LeBron James, The MAC, And Setting Expectations

LeBron said that about me!? (Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE)

It's odd. This is a site dedicated to the little guy, the hard-working athletes and teams who willfully ignore size and speed discrepancies and just play the game at their best.

Instead this is probably going to be a post about LeBron James — the exact opposite of all that.

A guy who's really big, fast, strong, and excels at basketball. You thought Trey Zeigler felt like a leviathan in a puddle? The MAC would've been an arm tattoo compared to James' stature.

And yet I can't help but think about how close he might've come to playing in the MAC. He entered the NBA Draft in 2003, when high schoolers were still allowed to do that. In 2006 the NBA increased the age minimum from 18 to 19. James would've been forced to play in college, and since his Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis went to Akron, I have this suspicion that there would've been a 20 percent chance he'd follow his friends and suit up for the Zips. Of course, 20 percent of a hypothetical is still zero. So there's no realistic expectation that he'd have ever been a MAC athlete.

It would've been madness. Not only would the attention have been solely on James, but Akron probably wins the MAC and the conference becomes the butt of jokes because the rest of the talent was inferior to a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Possibly a blessing that this all didn't happen.

But the city of Akron is always going to be entwined with the LeBron James epic, and the University of Akron alongside that. Keith Dambrot could win the next five MAC championships for the Zips and his claim to fame will still be coaching LeBron in high school. And in this recent Brian Windhorst article (which is highly recommended), Dambrot is one of the few people left in the world James still trusts. Rather hard to shake that reputation.

Look, I fully understand why a fanbase like the Cavaliers are going to never let James live down the way he left the city, or even the fact that he left at all. But for everybody else still hoping LeBron falls on his face: read that Windhorst article. I was on the fence about pulling for the man as his Heat returned to the NBA Finals, but man, I'm kind of in his camp now.

It shouldn't be about what he did. (Although compare that with this FOX Sports article by Jen Floyd Engel, which says it's ALWAYS going to be about that.) It should be about how he copes and handles with his own mistakes ("The Decision," last year's NBA Finals, dumb tweets, haughty press conference quotes). This is what makes Michael Vick likable and a good sports story: going through hell, paying your dues, and redeeming oneself. It's also why a man like Miami's own Ben Roethlisberger is a hard sell for a likable person. He's made some personal mistakes over the years but it doesn't seem that he's really owned up to them. I don't know. Maybe he has. But for a guy like Vick, it's way more evident.

You can err greatly. You can miss a free throw that would've likely sent your team to the Elite Eight. You can fail to prevent a 4th and 20 pass completion. And it can sting. It can haunt you. But forget about what tough-guy analysts say about legacies and being clutch. In sports — and life — you are ultimately judged by how you respond to failures.

We have seen, perhaps, unprecedented success in postseason play for MAC teams this season — 4-1 in bowls, a Sweet Sixteen, four volleyball teams in the tournament, men's golf reaching the final eight and now a College World Series. It's easy to examine the season-ending losses so deep in the tournament and rationalize them as, well, you overachieved and finally met a team that was bigger and stronger. High five.

What if LeBron James and the Heat lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder? The expectation is that he should win a championship, a couple of them at least. This expectation may be his own, but it's one shared by certainly most of the dudes and dudettes starting into the lens who drone on about sports legacies.

A disappointing OHIO loss to North Carolina and potential Heat loss to the Thunder could be viewed exactly the same were it not for the artificial structure known as expectations.

It's perplexing.

Every year we do MAC football and basketball preseason polls — and still will. When we get them wrong, we can say that a team surprised us. We can talk about the futility of guesstimating before games are played. Or we can say that the team we thought would win ended up disappointing us. That last choice seems to be the feeblest of all and really undercuts the accomplishment of the winning team. It's tantamount to saying, "if they didn't suck, I would have been right, so it's not my fault."

When expectations are used not as quick guidelines and fun guesses but rather as physical laws, then it all goes south. People suddenly become chokers and frauds. I suppose when an athlete like LeBron sets high expectations for himself then falls short of that, it is kind of fun to rag on him, because it's like mocking somebody who doesn't win the lottery. In my Real Job, I've learned a lot about setting expectations, and that can make all the difference.

I never expect anybody to win a championship, be it NBA, MLB or MAC. I just enjoy the ride and hope the team I root for doesn't soil themselves coming out of the locker room. Try it sometime.

And I know I have to do this, because with all the aforementioned postseason success the MAC had this season, it's going to be downright necessary to temper expectations, because I fear it's gonna be a little more painful next year across the board.

Early on I said this was post was probably going to be about LeBron James. It ended up being much more than that. I hope you weren't disappointed by that expectation.

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