LeBron should know respect is not a one-way street

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) walks off the court after a 103-90 loss to the Orlando Magic in Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals Saturday, May 30, 2009, in Orlando, Fla. The Magic won the conference championship 4-2 over Cleveland and will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. <br><I>AP Photo

LeBron James knows how to shake hands. It shouldn't be that hard to remember when.

After losing a playoff series, for instance, no matter how much of a "competitor" you fancy yourself.

For one thing, you're done competing. For another, it doesn't require much effort, or sincerity. If sportsmanship isn't motivation enough, and whatever friendships you've forged on the other side aren't important enough, then how about just to show some respect?

Lord knows, James gets his share.

Let's be clear: For the most part, James has been a model citizen. He's polite, accessible, generous with his time and money, and plays hard every night. Now 24, he's handled the spotlight and the comparisons to Michael Jordan since his junior year of high school with poise, and without the benefit of even one year on a college campus, let alone with somebody like Dean Smith - who mentored Jordan at North Carolina - in his corner.

Even so, a little more maturity was in order Saturday night. In the seconds after the Magic eliminated his Cavaliers, James had the good sense on his rush toward the exit to stop and shake hands with all-time NBA great Oscar Robertson, who, coincidentally, was walking onto the floor to present the Eastern Conference trophy to Orlando.

But that was it.

James left without saying a word and his explanation a day later was more awkward still.

"It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them. I mean, I'm a winner. That's not being a poor sport or anything like that," he told reporters back at the team's facility Sunday in Cleveland. "Somebody beat you up, you're not going to congratulate them on beating you up.

"I'm a competitor," he added. "That's what I do. It don't make sense to me to go up and shake somebody's hand."

It has, though, for generations of ballplayers, including a lucky few who were every bit as gifted as James, and dozens more whose trophy collections James will need plenty of luck to match.

Jordan, to name one, made a point of shaking the hands of the Pistons' self-styled "Bad Boys" every time they knocked his less-talented Bulls out of the Eastern Conference playoffs early in his pro career, in much the same situation James finds himself now. His best was good enough to drag an average team through the regular season and into the playoffs. But against the best teams, trying to win a championship single-handedly too often turned his teammates into, well, witnesses.

"Four other guys standing around waiting for something to happen," Jordan conceded just before the Bulls finally broke through, "isn't going to do anybody any good."

Oddly enough, Jordan never got the hand shakes returned. After the Bulls beat Detroit en route to their first title in 1991, the Pistons' trio of Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre walked off the court near the end of the game in a deliberate snub. Jordan responded to the slight by making sure the Pistons never got by him again.

Whether Dwight Howard responds the same way remains to be seen. Though he said he understood why James left the court without a word, if anyone earned a handshake and the measure of respect that goes with it, that guy was Howard.

The Magic center was a teammate on last summer's U.S. Olympic squad and he looks more and more like a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Howard came into the league less polished and his game isn't as showy, but he's the same age as James and he's already mastered the toughest lesson about being a star - making everyone around him better.

When asked about LeBron's disappearing act, Howard said he received a congratulatory, late-night e-mail and didn't sound too vexed.

"I just thought he would have said something to me, or said something to the team. He's probably upset, probably hurt and understand that, respect it. One day we'll see each other," he said, "and I'll have to wait until then."

But in the next moment, asked whether he was surprised, Howard barely hesitated.

"Real surprised," he said. No one competes in a sport to make excuses or concession speeches. But being able to make a passable one - even if it's just muttering "well done" in a handshake line - used to be a consequence of losing, a lesson in responsibility.

What James did offended old-school sensibilities, to be sure, but it also sent the wrong message to the guys playing against and especially alongside him at the moment.

If that's his idea of leadership, he's headed in the wrong direction.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org


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