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Trading places: James a hero, Manning most unlikely villain

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Let’s get this straight.

The NBA needs a new villain, and the NFL has a most unlikely bad boy.

Leave it to Peyton Manning and LeBron James — the two most compelling players in the NFL and NBA — to reinvent their public images in a most endearing way.

James, who alienated much of the NBA fandom with his “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” bravado four summers ago, proved that you can go home again. His return to hometown Cleveland is absolutely magical.

Meanwhile, cool, calm and always-in-control Manning went out of character with his penalty-inducing trash talk in a preseason game.

This must be some kind of alternate universe.

It’s a pretty cool universe.

James’ return to the Cavaliers is the feel-good story of this NBA offseason. The Akron native jilted Cleveland for the Heat in a move that turned the league’s best player into an arch villain for many fans outside of Miami.

The fact that James was leaving a horrible franchise for a chance to win a title with the Heat (which he did) seemed to pale in comparison to the thoughts of traitor.

His July 8, 2010, televised homage to himself, “The Decision,” was a low-point in incredibly ill-advised public relations.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert sent an angry letter, calling James’ decision a “cowardly betrayal.” James was vilified by fans, given the nicknames “LeBum” and “LeQuit.”

A common theme was that James had sold out for money and the glamour of Miami, criticism that was not especially correct or appropriate.

Based on the reaction to his return, Cleveland fans are willing to quickly forgive.

“I’m coming home,” James wrote in a letter published in Sports Illustrated. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

The powerful letter brought some fans to tears, according to a Cavs beat reporter.

Perhaps not surprising in this world of instant analysis, a poll backs that up. By a 62 to 12 percent margin, Ohio adults forgive James for leaving Cleveland in the summer of 2010 and approve 63 to 10 percent of the Cavaliers’ decision to bring him back, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

Meanwhile, Manning, who could probably run for governor of a half-dozen states — including Indiana — and win in a landslide, put a dent in his squeaky clean image last week.

The Broncos’ quarterback confronted Houston safety D.J. Swearinger for hitting Wes Welker in the head, which left the slot receiver with his third concussion in 10 months. The hit drew a 15-yard penalty, but Manning took things to another level.

After throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders on the next snap, Manning ran up to Swearinger and let him know it, drawing the first personal foul of his career and ultimately a $8,268 fine.

Even that, though, seems to only elevate his image.

If there was one knock on Manning, it was that he sometimes appeared emotionally detached (a phase I learned from a former girlfriend, but that’s another story). Being so analytical, Manning does not always display the fire some fans would like to see.

You can now check off that box. Backing up Welker sent a message that will help Denver this season.

“I accept the fine. It’s money well spent,” Manning said, who will make $17.5 million this season.

(By the way, Rolling Stone calculated that the NFL front office could use the fine to buy 486 Papa John’s two-topping pizzas with tax, delivery and tip included. Manning owns a number of outlets.)

So, James broke the hearts of Cleveland fans, but they are willing to take him back in a heartbeat.

Manning went all “in-your-face” (in a preseason game with no real consequence to the outcome) and only enhances his image.

Two legends in the making add new chapters.

Once-villain James turns prodigal son. Once-detached Manning taunts a defensive back with his voice, not just his arm.

And fans can sit back and enjoy the show.

The two most compelling figures in sports today just keep getting better.

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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