email. The visit came as a surprise to local representatives of Chris Hansen, the San Francisco hedge-fund manager who is proposing to spend up to $800 million to partially finance a new arena and buy an NBA team. Rollin Fatland, a spokesman for Hansen, said he didn't know anything about the meeting. "What the hell is that about?" Fatland said, adding that the mayor may have contacted others about the meeting. "I'm not aware that anyone asked him to do it." Pickus said the meeting was part of an East Coast work trip. The mayor is heading next to Washington, D.C., then to Orlando, Fla., for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

  • Geoff Calkins of The Commercial-Appeal: Extend the lease. That's all Robert Pera would have to do to reassure nervous Memphians. Extend the lease that binds the team to FedExForum. Right now, the lease says the team can't move until 2021. Make it 2031 and the citizenry would throw a parade for the guy. He could ask FedEx to extend the naming rights deal, too. I bet FedEx would be willing to kick in some more loot to keep the Grizzlies here for the long haul. Just like that, all the skepticism would disappear. Memphians would rush to embrace the new owner. Mike Heisley says he's found someone to buy the Grizzlies "who has expressed a total commitment to Memphis?" Then a longer deal should be no problem. And if this all sounds like I'd like some assurances before I join Heisley in his happy dance, well, that's because I covered the Affair de Laettner. Not that Pera, 34, should be confused with Christian Laettner. There's no evidence he plans to put himself in the lineup, for one thing. And, unlike Laettner and his partner Brian Davis, Pera appears to have actual money.

  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: The sooner the team hires someone to lead its basketball operations department, the sooner that hire can focus on finding a new head coach. The Magic would be well-served to hire a new coach before teams can start speaking with free agents on July 1. The best potential midlevel-exception signees and the best potential sign-and-trade acquisitions will want to know who their coach would be before they seriously consider the Magic. And the sooner the Magic have a GM and coach in place, the sooner the team can try and resolve the uncertainty that surrounds Dwight Howard.

  • Gerry Callahan of the Boston Herald: Danny Ainge isn’t tipping his hand, but we know we would love to get Garnett signed at a nice little hometown, I-only-want-to-play-for-Doc discount. Ainge doesn’t drink alcohol, but he must have felt a nice warm glow yesterday when he clicked on ESPN.com and saw what one writer suggested would be a reasonable solution to the Celtics’ Garnett dilemma. “Looking at all of Garnett’s options,” ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh had written, “ending his career in Boston alongside Pierce in front of a worshipping fan base may be the best fit. A one-year deal for $8 million seems like a fair compromise.” Only in Ainge’s dreams is Garnett staying for one year and $8 million. In reality, it will cost much more, but Garnett is worth more. He’s a leader, a tone setter, a culture changer and a big man who gives you a seven-point edge every time he takes the court. Do you see a lot of those on the free agent market? No, there’s just one. The Celtics have been lucky to have him for five years. They’d be crazy not to keep him around for two more.

  • John DeShazier of The Times-Picayune: Eric Gordon has made no secret of his intent to explore his employment options, a right he has earned as a restricted free agent. No malice should be directed toward the Hornets shooting guard, and great for him if he can draw a $16-million-plus per year, multi-year contract from an NBA team that New Orleans will have the option to match. But that partially underscores why the franchise should use that No. 10 pick on Austin Rivers, a 6-foot-5 combo guard who might be less of a risk at that position than other players who’ve been projected to be available in that slot. First, the Hornets just might need a replacement for Gordon if he draws an offer the franchise believes it doesn’t want to match — and matching an offer might be likely, but absolutely isn’t a guarantee. Second, it might need a replacement for Gordon a little later than sooner if he doesn’t get an offer or doesn’t attract one he likes, has to play out the remaining year of his current contract in New Orleans, makes it known he doesn’t want to play in New Orleans and decides to force a trade or to leave as a free agent. Third, they certainly couldn’t be faulted for taking Rivers as a confident, talented insurance policy because Gordon has had a tendency to get injured.