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What will become of this self-anointed king with no crown?

by | CBSSports.com Columnist

A lot of people, many of them in the sportswriting dodge, put a great deal of stock in morality plays, of tales of redemption, of public scorn turned to adulation.

Which begs the question one day after the end of the NBA season and the crowning of an unlikely but deserving king: What of the king that wasn't?

More specifically, what will the nation do if/when he does get his ring? Will they demand that he take a knee and say he got it wrong until then? Will they simply ignore his past transgressions against the public's illusions as they moved past John McEnroe's three decades earlier?

After a season in the spotlight, LeBron James won't be able to hide following the Heat's Finals failure. (Getty Images)  
After a season in the spotlight, LeBron James won't be able to hide following the Heat's Finals failure. (Getty Images)  
And will he be in the mood to play the PR game the public demands, or will he drop a series of dismissive "I told you sos"? Will he try to be gracious and be rebuffed? Can he win the audience that he fumbled away, and can he seem genuine in doing so?

None of these are basketball questions. The answers to all those must be directed to Dirk Nowitzki, and he gets to talk as long as he likes.

LeBron James, on the other hand, has been found guilty -- not of failing to win the first of the seven rings, but of not being as advertised. He not only wasn't better than Dwyane Wade, thus ruining the established pecking order, but failed even to meet the standards of the third, Chris Bosh.

But that's yesterday's news. The future is what is fascinating now -- what James intends to do about it, and what the customer base will accept from him.

James isn't a villain, not in the conventional sense. Villains know their role, and they know that under the right circumstances they can become heroes.

But those who proclaim their invulnerability can't have scars and bruising. They can't back out of a challenge, and they can't lose after they've talked so brazenly of success. This isn't hubris, it is mega-hubris, and it has an excellent chance of being irredeemable hubris because, as we are coming to learn, James doesn't do humble. At least not comfortably.

It is, however, a skill he will have to master, master so well that he can charm people who do not wish to be charmed. He is more useful to them as a caricature of hubris undone.

What makes it worse for him, though, is that he is also being held responsible for violating the first law of team-building, namely that getting your friends together doesn't do it alone. Teams are actually built organically, and the "We got three really good guys and we'll just make up the rest" plan is cheating the process.

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This is actually Pat Riley's fault, although with a big push from James' agency, CAA. It's trying to create a revolution from the top down and disregarding the little parts that actually hold everything together, which never works.

The Heat were going to do this without regard for those little parts, and it ended with them being exposed as incomplete, and therefore unworthy of the praise that star-worshipers heaped upon them. Basketball is a team game, but it's a nine-deep team game, and those who wanted to prove or believe otherwise needed James to be James in the biggest moment, to hide that one glaring sin of omission.

Finally, he didn't pay his debt to those who held him up as the New Jordan, and he will reap every bit of the whirlwind they can muster. He didn't walk the talk, nor the body language that created it. That he isn't solely responsible doesn't matter. He's going to face the heavy end of the abuse, and his reaction to that mild injustice will determine his future as an icon. Maybe he won't be an icon any more.

How he faces that hard truth will be almost as much fun as watching the Mavericks defending the prerogatives of the old-school team-build. LeBron James has never known adversity, or anything close to it. Now he will, even if it's only dealing with his own makeup as a thin-skinned Goliath. It still sucks being a figure of fun when all you've known and built is an image of regal omnipotence.

He has been deconstructed, and now he has to learn to rebuild himself either in an image more in keeping with how the public defines him, or as an even haughtier "I am me and you are but mortals" James. He can either learn the insincere but palatable words, "We failed, and I'll do better," or he will spend this new portion of his life brushing away criticism, founded and otherwise, and living a life of walled superiority. That won't play, but he'll have to learn not to care.

And that's this offseason's game within the game. The morality play, with the possibility of redemption. If the public still likes that storyline as much as we like typing it.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com


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