DMA 7-22 Sports

July 14, 2010 2:00 PM

Why LeBron Was Right

john%20crowder.jpgLeBron James was right.

Yes, the whole nine yards - leaving the house that Dan Gilbert built, joining D-Wade in South Beach, milking "The Decision," letting the spurned suitors know at 9:01, support from Jesse Jackson.

In the grand scheme of things, indeed, LeBron was right -- even if in some haunting esoteric sense -- because of the tragedy that is John Crowder.

And, digging deeper back into the day, he was also right because of Benji Wilson and countless others.

For you doubters out there, it is hardly a stretch to draw such comparisons.

John Crowder was a 6-foot-8, 215-pound, 17-year-old Baltimore baller -- shot and killed in the early a.m. hours after July 4 in a challenging, grizzled city neighborhood.

LeBron spent the week following the Fourth finalizing his decision, while Crowder, whose funeral service was yesterday, was in the morgue.

Had things worked out for Crowder, he would be preparing now to head back to his Baltimore County parochial school for his junior year this fall, ready to accelerate the next step of college recruiting as one of the top prep basketball recruits in the country. He had told folks he was already getting letters from Maryland, Virginia Tech, Clemson and St. Joseph's. As a freshman he played at the same Baltimore high school as Carmelo Anthony, Donte Greene and Malcolm Delaney before it closed.

The Baltimore neighborhood where Crowder was murdered (they haven't yet caught his assassin) is called Cecil-Kirk in East Baltimore. Cecil-Kirk is a place where young black boys learn to play basketball in Baltimore's uniquely tough style. Think post-World War II, Eastern U.S.-styled, packed-in row houses, expansive vacant former manufacturing-plant lots, trash-strewn, overgrown alleyways. Life is hard there, and everybody has to look for an edge.

Basketball players grow like the weeds do in the cracks of the broken sidewalks along Cecil-Kirk. Some ballers make it out. Others like John Crowder do not. They said he had drugs in his pocket when he died.

John Crowder's story is typical of young men who do not make the escape. You know the story: raised by his grandmother; mother dies when he was 2; father nowhere to be seen; landing in the juvenile court system; seeing older brothers suffering gunshots in drug deals gone awry; running the streets and, of course, learning to play ball.

As Crowder's basketball talents began to materialize in the eighth grade, they even shipped him to Dallas to play ball at God's Academy and live with a Christian family. But after a few months in the Southwest, the lure of Baltimore was too much and he returned home.

So do the contrast with LeBron.

Ben Wilson.jpgLeBron James was born to a 16-year-old mother in Akron, OH, a stark Midwestern town itself with a hardened city-streets flavor. His bio-dad, an Anthony McClelland, was an ex-con who didn't hang around. LeBron had the usual hardships associated with rearing from his single mother, Gloria, but at least he had her around to keep him focused.

Make no mistake, John Crowder was not the next coming of LeBron James. Crowder was emerging at 17, but LeBron was already ticketed to NBA superstardom -- the first Ohio sophomore named the state's Mr. Basketball and the first sophomore ever selected to the USA Today All-USA First Team. Growing up, LeBron was the truly exceptional, once-in-a-life young athlete.

Yet the parallels with John Crowder are undeniable. That's why LeBron was right.

In another place or time or with an unlucky twist of fate, LeBron, still only 25 years old to this day, could easily have succumbed to the streets of Akron the way urban Baltimore shot down John Crowder.

About a month before LeBron was born, Ben "Benji" Wilson fell victim to Chicago's mean streets, a stellar basketball player shot to death while being robbed Nov. 21, 1984, just before the start of his senior season in high school. Benji Wilson, 17, of Simeon High was the next big thing back in the 1980s, the first Chicago basketball player to be recognized as the top high school player in the nation. Wilson's killing resonated nationally -- so much that NIKE featured his plight in a commercial.

Benji Wilson, regarded then as a player with LeBron-like potential, didn't make it out.

These aren't country club neighborhoods where these young men live. They are toughened urban enclaves where one slip up can mean your destiny.

So the negative hubbub over LeBron and the way he handled "The Decision" simply doesn't hold up. He made it out of Akron raised by a single-mother and got himself to an elite stature without a birthright. And when did you ever hear LeBron's name associated with drugs, bars, fighting or late nights running women? Never. He has done what America told him to do to make it.

So why not milk it. He made major news and got major pub - in the face of those so-called pundits and experts who questioned his decision-making. That hour-long special on ESPN pulled in 9.95 million viewers or 6.96 million households, according to preliminary figures from the network. That's genius, big-time - monumentally bigger than the coming out news conferences for Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez.

In communications, when you can command that kind of attention, you grab it. It's just marketing, branding.

That's why Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert's approach was so vexing and over the top. How can any man fault another man's opportunity to raise himself to an even higher level as LeBron has, especially given where he has come from? Gilbert called LeBron cowardly and narcissistic. Only a man with inherited money on the line would put such a notion out there.

Had LeBron not been so marvelously talented at basketball, no way a Dan Gilbert even gives him an opportunity to get near the boardroom. America is a place where anybody can make it, yes, but it also is a place where they can hold your bloodlines against you.

That was Jesse Jackson's point on his "runaway slave" comment. Writers like Jason Whitlock and Gregg Doyel immediately took issue, but why? Jackson is a civil rights leader doing his job as he perceives it, and, whether you agree or disagree, you give a pass to a man who walked with Martin Luther King Jr. It was Jackson, by the way, who conducted Benji Wilson's funeral 25 years ago in Chicago. He knows the territory.

All Jackson was saying to Gilbert was why treat this young man LeBron James in such a fashion when he has done everything that society has required of him. Who knows, "The Decision" may never come around again. Rhetoric aside, Jackson's message was quite simple.

Most of all, unlike poor John Crowder and unlike Benji Wilson, LeBron made it out.

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DMA 7-22 Sports is a blog about sports in the Washington-Baltimore market, covering amateurs, colleges and pros. The title DMA 7-22? Means "Designated Market Area," per use of media rating services, signifying Washington is the 7th largest media market in the United States, and Baltimore is the 22nd. You can reach M.V. Greene at

Photos: John Crowder,; Ben Wilson, Chicago Tribune/AP; LeBron James, AP.

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