By Jack McCallum
June 05, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- As the Lakers and Magic prepped for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James was undergoing five hours of dental surgery to remove a benign growth from his right jaw. Which was less painful than the metaphorical dental surgery he had to endure later.

Yes, rarely has a man been so conspicuous by his absence as the King was before, during and after Game 1 at the Staples Center. In the days leading up to the championship series, James had been torched for walking off the court without shaking hands after his Cavs had been eliminated by the Magic in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, and compounding it by blowing off the mandatory media session.

Then, before Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday, commissioner David Stern announced that he had reversed his initial position and decided to fine James $25,000. Stern indicated that the walkoff and the media blowoff were both factors in the fine, but I don't buy that. James was fined for skipping the interview session, which is in keeping with precedent.

Finally, Kobe Bryant's incendiary 40-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist performance predictably revived the perhaps-Kobe-should-have-been-MVP-instead-of-LeBron talk.

If the Magic aren't able to recover in Game 2 and make this a series, chances are those storylines will continue. So with all this in mind, let's try to straighten out l'affaire James.

First, and most obviously, James was wrong to walk off the floor after the 103-90 loss to the Magic, and the press was absolutely justified in criticizing him for it. James' action was compared, predictably, to the Pistons' famed pre-buzzer walkoff after their four-game elimination against the Bulls in the 1991 East finals. But it was nothing like it. What the Pistons did was a petulant, pre-planned pout, one, incidentally, that their coach, the late Chuck Daly, tried to talk them out of, and something that continued to bother him long after his retirement.

James, by contrast, had a bad moment. It shouldn't pass without notice, especially in a culture where sportsmanship is rapidly disappearing. And James compounded his error when he explained away his actions a day after the loss. "It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them," James said. "I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that." Well, yes it is. Being a poor sport is exactly what it is, and someone needs to talk to him about it, a responsibility that Stern, I suspect, has already assumed.

As for the fine, here's where I break ranks with the NBA, and probably many of my colleagues: I don't think athletes should be required to talk to the media and should not be fined for failing to do so, not in circumstances such as those surrounding the Game 6 loss. Missing scheduled interview sessions during All-Star weekend, which is what Michael Jordan famously used to do so he could play golf, is one thing; missing one after a painful playoff loss is something else entirely.

Now, if a player continually obviates his responsibilities to deal with the media, particularly a star like LeBron, it becomes a problem for the franchise and perhaps for the NBA. Maybe some kind of scale should be in place, where a fine kicks in after, say, three such incidents.

But my dirty little secret is that if a guy doesn't want to talk to me, I don't want to talk to him. I don't want a guy dragged kicking and screaming to the postgame podium so he can spout a few disheartened nothings. They just outplayed us. We'll be back next year. We still had a great season. The journalistic world would be better off without such clichés ... as long as players remember that, if they don't speak, they accept the consequences of someone speaking for them.

Now, onto the court. Bryant's performance should have absolutely no bearing on LeBron's MVP award. We run into this often: Player A wins the MVP over Player B, but Player B makes the Finals and plays well while Player A is home on the sofa, and critics say that Player B got screwed. No, he didn't. The MVP award is for the regular season, and in this season James deserved it.

However, I was surprised at how many times I heard during the season that LeBron, not Kobe, has become the league's best player. I don't buy that. I still think it's Bryant.

One third-quarter play capsulated Bryant's deadly big-game ability. Derek Fisher retrieved a loose ball near midcourt with about nine seconds left on the shot clock. It took him a couple of seconds to find Bryant, the designated one-on-one clock-beater. Bryant started toward the basket with about six seconds left. Everyone in Staples Center knew that the shot was his to take. The Magic collapsed on him. Bryant got that hellfire look in his eyes and got off a twisting shot between 20½ feet of humanity (Dwight Howard, Mickael Pietrus and Rashard Lewis). In it went.

We often talk about great players needing to win the MVP to validate their career. But really great players also want that Finals MVP. Shaquille O'Neal, not Bryant, won all three of those during the Lakers' championship trifecta from 2000 to '02, a fact of which Bryant is starkly aware.

But as Kobe goes after that goal, let's cut James, a great player and a credit to the game who had a bad moment, some slack. Remember how badly you felt after a trip to the dentist?

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