(have you signed this man’s petition yet? And if not, does anyone care what you think?)

Doesn’t anyone else care what Damon Jones thinks of Chinese complicity in genocide? Does no one care that that I came up with the line, “Bloomberg™s Scott Soshnick would have you believe that LeBron James and Damon Jones don™t know the difference between Darfur and the Psychedelic Furs?” and shouldn’t that automatically give me a second round bye in that Hot Blogger tournament? And after Soshnick and the Christian Science Monitor’s Jonathan Zimmerman have already ganged up on LeBron James, does Slate’s Charles Pierce really need to jump on the bandwagon?

Considering what’s at stake is slightly more important than the NBA Finals, hell yeah.

The most striking thing about the way James plays has always been his modesty. Back when ESPN was getting moist over covering his high-school games, you could almost feel the network’s teeth grinding when James would dish the ball to the wing on the break, thereby depriving the network of a thunderous dunk and Stuart Scott of a full-body orgasm. Since he’s been in the league, he’s waited patiently until there were enough pieces around him in Cleveland to enable the Cavaliers to make a run in the landfill that is the NBA’s Eastern Conference. At the beginning of the conference finals, he got roasted for being Not Jordan because he gave up the ball in a crucial moment to Donyell Marshall for what would have been a game-winning 3-point shot. However, the impulse that made him pass the ball”in fact, the essence of what makes him the player that he is”is the same impulse that made him unleash himself in Game 5, where his 48 points, including 29 of Cleveland’s last 30, will now stand with Magic Johnson’s turn at center for the Lakers against Philadelphia in the deciding game of the 1980 Finals as the greatest individual playoff performances in NBA history. On Saturday night, the same inclination allowed him to defer”in a way Jordan never did after leaving North Carolina”to Gibson, whose 31 points probably ensured him an NBA career. The fact that James put up 20 points and 14 rebounds, and hardly anyone noticed, is a further indication of his ability to control a game without conspicuously dominating it.

Of course, there’s another parallel with Jordan that’s less flattering to him, and the more James comes to personify the NBA, the more he’s going to get called on it. In April, Ira Newble, a teammate of James’ on the Cavaliers, drafted an angry open letter to the Chinese government, excoriating it for its heavy investment in Sudan and, therefore, its involvement in the genocidal atrocities in Darfur. Every member of the Cavaliers save two signed the letter. One was Damon Jones. The other was LeBron James. Since then, James has taken a bit of heat for his reluctance, most notably in the Christian Science Monitor, which not unreasonably speculates on the economic reasons why he failed to put his weight behind Newble’s letter. Of course, Jordan wrote the book on how to become a wildly popular and successful athlete without demonstrating even the sliver of a public conscience. More to the point, he created a new template for risk-free stardom, whereby involvement in the unruly hurly-burly of the real world is something that a star is not expected to do. Do the public-service ads for the safe issues, but go no deeper into the forces that create those issues in the first place.

And that’s the real pity. The Darfur letter was, you should pardon the expression, a slam dunk. Had James signed it, nothing would have happened to him. Were Coke and Microsoft going to cancel his contracts while he was putting up a transcendent playoff performance? Not bloody likely, and that goes double for Nike, which is as heavily invested in China as it is in James himself. The NBA wouldn’t have dared say anything, not with the league slow-dancing with the Chinese government itself. And does any person with the moral compass that God gave the common gopher really care what the International Olympic Committee says about anything any more? James could have signed the letter, explained why he did it, once, and been on his way. I don’t believe he declined to do so because he is uncaring, or because he is uninformed. I think he declined because he was asked to do something that athletes of his stature do not do anymore.