It's not often a pro athlete needs to be more selfish, to ignore his teammates and grab some glory for himself. It's even rarer when that athlete is a superstar, for whom entitlement is pretty much a birthright.
LeBron James, though, isn't your average superstar. He's polite, he's humble, he plays well with others. Admirable qualities, to be sure - but not at this time of year.
If James doesn't start copping some major 'tude soon, he and the Cleveland Cavaliers may as well break out the sun block and beach towels now. Big games from Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao are nice, but the Cavs have no hope of getting past the Detroit Pistons unless James takes control.
``I don't think he forced anything,'' Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said after James spent much of Monday's 79-76 loss making his teammates look good. ``But I don't mind him being more aggressive and more selfish at times.''
No wonder.
James was an assist away from a triple-double against the Pistons, finishing with nine and 10 rebounds. But he also went scoreless in the first quarter, finished with a playoff-low 10 points, never got to the free throw line and passed up several shots, including a driving layup that could have tied the game with 5.9 seconds left.
James had only a few feet to cover and Tayshaun Prince to beat for the layup. Instead he kicked the ball out to Donyell Marshall, who missed the 3, effectively ending Cleveland's chances of stealing Game 1.
Give Michael Jordan that same shot, and he doesn't give the ball up for anybody.
``I go for the winning play,'' an unapologetic James said afterward. ``The winning play when two guys come at you and a teammate is open is to give it up. It's as simple as that.''
Not quite.
Look, James is the best thing to happen to the NBA since Jordan retired after the 1998 Finals (that's hiatus No. 2 for those keeping track). He's dazzling to watch, able to do things that defy imagination and gravity. He's resurrected a franchise that was sliding toward irrelevance, carrying the Cavs to their first conference finals appearance in 15 years in only his fourth season.
And he's been equally impressive off the court.
Though he made the jump straight from high school, the 22-year-old is an old soul who can teach some 35 year olds a thing or two about maturity. He recognizes that he's the face of the league - the latest Heir Jordan, if you will - and has embraced the responsibilities and obligations that come with that.
But if there's a knock on James, it's that he's too good. Too much of a team player. More Magic than Michael.
``You've got to take what's there,'' James insisted. ``My game is not solely on taking a lot of shots. I'm going to continue to say that. It's the only answer I can give you.''
No one is asking him to channel Kobe Bryant. One petulant, ballhog of a star is more than enough for the NBA. But there's a time and a place to be selfless, and right now, a little more ego wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Go ahead, get the rest of the Cavs involved. Set them up like you did in the first half, when Ilgauskas was dominating inside like Shaquille O'Neal. Let them build a little confidence so they're comfortable taking a shot when they have to.
When it's crunch time, though, it's time to show what everyone knows you're capable of, to put on the kind of display that keeps opposing coaches at the greaseboard long into the night.
``The idea,'' Pistons coach Flip Saunders said, ``is to try and contain LeBron as much as you can.''
Make them do it. Don't do it for them.
From the day he arrived in the NBA, Jordan wanted the ball in his hands when it mattered most. He lived to take the big shots, reveling in being the man who broke the spirit of his opponents and the hearts of their faithful.
But he didn't become a champion until he accepted the fact he couldn't do it all on his own. There would be times he would need help from his supporting cast. Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr - all were brushstrokes in the Jordan masterpiece.
James has the opposite problem. Oh, he has the passion to be a champion all right. As he walked down the tunnel on his way back to the court for the second half Monday night, he scanned the box score. He'd barely been a factor, yet the Cavs were leading the favored Pistons by six.
When a reporter asked how it looked, however, he tore up the box and threw it in the garbage.
Shredding a piece of paper isn't the same as destroying the competition. To be a champion like Jordan was - like everyone expects James to be - he has to show that aggression on the floor.
He has to prove he's really a star, ego and all.
---
Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmourap.org.

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