There are many similarities between Tiger and LeBron. In a way, they are like kids who were born with a billion dollars: Turning it into five billion doesn't impress anybody. Their currency happens to be their talent -- in both cases, as much talent as anybody who has ever played their sports.
We have publicly executed their reputations for what turned out to be misdemeanors, because America loves to play with a noose. In the span of a week, they can win the title that we always knew they could win, but sometimes wondered if they would.
But now they get to come back. And that has to be sweeter. It has to be. I don't know if either man would admit this -- I suspect LeBron would, but Tiger doesn't like to admit anything. Still, think of yourself as a kid, shooting alone on your driveway hoop, or swinging a golf club in your basement, or throwing a Nerf football in the air and making diving catches on your bed.
Did you imagine you were kicking everybody's butt? Of course not. You were down two points with one second left, or needed a birdie on the 72nd hole to win. You wanted to be a great story. As Mario Chalmers said Saturday, as a kid "you always want to be that person to take that last-second shot." And Chalmers knows something about last-second shots.
Tiger Woods and LeBron James never seemed like that kid in the driveway. Tiger blew away the field at the Masters when he could have been a junior in college. LeBron could have been the NBA's MVP in 2006, when he was 21. (He averaged 31.4 points on 48 percent shooting, with seven rebounds and 6.6 assists. Steve Nash got the MVP.)
As you may have heard, the last year or two did not go quite as they planned. This was especially annoying for James, who planned it meticulously. But ultimately, in a small way, it will be good for Woods that he took so long to win another major, and it will be good for LeBron that he didn't win a title in his first year with the Heat (as long as he does eventually win one.)
When Tiger first fell into his post-scandal golfing abyss, I wrote that people who were writing him off were doing him a favor. I don't think Tiger thrives on being written off. But the public would not embrace him again unless his success was a surprise. America loves a comeback story, but Tiger had to leave, and be counted out, before he could be a comeback story.
Tiger had to pay his penance, just as LeBron did. By losing to the Mavericks, the Heat inadvertently proved that this is not a super team. If the Heat had won last year, people would have said he only won because he had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. I suppose they could still say that, but most people realize LeBron is, far and away, the best player on his team, and would be the driving force behind a title.
At some point, a man has been beaten up enough for a bad free-agency announcement, or for cheating on his wife. It is clear that both Tiger and LeBron -- especially LeBron -- are tired of being hated.
"Why should anyone love being hated?" asked Juwan Howard, James' teammate for the last two years. "I don't know too many people who enjoy all that hate people pour on you. I don't know too many people who embrace something like that."
Last season, during the lowest moments, with James' kids and their mom back in Ohio and the world banging down his door, Howard would sometimes pull him aside and tell him, on some level, he knew what this was like. And then he would wind the clock back 20 years, to the 1991-92 college basketball season, when Howard and Michigan's Fab Five were hated for so many of the same reasons.
Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson chose to join forces as freshmen, talked about how good they were, and seemed like they were taking a shortcut, or gaming the system. Back then, freshmen-dominated teams were not supposed to contend for championships. The Fab Five were so talented that people rooted for them to fail -- and when, like the Heat, they made it to the last possible round before losing, fans and analysts reveled in their failure.
"I can recall times my freshman year, we wasn't the most loved team like people think we were," Howard said. "There were a lot of arenas where people did not like us, booed us, said nasty stuff, didn't like our style, thought we were too cocky, thought we talked too much trash -- similar to how people talk about this Heat team."
That may have been because the Fab Five were cocky and did talk too much trash. But they were kids and they were having fun -- they never took it as seriously as their critics did.
Once you get an image like that, deserved or not, it's tough to shake. But we should realize now that all Tiger did was fail at marriage, and it's not really our place to hold a grudge. LeBron's Decision was arrogant and dumb, but he has handled himself quite well since then.
We normally have a pretty sizable tolerance for athlete transgressions. Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard botched how they handled their careers, far worse than LeBron did. Kobe Bryant was accused of rape and admitted to infidelity. Tony Parker was just injured in a fight between Chris Brown and Drake at a club, which is what happens when you go to a club with Chris Brown.
LeBron and Tiger were different. Their potential was so vast that perfection seemed within reach. The very best athletes in the world sometimes work at a distance from the people who watch them. Failure has humanized them both. Now two of the most talented and polarizing athletes in the world can try to do something more rewarding, something that seemed impossible just a few years ago: Surprise people with their excellence.