LOS ANGELES -- It was either delicious coincidence or bad timing that on the very day when his organization was further shaken to its core with the dismissal of general manager Danny Ferry, LeBron James was set to appear on the Larry King Show to talk about -- what else? -- himself.
The interview, taped for a Friday night airing in between Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals, further fed the notion that LeBron, in this endless salute to himself, is hanging over the Finals like some cheesy fireworks display at the county fair.
Commissioner David Stern once again gave a free pass to the Chosen One, saying Thursday night before Game 1 between the Lakers and Celtics that he didn't mind LeBron raining on his parade. As P.T. Barnum would say, there's no such thing as bad publicity. Also, when it rains vapid self-promotion, it pours.
"I don't have a problem with it," Stern said. "It actually, I think, demonstrates -- I mean, we're really up there now with Bill Gates, President Obama and Lady Gaga. How can you beat that trifecta, to add LeBron James to that? ... It's fine. The same way it's fine to have the president talk to Marv Albert about where LeBron is going or about our game. It's sort of tells me that our players have, through their hard work, captured the imagination of many, many people."
So add Stern to the list of enablers who are afraid to say no to LeBron, who are terrified of what will happen if they dare question his judgment. I wondered Friday, as the great Magic Johnson made his way out of Staples Center, where he would come down on the LeBron debate. And his answer gave me all the insight I needed to understand why Stern doesn't view LeBron's lust for attention as upstaging. Commissioner Barnum views it as cross-promotion.
|Schedule and Results|
Game 1: Lakers 102, Celtics 89
Game 2: 8 p.m. ET - Sunday, June 6 (L.A.)
Game 3: 9 p.m. ET - Tuesday, June 8 (Boston)
Game 4: 9 p.m. ET - Thursday, June 10 (Boston)
Game 5: 8 p.m. ET - Sunday, June 13 (Boston)
Game 6: 9 p.m. ET - Tuesday, June 15 (L.A.)
Game 7: 9 p.m. ET - Thursday, June 17 (L.A.)
"I don't think it's fair," Magic said of the criticism directed at James. "We've never had a summer like we're going to have in the NBA, and we've probably never had a guy like this on the free-agent market -- and the other guys, as well. And what's good about it is, the NBA is staying in people's faces, so I like that. So I would say, 'Continue to do what you're doing.' And also, he's doing it on the off days, so it's given people something to think about while the series has two days off. You know, hey, the man is great, he's got personality. You know we were upset when these guys were not marketing our league; I was upset. Now, they've got guys going out here and doing it."
I asked the obvious follow-up: Is LeBron marketing the league or himself?
"Well, both," Magic said. "If he markets himself, he's marketing the league. You've got him and Kobe [Bryant], the 1 and 2 popular players, so it's good for the league when he's out there."
Speak of the devil. At that very moment, Bryant came walking down the loading ramp at Staples after practice, wearing a black and yellow Nike sweatsuit and his customary shades. And so I asked Magic: If Larry King was going to have one basketball player on his show to commemorate his anniversary week, shouldn't it have been that guy? Shouldn't it have been the one with the shades and the four championship rings? The one actually playing basketball with another title on the line?
"No, you can't discount [LeBron] for doing that," Magic said. "I mean, he's the second best."
And then Magic and Kobe embraced, a few hours from the airing of the second best's interview on CNN. On our way out of Staples, I stopped the best and asked him the same question I'd asked Magic: Do those who accuse LeBron of trying to upstage the Finals have a point? Is this national TV interview, along with a report Friday of discussions about a different pair of Nikes for each city on his free agency tour, crossing the line?
"No," Bryant said. "I don't deal with that, and I don't think about it. I know him personally, and he's a great person; a great person and a hell of a player. My deal with him is, I wish people would just leave him the hell alone and let him do his thing and that's all I'll say about that. I really don't think about anything other than just him doing well."
Bryant's publicists with the Lakers weren't aware of any attempts by King's producers to land Bryant as the basketball guest during this anniversary week of interviews. Sigh. As with sports, TV interview shows are about ratings, not substance.
|Is LeBron James' free-agency circus taking thunder away from Kobe Bryant's Finals appearance? (Getty Images)|
"I don't care about attention," Bryant said. "It doesn't mean anything to me."
Which brings us back to Magic's answer about any attention being good attention, about LeBron's NBA becoming some ringless circus born of marketing gimmicks and publicity stunts. After free agency is over, fire-breathing jugglers and bearded ladies can only be around the corner.
"It's still about winning championships," Magic said. "But, you know, he has to figure that out with his team and they're doing a great job."
Listening to Magic's words on my recorder, it wasn't clear if he and LeBron have the same definition of team. In the postgame news conference after the Cavs lost to the Celtics, LeBron referred to "my team" as his cadre of advisors and marketers -- not his Cavs teammates, who have since seen Mike Brown fired and Ferry pushed overboard and who-knows-what-next as owner Dan Gilbert breathlessly bows at the feet of the King.
"I'm not mad at LeBron at all," Magic said. "I'm happy that he's out there doing what he's doing and the league is at the forefront. People have to remember that we do have competition now with [World Cup] soccer. So it's good that he's in everybody's face. He deserves it. And I just hope that while he's doing it, he's promoting the game."
And if by that, Magic means "promoting himself," then so be it. By the way, where is Lady Gaga going to sign and what kind of shoes will she be wearing?