In the National Basketball Association, LeBron James stands alone.
I’m not referring to his incredible skills, which make him my favorite player to watch in the Association.
The reason LBJ stands alone and why I am rooting for his Cleveland Cavaliers to win the NBA title over the Golden State Warriors starting Thursday on ABC became evident during a conference call Monday with announcers Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and Mike Breen.
Asked how much of an impact fans of both teams who are starved for titles will have on the finals, Van Gundy said: “I think it's great for the fans. It's great to see their enthusiasm and their spirit, and I think the fans will have no impact on the outcome. “
“I totally agree, couldn't have said it better,” said Jackson, who was Golden State’s coach last season.
When the reporter persisted and asked if the importance of winning a title in both cities was an inspiration to the players, Jackson downplayed the suggestion.
“I think the players will say the right things, but at the end of the day, you're going to be recognized as a champion,” said Jackson. “When (former Warrior) Rick Barry is recognized as a champion, we don't think the area, we think him and deservedly so. Both places have incredible fan bases.
“I probably would point to the one guy that it would probably mean the most to, and that's LeBron James because he went back home for the sole purpose of putting them in position. So other than that, it doesn't play a role.”
“I agree with Mark on that,” added Van Gundy. “I think it means more to James than anyone else as far as how it relates to winning it for your hometown fans. I think everybody wants to win and the fans are a part of it, but I don't think that's the primary focus. I think the primary focus is they and their teammates have worked long and hard. Cleveland, for one year, really the Warriors for four or five years.”
No truer words were ever spoken in a conference call.
James’ determination in winning a title for his hometown area is what makes him stand alone as a player. It’s the primary reason I am rooting for him and the Cavs.
Cleveland is a lot like Buffalo. It’s an area that is starved for a title and an area that wants to believe its pro athletes want to win a title here as much for the community as for themselves.
Fans want to believe that even if Jackson and Van Gundy downplayed the suggestion.
Many Bills and Sabres retire here and love the area. I’m sure Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Steve Tasker want the Bills to win a Super Bowl title for the community.
But I expect that many present day Bills feel the same way about winning a title that Jackson and Van Gundy believe the Warriors and most Cavs feel. Winning a title for the community is nice but it isn’t their primary focus.
James should be loved in WNY because of what he is trying to do for his hometown fans, whose hearts he broke when he took his talents to Miami for four seasons before coming back home. He also has grown into his role as a NBA superstar who almost always says the right things in post-game interviews and passes credit around to his less talented teammates.
Almost always. He isn't perfect. But he has come a long way since the one-hour public relations nightmare interview, "The Decision," he did on ESPN when he announced he was joining the Heat in 2010.
During the conference call, Van Gundy criticized James for being too honest.
During a playoff game with Chicago, James noted that he changed a play proposed by his coach, David Blatt, that led to him hitting a winning basket at the buzzer. Van Gundy, the former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach, wasn’t amused.
“Coaches always listen to the players,” said Van Gundy. “That doesn't mean they'll do everything that the player says, but if it makes sense, they'll definitely go with it. You give particular leeway to great players who have earned it, who have earned the right to speak.
“In this case, I think what made it different was LeBron publicly announcing that he called off or suggested that David Blatt not go with that play. It's not new that a particular star player says, you know, I want the ball here versus here. I would like to run this action versus that action. That's not new.
“I was fortunate to coach a lot of great players, and they made great suggestions along the way, including Mark. So that's not new. Just the newness to me was a player stating that to the media, and I think it would have been much better for he and his team and his coaching staff if it had remained private.
“Totally agree with everything Coach just talked about,” said Jackson. “It happens all the time, and if you ask (Golden State Coach) Steve Kerr, I'm sure that Steph Curry has called off plays, and when I coached him, he did it. So it's not a knock, and it happens more often than not."
“That's why I think it should have been kept private because if you're ‑‑ the fans only know a certain percentage of what really goes on in the life of an NBA team,” added Van Gundy. ”Some of the great things are kept behind closed doors, some of the ugly things are kept behind closed doors. So when something like that is told to the media, then the media runs with it and presents a perception to the fan base that David Blatt's not in control, and that's the furthest thing from the truth, but because it was presented like that and other articles before that that rely totally on unnamed sources and all this have presented a picture that David Blatt is just a caretaker, which is totally unfair, but it's been presented like that.
“That's why I think it would have been better if James kept it to himself or said 'great call by Coach Blatt, and we got a great shot, and we won the game' because, to me, that eliminates a lot of the chatter, the negative chatter that's unnecessary.
“That's why coaches and players always have to be praising each other because, if not, the media will seize upon whatever openings they have that can possibly divide a team, and that's one, I think, that could have divided a team if they hadn't gotten the results that they wanted in the playoffs.”
Van Gundy seemed to be advocating disguising the truth.
He thinks it is a decent game plan at times.
“Mark was talking about how both sides think you want the other team to win sometimes, but you asked an interesting question,” said Van Gundy to one reporter. “I thought how forthright is somebody? I think a similarly good question is how forthright does the audience want the broadcasters to be? Because when you tell your truth, there's a lot of anger that comes out. Even within ‑‑ like I think it's a good question to ask TV people too. How much truth do they want to be told? How much truth does the league want told? Because the truth isn't just a positive truth. If you're going to tell the truth, you would be telling a lot of positive and some negative.”
Van Gundy didn’t disguise his own truth when his brother Stan was coaching the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“For me, it was extremely challenging because I absolutely wanted the Magic to win,” said Van Gundy. “I wanted the shots for the Lakers to roll out. I wanted the shots to go for Orlando. But Mark made a good point. Those were my emotions going in, but the game dictates what you say. You don't make up a story. The game plays out, and you tell what you see despite whatever bias I may have had in that series, wanting Stan's team to win. The game tells itself.”
Van Gundy’s candor about rooting for the Magic made me ask Jackson if he was rooting for the Warriors, many of whom played for him last year. He was emotional and said on the air that he was "proud" when they won the Western Conference title.
“I work for ESPN/ABC,” said Jackson. “I'm rooting for a great game, and that's been consistent from the day I signed my name on the dotted line, and that's not going to change.”
Jackson acknowledged that things would be different if his brother was coaching the Warriors or the Cavs.
“If my brother was the coach of one of these teams, I would be rooting for my brother to win,” said Jackson. “There's no question about it. Unfortunately, neither one of them have given my brother a job. So I don't have to worry about that.”
I’m not sure Jackson was being totally truthful. I imagine it would be hard for any human being either to avoid rooting for your former team or being a little jealous of seeing another coach win with many people you coached the year before.
But it was the right answer for an analyst.
I also asked Jackson a question that I believe could determine who wins a few games in the finals and possibly the NBA title. Does he expect LeBron to tell his coach he wants to cover league MVP Steph Curry at crucial times at the end of games?
“It depends on the flow of the game,” said Jackson. “The best players want to take the best challenge. I think, in an ideal world, if you're LeBron James, the game plan being followed and the competitive spirit of your teammates following that game plan, hopefully, if you're LeBron James, you feel like that's going to put you in the best position, and the guys are going to do their job. At the end of the day, you need a stop, Curry's got it going, I'm sure it could wind up that way, who knows? That will play itself out.”
The truth is I hope it plays out that dramatic way -- and I’ll be rooting for LeBron and Cleveland.