Sunday, Aug 5, 2012 1:06 PM UTC

LeBron James is a hero

LeBron brought his talents to London and saved the basketball team from humiliation. Time to give him some credit

Lebron James

LeBron James celebrates a big shot in a victory over Lithuania (Credit: AP/Eric Gay)

Why is it so hard for our nation’s sports press to call LeBron James a hero? If there is one sport in which we are absolutely supposed to win the gold medal, it’s basketball. And yesterday LeBron saved the U.S. from the greatest Olympic humiliation in, possibly, our entire history.

With six minutes left, the U.S. team, made up of future Hall of Famers, was trailing to … not Russia, not Spain, but Lithuania. Yes, the Lithuania whose estimated population of 3.2 million is about a quarter of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The same Lithuanian team that lost to Nigeria a month ago, a team the U.S. beat by 83 points last week.

And then, like in a bad sports movie, LeBron came off the bench, took on their best player –  Linas Kleiza, who plays for the Toronto Raptors – and stayed on him much of the time. LeBron scored 9 of his 20 points, pulled down two rebounds, stole a ball, and said to Team USA, in the words of U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, “I got this. I’m doing this.”

The team went on a James-led 15-4 run to put Lithuania away, 99-94. And by the way, the Lithuanian team had lost two of its first three games. The argument as to whether the 2012 U.S. team is not as great as the ’92 Dream Team or if the rest of the world has simply gotten better? Well, that will wait for another time. Right now, let’s just be grateful that LBJ saved our Olympic butt — at what was arguably the low point of U.S. Olympic basketball since the pros began playing.

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Anyone who read what I wrote about Michael Phelps last week should understand that I am a big fan and have been since I first interviewed him when he was 18 years old. No one enjoyed his comeback from last weekend’s fourth-place finish in the 400m individual medley more than I did.

That said, it might be time to reign in some of the gushing in the wake of Phelps’ victories in his final individual and team Olympic races.

In a piece posted yesterday on the New York Times’ web site, written by Karen Crouse, Phelps is quoted as saying, “I wanted to change the sport and take it to another level.” This is a bit grandiose even for a guy with 18 gold medals  (plus two silver and two bronze). But Crouse agrees. “Mission accomplished,” she writes.

Really? Has Phelps changed the composition of water? Did he win any of those medals swimming with a hand tied behind his back?

I’m certainly not going to argue about Phelps’ impact on competitive swimming, though it may take some time to see how many new young swimmers we see over the net few years. And, perhaps just as importantly, how many of them decide to train for numerous events as Phelps did. But Michael Phelps wasn’t the first swimmer to show this kind of versatility.

The shadowy Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe was the first great swimmer to show that one could compete and even dominate in the 100, 200, 400 and even 800-meter freestyles. At Sydney in 2000, Thorpe, at age 17, won three gold and two silver medal. In Athens in 2004, where Phelps saw him firsthand, Thorpe won two golds, a silver and a bronze. Thorpe actually held the world record for the 800m freestyle for over four years. He then broke with his coach, suffered illness, broke his hand, retired and never made it to Beijing in 2008. We can now call that one of the great “What ifs?” in Olympic history. If Thorpe had had it together, he would have been at his physical peak, age 25, and wouldn’t we have loved to see him go head-to-head with the 23-year-old Michael Phelps? Whose name would we remember today from Beijing? In his heart, you know that Phelps would have wanted that, too.

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Finally, I think we do Michael Phelps and every other Olympic athlete a disservice when we focus on the pressure that they compete under. For instance, as Australian freestyle sprinter James Magnussen put it in yesterday’s Times, “I have a lot more respect for guys like Michael Phelps who can come to the Olympics and back it up under that pressure.” If by pressure, you mean the possibility of letting down millions, nothing that Phelps faced in London compares with the pressure that Jessica Ennis faced Friday when she stepped out in front of 80,000 Union Jack-waving fans at Olympic Stadium for the first event in the heptathlon.

But if you want to talk about real pressure, toss out every other Olympic athlete who ever played and narrow it down to this: Jesse Owens, the son of a black steel mill worker in Alabama, faced more pressure just to get into the competition for the 1936 Olympics — to say nothing of performing in front of Adolf Hitler – than LeBron James, Michael Phelps and Jessica Ennis will ever face in their entire lives.

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In a competition that awards gold medals for badminton, synchronized swimming and horse dancing, I’m baffled that some people argue that tennis does not belong in the Olympics. Whatever your feeling about this, you have to acknowledge that Serena Williams’ comeback from her debacle earlier this year in the French Open was one of the most remarkable in tennis, if not Olympic, history. Her 62-minute dispatching of Maria Sharapova – 6-0, 6-1 – was as dominating as any tennis she’s played in her entire career. She is arguably the greatest women’s player of all time, and this was the U.S.’s greatest Olympic tennis moment.