So I guess I’m supposed to rejoice in LeBron’s defeat. The big, bad bully has been beaten and the forces of good triumph over greed, vanity and assumption. At least that’s what I’m being told by websites, radio and the internet. The only problem is, I don’t hate LeBron. I tried, but I just can’t do it.
What is it that I’m supposed to hate about him? The ill-conceived, badly received debacle that was “The Decision” seems to be where most people start. True, it was a shocking display of hubris to appear on a major sports outlet in prime time to announce who he would play for in the 2010-11 season. However, that doesn’t make him a vile human being. It makes him a young man in his 20’s who got talked into a major public relations nightmare.
James is no different then any other athlete that signed a big contract with a team other than the one that drafted him. Did CC Sabathia stab Milwaukee in the back when he signed with New York? Did Ilya Kovalchuck stab Atlanta in the back by signing on to stay with New Jersey instead of returning to the A-T-L? James did the same thing and yet is vilified for it.
Granted, the way he went about doing it wasn’t that smart. He did put Cleveland at a disadvantage by waiting a week into free agency to announce his decision. After all, if he had done it the first night of the free agent season then the Cavs have a chance to spend his money on one of the other marquee free agents available. The Heat could still have thrown a “welcome to Miami” party and he would have salvaged some of his reputation. Is that enough to make me hate him? No, not really. Plus it gave us the phrase, “taking my talents to South Beach,” which is awesome.
How about that he went to Miami to play second fiddle to Dwayne Wade? Michael Jordan wouldn’t have done that! Well folks, James is not Jordan. Nor is he Scottie Pippen, as I’ve also heard him compared to. He is LeBron James, a six-year NBA player still developing him into what he is to become. What if playing with Wade makes him a better player? What if he learns what it takes to be a true leader from his buddy?
This seems to be the point that fires critics up the most. With his talent and ability it is assumed that James also has an insatiable drive to be a leader, to be the one that rallies the troops to victory. The detractors don’t seem to consider that maybe he just isn’t wired to be the go to guy all the time. Some folks aren’t built to be leaders no matter how prodigious his physical gifts are. So, no, this point doesn’t drive me to hatred.
After the Finals loss to Dallas his critics point out that he disappeared during crunch time. Not only did he disappear, but he actively avoided having anything to do with the basketball dishing to his teammates faster than I run out of work at night. I won’t disagree with this point. As the focal point of the team he should at least seem interested in scoring in the fourth quarter. The more he fails to answer the bell, the more it looks like his 2007 performance against the Pistons, scoring the teams final 25 points in a double overtime victory, was an aberration. While, if true, it disappoints me as a fan I’m still not driven to hate.
Finally, in a point espoused by basketball guru Bill Simmons, LeBron lacks the desire to improve his game and become a truly dominant player. By not developing a low post move he is cheating himself and the fans out seeing true basketball perfection. Again a valid point, but I would argue that at 26 he is still relatively young and has time improve his game.
Four separate points that taken together or apart allow us as fans to hate LeBron James. Although, I don’t agree, I can see why. Sports needs its villains as much as it needs its heroes. It needs Ty Cobb or Barry Bonds or anyone on the New York Yankees. Someone that the vast majority can point to and say, “You, sir. You are all that I do not like in sport and I denounce you!”
Why is there animosity towards James? Is it because of the hype that has surrounded him since he was nicknamed “The Chosen One” in high school? HIGH SCHOOL! If the media followed most of us around in high school we would probably be labeled “The Chosen Last Ones”. He’s had to deal with the expectations of being the next Jordan since he was 16 - that’s an entire decade of being the savior of not only a moribund franchise, but an entire national sport.
While he’s been handsomely compensated for his troubles the pressure still remains from the relentless news cycle and quest for hyperbole. As fans we want everyone to be the next Babe, Wayne or Larry. We want Steven Strasberg to throw 109 MPH for 20 years or Sidney Crosby to score 93 goals in a season. Not only do we want it, after awhile we expect it and if it doesn’t happen, the player is a failure. Matt Wieters was dubbed a bust prior to this year because he didn’t lead the league in everything in his first full year in a major league uniform. Expectations for players are out of control.
The disappointment leads to hate which leads to joy in failure. That is where we stand with James right now. He has gone from hyped, to loved to abhorred.
However, the beauty of sports and in being a sports fan is that just as quick as we are to turn on someone, we are willing to welcome them back. Should LeBron show some sign of humility, some sign of contrition it all flops back. Fans will forgive drug users, steroid cheats and convicted felons as long as they show the right amount of penitence for their actions.
Imagine, if after five years of wandering ringless in the Miami wasteland, he signs his next contract with Cleveland and returns as a wiser player still in the peak of his career. “The Prodigal One” could lead them to a title and all would be forgiven. The LeBron-as-villain is erased and once again we are all witnesses.
LeBron’s future career hasn’t been written yet. The curtain hasn‘t even fallen on the first act. This loss could be what opens his eyes to what it takes to be truly loved by the fans. In every hero’s journey there has to be some sort of conflict, some sort of adversity (and I say that with the full recognition that athletic adversity is totally out of touch with real world adversity) . Perhaps this last year is the trial he has to overcome adversity and it makes him a better player.
If it doesn’t, does it matter? He can still be a great player if not the greatest. I’ve been watching Ken Burn’s Baseball series again (because I’m a dork) and they paint Mickey Mantle as a bit of a tragic figure. There’s a lot of talk about, “Mickey could have done this” or “Mickey would have been that if only”, giving the implication that his true potential was somewhat unfulfilled. Some of it due to his injuries, but a lot of it to his off the field antics.
Could LeBron be basketball’s Mickey Mantle? A Hall-of-Famer whose legacy still makes you wonder if he could have been just a little bit better ? Time will only tell. In the meantime, until he robs an old lady of her social security check or dropkicks a bull dog into the ocean spare me the hate talk.