Apparently we're not supposed to bother LeBron James by asking why he refuses to compete in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
This is because (pick your favorite): 1) James consistently plays so hard in games that no one should dare ask him to expend another moment's energy; 2) the mere suggestion that he should compete could annoy him so much that he'll stop treating us to dunking exhibitions during warmups; 3) to question him on this is to align oneself with that guy with the four-letter first name at the four-letter network who is so absurdly critical of James, and nobody wants to do that; 4) it's silly to waste time hashing this out, because in the grand scheme of things, who really cares about the dunk contest, anyway?
Some of these are more valid reasons than others, but somehow they all miss the point. It's really never been about whether King James should or will compete in the dunk contest. Whether he does or doesn't, whether he wins or loses, it wouldn't change what we already know about him -- that he's the the closest thing to a perfect basketball player on the planet. But in other ways, we're still trying to understand James, to get a handle on who he really is. It's not so much what he does or doesn't do that shapes our perception of him; it's how he goes about it, how he makes his decisions. After everything he's been through, he should realize that by now.
Until recently, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that he would never suit up on All-Star Saturday. We might have griped year after disappointing year as the contest was populated with players the casual fan wouldn't have known if they had shown up on the doorstep -- in uniform. But we had accepted that this was the way it would be, that King James wasn't flying, double-pumping and 360-degree-spinning to the rescue.
[The 10 greatest dunk contests | The five worst]
But then, in early February just before All-Star weekend, James tweeted two words: "Dunk contest?" And with that, he breathed new life into a dead topic. Was he saying he was considering it, at long last? Was he asking us if he should? If we wanted him to? No, it turned out to be just a tease. What he was really saying was, "Dunk contest? Naaaah." That was the coy, inscrutable James coming out to play, the one who likes to toy with the public's attention, the one we hadn't seen much of since the will-he-or-won't-he days when he was considering free agency. Has he forgotten how unpopular that LeBron was?
Add that little fake flirtation to the dunking exhibitions before Miami Heat games and LeBron's statement that he was "very close" to participating in the competition last month in Houston, and it's not hard to understand how the contest issue heated up again. Granted, it has taken a silly turn -- why someone with the stature of Magic Johnson has jumped into the picture by offering the winner $1 million if James enters, I'll never know -- but it all started with James making the matter current once more. Then he claimed to be so tired of the topic that he threatened to stop the layup-line dunking. That's like lighting a match and being irritated when it starts a fire.
But we're supposed to ignore all that for fear of upsetting the King. Be thankful, say his defenders, that he allows us to behold his greatness. Be careful, say his worshipers, or he will punish us by taking away his pregame dunks. Haven't we realized the danger of "godding up" our sports heroes that way? It's possible to appreciate James, to be awed by his talent, without considering him to be somehow above answering obvious questions.
Among those questions are these: It can't be fear of exhaustion or injury that keeps you from competing in the contest, LeBron, because otherwise you wouldn't perform the jaw-droppers that you routinely do during warmups, so why won't you take your act to All-Star weekend? Do you feel guilty at all sitting on the sidelines while your league -- and it is YOUR league -- trots out some of its least-known players at one of its showcase events? If Jordan and Dominique and Dr. J could compete in the contest, why can't you?
[The 10 best jams in dunk-contest history]
It's not that James owes us the pleasure of seeing him in the competition. He doesn't. This isn't about obligation. It's about his reasoning, about whether the clamor for him to compete is what he's really after. He doesn't say, "I'll never do the dunk contest, so stop asking." Instead, he responds to Magic's million-dollar offer by saying he'll think about it and get back to him. The door stays open just a crack. He continues to fan the flame, ever so lightly, and it never quite goes out.
And no, the dunk contest doesn't really matter, but it would, if only for one glorious weekend, if James would enter and bring along some worthy competition with him, like Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and other high-profile friends. From a basketball standpoint, that's the shame of it -- that the best player in the world, in his physical prime, won't take advantage of what could be a perfect showcase for his talent. Those pregame dunks are notable not just because they're spectacular, but because they seem so easy for James. What sort of unforgettable moment could he create if he really tried?
If it somehow turned out to be less than a grand moment, so what? What would James have lost? He would gain more in good will for competing than he would lose in stature by falling short. And think of the peace of mind he would finally have. Win or lose, no one would ever again care whether James enters the dunk contest. But maybe that's the one result that he really wants to avoid.