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Better Birthday Wishes for Tiger and LeBron

The calendar offers some unusual conjunctions.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

Both Most Valuable Players in baseball’s strike-shortened 1994 season – Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas – were born on May 27, 1968.

George Steinbrenner was born on July 4, 1930; 53 years later to the day, Dave Righetti pitched the Yankees’ first no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956.

Though they were not born in the same year, the two sports figures whose public personae took the biggest nose-dive of 2010 celebrate their birthdays today, Dec. 30. Tiger Woods turns 35. LeBron James turns 26.

Tiger’s fall was epic, massively chronicled, and tragic in the classically Greek sense. 

He showed the world his talent and profited handsomely from it, engaging people with his smile and his killer instinct. And when people wanted to see what lay behind the smile, his eyes turned cold and the gates slammed shut. He learned to present the world a wary blandness, compartmentalizing his life until all that showed was what he chose to reveal.

His capacity for control was his strength and his weakness. He played his best golf when the pressure was greatest. He expanded the notion of the possible on the course, executing anything he could imagine. And he came to believe he could do the same in his personal life. 

You know the rest. A very public divorce. A year of punchlines. No major wins. No minor wins. Ugly shots. Ugly results. And most shocking of all, the times when he just stopped trying on the course.

No matter what else happens, his air of invincibility is gone.

Golf is a physical game played largely in the mind. The things Tiger learned in 2010 will do him no favors in the future. He learned he can quit on himself when things go bad. He learned he can miss putts that matter. He learned he can lose, and he learned he can be beaten. 

The last year belonged to the tabloids. Tiger’s next year will be one of the most compelling stories golf has ever seen.

The quest for privacy was not LeBron’s flaw; exhibitionism was.  

There was always something to like about LeBron James. He was so big and so strong, yet so quick and agile. Once or twice a game, he’d do something you’d never seen before, something you couldn’t imagine he could do, whether it was blowing by a closing defender or rising through big-man traffic to throw down some thunder. 

He could take over a game at will, but seemed happiest being a part of a team. When he came into your arena, it was a happening. It didn’t matter that he was on the other side, at least in part because he was on his hometown team; you couldn’t get mad at someone trying to bring a championship to a place like Cleveland. He was surrounded by the friends from his youth, famously loyal, one of the gang.

How did it all go sour? He came into the 2010 playoffs as the two-time MVP, leader of the team with the best record in the league. The Cavs took a two-games-to-one lead on the Boston Celtics – and from there on LeBron shot 18-of-53, and in the most important game of the year, Game 5 at home, he blatantly quit on the home crowd and his teammates. 

Whatever happened between LeBron and the rest of the Cavaliers, when he walked off the court at the end of the series he knew he would never play with them again. It was bad enough that he went through the charade of courtship with the Knicks, Bulls, and Nets as well as Cleveland; he had apparently made up his mind to go to Miami and play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and no one can tell me honestly that they don’t understand choosing to spend their winters in south Florida instead of northern Ohio. Fair enough.

The fatal misstep for LeBron was “The Decision.” He was so certain of the national fascination with the course of his life that he conspired with ESPN to declare his intentions in a one-hour special. He wasn’t wrong about the fascination, but it quickly turned to disgust when the ESPN tendency toward overkill dovetailed with the shiv he was about to stick in his loving fans. 

He had no idea he was upending the narrative of his life. The local phenomenon trying to bring home victory for the glory-starved crowd was gone. In its place was another superstar looking for the brighter lights and manipulating the circumstances for his self-aggrandizement. He acknowledged everyone except his former teammates. He was done with them. And everyone watching, except those in Miami, was done with him.

The Heat’s season began slowly, as the players struggled to learn how to play together – and also how to cope with being disliked for the first time. They became a national symbol for ego-driven athletes. There was no cost to LeBron in talent or performance – he wasn’t winning a championship in Cleveland, and likely won’t in Miami, at least not right away – but he left home behind, and it won’t be the same place for him for a long, long time.

Is there some kind of curse to having a Dec. 30 birthday? If Sandy Koufax admits having used performance-enhancing drugs all through the 1960s, or either Matt Lauer or Meredith Vieira swears at a guest on camera any time soon, then we’ll know for sure. 

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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