LeBron James responded to his critics Sunday night by saying he's fine with their perception of him because they all have to go back to "their lives" after they get over their joy over his unmitigated failure in the NBA Finals.
These comments kicked up some dust, but mostly as a sign of James' lack of self-awareness. The idea that he finds a large portion of the population contemptible seemed secondary. We've somehow become accustomed to the idea that athletes -- especially self-aggrandizing narcissists like James -- consider the world's rank-and-file to be losers of the first order. Everyone is beneath him, therefore the most severe verbal retaliation he can summon in his worst moment is to draw attention to the difference between his life and the lives of those who question him.
In other words: those sad, pathetic, diminutive lives led by everyone else.
Does this mentality explain anything about the man's epic professional vanishing act? Maybe, maybe not. There have been thousands of big-time athletes who have felt the same way about the rest of the world and have managed to win championships and perform well in the biggest moments. There have been thousands of athletes who have lived their lives as altruists and have won nothing.
But James' underlying message is this: He can return to his world, which is far better than your world, with or without a championship or even a halfway decent performance in the biggest moment of his professional life. In his mind, the most joyful moment in the lives of the haters will be his downfall, and for that he both pities and mocks you.
He repeatedly passed to Juwan Howard and Mario Chalmers when his team desperately needed its best -- or second-best -- player to impose his will on the Mavericks, but it's all good because his critics have to get up in the morning and look at themselves and their disastrous little lives. In LeBron's vision, all those people who question him will head to work, unfold their paper hats and click on the deep fryer.
And he will once again wake up to a tattoo that says "Chosen One." He will continue to refer to himself as "King" and look down at all the serfs in his fiefdom. He will never want for anything. He predicted a championship and instead chose to pass to Juwan Howard, but he still has his big house and his sycophants and his seemingly endless gobs of money.
(He deserves the money and the lifestyle, by the way. He's earned every penny of it, every Sub-Zero, every theater room, every car that costs more than a median-priced home. That's not the issue.)
This is the great disconnect in modern sports. LeBron James wants all of our adulation -- indeed, he expects it, nearly demands it -- and none of our criticism. It's the inevitable result of our insistence on godding up every athlete who shows precocious talent. (And yes, guilty as charged.) What happens is this: The separation grows so drastically so quickly that some of these guys immediately see the world as consisting of two separate universes: Themselves and Everybody Else.
And Everybody Else, sad to say, is dirt.
Magic Johnson said something profound in the postgame show. The topic was LeBron, of course, and his tweeted comments suggesting that he didn't win a title this year because God decided it simply wasn't yet his time. (Doesn't it seem that hiding under God's skirt in times of failure has become the refuge of those who refuse to accept responsibility?)
Clearly exasperated, Magic said what James should have said, and I'm paraphrasing: I'm sorry to all my fans. I'm going to work hard this offseason to get back here and hopefully win it next time around.
And then Magic looked at the camera for a second longer than usual, as if to say, "How bleeping hard is that?"
James is the perfect case study of the I'm-Somebody-And-You're-Not phenomenon. He came of age in what might become known as The Entitlement Generation. I have a friend who owns a company that hires many recent college graduates, and he says the self-esteem of the 22- to 28-year-old set is both astounding and misguided. They've been raised to believe they should be overflowing with personal pride -- not a horrible concept in moderation -- and they've passed the elementary-school classes to prove it .They've grown up in a world of parents who worship them rather than discipline them, and they've rarely been given honest, frank assessments of their talents. Everybody is good at everything, nobody loses, nobody fails, nobody should be called to account for their inadequacies.
James is the phenomenon in the fun-house mirror. He's been godded up since he hit puberty, and he will continue to live a life of vast luxury and significant professional success. It would be stupid to think he won't ever win a championship, but it's equally stupid to think it will come without some serious alterations to his mindset. Because you can talk about the Mavericks' zone defense (it was confounding) and Dirk Nowitzki's persistence (he was everything James was not), but in the final analysis LeBron's failings looked to be failings of character, not talent.
It's funny, because as I was watching him speak in the press conference before he broadly dismissed everyone who isn't him, a thought struck me for the first time: It would absolutely stink to be LeBron James right now.