Luol Deng Should Be More Popular Than LeBron James


I’ll let you in on a secret, one that sounds unbelievable and probably ruins my credibility.

I never liked LeBron James.

O.K. A little backtracking might be needed here. That’s not entirely true. There was a brief window there, from July 8, 2010 until mid-2012 where I actually thought better of him.

This isn’t just some post-Decision II lamentation, although that certainly does substantiate my reasons for disliking James. And this isn’t a commentary on his play, not entirely, which at times over the past four years (and even prior to that in Cleveland, Round 1) has been indescribably beautiful to watch.

He’s just never come across as being entirely sincere.

For his first stint with the Cavaliers, there was the natural tendency to dislike an opponent and criticize in him what you tolerate of the players you root for. He preened too much around the court, whined excessively when he didn’t get the foul call and the narrative of him lacking “clutch-ability” was easy to embrace.

Then he joined Miami and that all changed or, at least, my perception did.

I believed then (and still do) that the hatred directed at James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and the entire Heat organization was ridiculously inappropriate. He made a Decision which was entirely in his right to make, and neither the televised announcement or ensuing celebration seemed like a mistake.

Criticize him and ESPN for being self-indulgent? How can you, when everyone tuned in because they wanted to, never mind the millions that were donated to the venue.

Rip on “undeserving” Miami fans for celebrating the union of the “Big 3?” Sure, but realize any other fanbase (I’m looking at you, Cleveland) would do the same thing.

To be fair, the things I had disliked and mentioned above – preening, whining and failing in the clutch – didn’t simply go away. He did preen, cocky and self-assured, but it was all part of the emotions of a game. At home in the AmericanAirlines Arena, those over-the-top gestures fed the crowd into a frenzy that hadn’t been felt in years; at away games, one of those contrived staredowns shut down 15,000 fans like nothing else could.

The whining…well, he kept doing that, too, but I realized that, like Shaquille O’Neal before him, he takes a hell of a lot of abuse for being a physical specimen. For every 10 times he gets hit, James would get the call on four, begged for another two and would simply have to accept the rest for being a 6’8” wall of muscle.

As for the ability to make big shots, I think he disproved the critics time and again over the past four years.

During those two years when I appreciated James, I saw him put up with unfair levels of abuse and criticism, including from those fans that have welcomed him back in northeast Ohio. He struggled at times but showed a lot of dedication and selflessness that created a sense that he’d triumph over all that.

When he won the Most Valuable Player trophy in 2012, I was overjoyed at how graciously he thanked his teammates. When Miami won their first championship a few weeks later, that Larry O’Brien trophy was especially endearing because his journey had  reached its long-deserved destination.

But something changed after that, and James, who had appeared vulnerable and sincere during that 2-year timespan, hardened just a little. After a summer that included the MVP, NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal, the tide of public opinion had swayed in his favor. He stopped trying as hard to seem friendly; he didn’t have to be as civil.

When he accepted his fourth MVP trophy in 2013, his speech lacked the tone of gracious diplomacy, almost as if he was saying, “Yeah, I won this…no thanks to the rest of you guys.”

The 2013 championship, although joyous an occasion, also had a perfunctory sense to it; with James, the self-acknowledged best player on the planet on the team, a title was practically assured.

Over his last season in Miami, there were times when you could feel a disconnect between James and his teammates. He was fed up with their lack of greatness and even more frustrated by their frequent absences. The preening was back, peaking during a two-game stand in New York and Brooklyn, where James was satisfied in playing to the glittering crowd while Miami dropped both games to inferior teams.

And in the playoffs, there were noticeable times when James quietly forced his teammates – somebody, anybody – to help carry the load.

But it doesn’t work that way, not after years of setting up a team to revolve around you and your impact on every aspect of the game. The Sun can’t simply take a break and expect the planets to find their own source of heat and light.

As details have come out regarding his issues with Heat executives, particularly Pat Riley, you can see some of those negative qualities that were always there just below the surface. His dedication to his friends is sincere and it obviously trumps his ties to the organization that sheltered him from the media storm in 2010. He hedges his bets by saying a championship (not 4, 5 or 6?) in Cleveland might not come right away then does what he can to build a team of veterans that can compete immediately. (The best part of that was when he welcomed Andrew Wiggins by not acknowledging him in his fabricated coming-home letter and then forced him to Minnesota for the win-now acquisition of Kevin Love. Have fun in Minnesota, rookie…)

Which brings us, finally, to Luol Deng.

Deng, as you’ve probably heard, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, none of which was his doing. The subject of racist comments that characterized his heritage as being disingenuous at best and purposefully deceitful at worst, Deng responded with a thoughtful, perfect response.

But there’s more to why Deng should be embraced by Heat fans, even if his All-Star level skills fall well short of what James can do on the hardwood floor.

Deng is the embodiment of what this post-LeBron team; tenacious, dedicated, hard-working and taking nothing, especially victories, for granted. Gone are the days of coasting through the regular season. Miami’s going to have work – and outwork – everyone to achieve any success.

And despite the comments by the top brass of the Atlanta Hawks, Deng appears to be something that James wasn’t during his tenure with Miami; honest and appreciative in his dealings with the team, media and fans alike.

Miami, and Deng, probably won’t be as successful as they’ve been over the last four years of historic greatness.

But they will be something that was missing for the better part of the past two years.

A team to proudly follow.