LeBron James. Just seeing his name evokes a response of some kind. It just depends on who you ask. Superstar. Traitor. Sensation. Choker. Athlete. Coward. Icon. The list includes almost every name under the sun. How can a man be so respected, hated and admired all at the same time?
People will first point to “The Decision,” a one-hour ESPN broadcast in which he announced his plans to leave the Cavs for Miami, as the obvious reason he went from being a national icon to the most hated man in the sports world. A lot of people overlook the fact that the proceeds from that broadcast went to charity, but it was undoubtedly a poor decision to go through with the one-hour segment if he was going to abandon Cleveland. But even though we all looked down on him for what he did to the city of Cleveland in that move, that wasn’t the real reason we’ve resented LeBron ever since. Only the city of Cleveland has a real reason to hate him just for that. No, the real reason LeBron has been scorned by the entire sports world is the fact that this gifted and talented sports hero, a man who had led the Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA multiple times and to the NBA Finals, couldn’t get the job done and bailed. The real reason we hate LeBron is because we wanted to believe. We wanted LeBron to live up to the hype and deliver this underdog city its first championship in any professional sport. We wanted him to be like Michael Jordan and elevate the play of his teammates while still being a one-man show on the way to winning a title. We were ready for the next superstar with the same DNA as MJ and Kobe. But in his decision to leave for a team loaded with superstars, a decision to sell out and take the easy path to try and win a championship, he lost everything that made him so compelling in our eyes.
Some hoops fans’ eyes lit up when LeBron announced he’d be playing with D-Wade and Bosh in Miami. This was going to be a team to be reckoned with, a force not seen in the league since Jordan and the Bulls, Kobe and Shaq, or the Celtics and Lakers of old. And I have to admit, I was one of them. The idea of so much talent on one team was enthralling, and I defended his move by saying it was noble that he took a pay cut so he could win a championship. And then my fascination gave way to my love of the game and competition. “Noble” was the last word that came to mind. Why? Because I realized that all those legendary teams with so many Hall of Famers came about naturally, products of hard work, good draft picks and great management. Did Robert Parish and Kevin McHale ever tell the Warriors that they wanted to take their talents to Boston to play with Larry Bird? No. Did Dennis Rodman request to leave San Antonio so he could play with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? NO. If they had, people would have thought a lot less of them, and these were only great players, not the best player in the NBA! It’s easy to see why the best player in the league betraying Cleveland and taking a pay cut just to play with his buddies is so bad.
Now it doesn’t matter that he’s putting up MVP numbers (for the second season in a row). It wouldn’t have mattered if he had elevated his play in the fourth quarter last season and led the Heat to the championship over the Mavs. We disrespect LeBron not because of what he did to Cleveland, but because when he had a chance to rise to the occasion and become an NBA legend, he became frustrated and impatient and bailed.
Any true fan of basketball has to admit that LeBron James is the best overall player in the game right now. Even though he is definitely not clutch, Kobe and Durant are still not quite on LeBron’s level. He’s averaging 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game this season and should be a lock for MVP. He can score, pass, rebound and play great defense to help his team win, even if his fourth quarter play does (and should) come into question. Even if you don’t like the guy, even if you hate him for his decision to leave Cleveland while announcing that betrayal on public television for the entire nation to watch, and even if you don’t agree with his selling out to play with D-Wade in Miami, if you have a true understanding of the game of basketball, it’s impossible to deny respect for what this guy can do on the court.
Then again, it’s hard to leave him alone when he continues to make bad decisions. This year, just as people were finally starting to leave him alone a little bit, he opened his mouth and said something stupid again, this time about the possibility of playing in Cleveland again one day, hoping that they would accept him if he did. Now I can understand his desire to make peace with the city so close to his hometown. And I can also appreciate that LeBron understands that an NBA player’s tenure in any city is unlikely to be permanent these days. But only someone desperate for the public’s approval would say something so dumb so soon. Cleveland is barely starting to get over it now, why open your mouth and open old wounds when people were finally starting to move on and see you as a basketball player again? “Poor timing” doesn’t even come close. And so people continue to see him as the villain (side note: if your Nike commercial defending your bad decision is a big enough controversy to be turned into a South Park spoof, it’s time to rethink your decision-making).
LeBron isn’t a bad guy. As much as people hate him for the decisions he’s made, he is a good basketball player and a good human being. He’s always given his time and money to charity, including his “26 Seconds” campaign with State Farm to keep kids in school (even if the commercial is slightly creepy). We shouldn’t hate him for selling out like that. If anything, we should pity him. Any questions we had about whether or not he would ever be as good as Michael Jordan are now answered with a resounding “Hell no.” He already had to live with amazing amounts of hype when he was in high school, let alone being compared to MJ in his first year in the league. Yet somehow he managed to live up to that hype in every way except one during his time in Cleveland. Remember how he completely took over Game 5 against the Detroit Pistons in 2007 in a double overtime win? Remember him rattling off 48 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, including 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 points in that game? Remember jumping out of your chair for this guy when he hit that game-winner against Orlando in 2009? It’s incredible to think how far this man has fallen since then.
So what can LeBron do to win the people back? Unfortunately, it may be too late at this point. The nation is divided into people who dislike LeBron, dislike LeBron but still respect his talent, and Miami Heat fans. Those who support him or at least still respect him know that he will NEVER be mentioned in the same breath as MJ and Kobe without a ring. But when he finally does win one (it’s only a matter of time now that the Heat have such great chemistry), it’s not going to help his image or people’s opinion of him. Like last year’s series with the Mavs, if he doesn’t live up to our expectations (especially in the 4th), we’ll give all the credit to D-Wade and Bosh for the victory. And even if he does actually play well in the Finals for once, people will still hate on him and say it wouldn’t have been possible without selling out for superstar teammates. So even though people will continue to berate him until he wins one, when he finally does, LeBron still won’t be able to catch a break.
Whether or not he deserves one is up to you. LeBron isn’t a villain. He’s just an NBA superstar who didn’t live up to the role model we all wanted him to be. There are a lot more important things in life than basketball and when you look at the big picture, all the guy really did is leave one team for another. But if you take this game as seriously as I do, if you know that basketball is really more than just a game, and if you realize your anger at LeBron stems from disappointment in what he could have been, you know that LeBron James’ legacy will never be the same after he took the easy road. He will never measure up to MJ. He probably won’t measure up to Kobe. His lack of rings hurts his legacy, but not as much as his lack of loyalty to one team. Why do we love MJ and Kobe so much? Because they were so successful with one team, a team they stuck with through the hard times and led to victory during the good times. We need to stop hating on LeBron so much and instead, focus on the great basketball player that he is. Yes, he made a huge mistake and sold out, which lowers our respect for him, but there’s no reason to hate on him anymore. Because as much as we wanted him to be, he will never be Michael Jordan.