When , 6 feet 8 inches and 250 pounds of pure power, changes directions at full speed, skips and elevates for a dunk, the observer sees only charisma and grace, not arrogance or duplicity. When James soars and snags Dwyane Wade’s 24-foot bullet pass and throws it down in one motion, we see only artistry, not treachery.
In the moment, in a single playoff snapshot, is at long last an entertainer again — a fabulously skilled basketball savant — rather than a symbol of modern moral decline, if he really ever was.
It may be years before the public forgets the self-indulgent spectacle of James’s 2010 free-agent tour or of “The Decision.” Cleveland may never forgive his betrayal.
But as the playoffs unfold, and the pushes ever closer to the finals, James is building a bold case that his decision (with a lower-case “d”) was the correct one.
Miami has a 2-0 lead over Boston, James’s personal playoff nemesis. When he was a solitary star in Cleveland, the wrecked his title hopes twice in three years. Now James is doing the wrecking, averaging 28.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in the series while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Last May, James’s led by 1-0 and 2-1 before losing to the Celtics in six games. In 2008, his team never led the series at all. He is poised for a breakthrough. This is no coincidence.
In Cleveland, James leaned on Wally Szczerbiak and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. Now he leans on Wade, who is averaging 33 points and 53.7 percent shooting in two games, and Chris Bosh.
In the past, James said, “If I don’t bring my A-plus game, there’s a good chance we probably wouldn’t win that game.” Indeed, James was shaky in , missing 11 of 19 shots on Sunday. But Wade was scintillating, making 14 for 21 shots and scoring 38 points.
“And that definitely takes a load off you,” James said Tuesday night, after . “And that’s the vision that I had during the free-agent period when I decided to come here.”
This was, of course, the point of the exercise last July, though it was lost amid the uproar.
The format and execution of James’s decision will long be the subject of fierce debate. The television program was ill-conceived, the smoke-filled rally crass and premature. But competitively speaking, James made a perfectly logical choice.
James was a superstar in need of superstar assistance. The Cavaliers could not provide it. The Heat did, in a major way.
As he moves closer to a championship, and further from “The Decision,” James is slowly regaining his lofty stature. There is time for the narrative to evolve.
“People were just upset by the way he did it, I think, more than where he went,” said Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of , which measures the awareness and likability of celebrities and athletes. “And that’s going to take time to heal.”
Perceptions are already shifting, albeit slowly. Last summer, “The Decision” caused James’s positive Q score to plummet to 14, from a peak of 24 in early 2010. By March, he had rebounded to 17.
The score reflects the percentage of Americans who are familiar with James and consider him their favorite sports personality. The average is 15. At his peak, James’s positive scores ranked with ’s among sports stars.
But James’s negative Q score — reflecting the percentage of people who rate him fair or poor — remains high, at 33, well above the average of 24. At the height of his popularity, James’s negative score was 22. It soared to 39 last summer.
“He’s inching his way back,” Schafer said. “I think he still has a long ways to go. Even winning a championship, I don’t think, will be a solution to his resurrection.”
There will always be those who contend — as , and others do — that James diminished his stature and even relinquished his manliness.
James’s purported crime was abandoning his alpha-dog status with the Cavaliers to assume a role with the Heat. But superstars seldom win championships without superstar help.
Paul Pierce waited 10 years for and Ray Allen to arrive in Boston. was a lost soul for more than three years between the time departed and the day Pau Gasol landed. Barring a Garnett/Gasol-type deal, no one was going to Cleveland.
As partners, James and Wade have indeed seen their stature erode. James received only four first-place votes for most valuable player, after winning the award in 2009 and 2010. Wade appeared on 10 ballots.
In securing a better supporting cast on his own terms, James invited a harsher spotlight. Once he was cheered in nearly every arena. Now the Heat might be the most hated team in the league.
Critics contend that James took the easy way out. But James’s experience — the jeers, the profane taunts, the off-color signs — indicates otherwise.
In a society that is eager to forgive and forget the transgressions of its sports stars — from to , to Ray Lewis — James seems destined to rise again. He is no expert in Q scores, but he seems to sense as much.
As he considered the antipathy, James said confidently, “I think it’s going to die down in the next couple years, of course.”