I hate LeBron James. Not in the “hate is the same as murder” way. In the sports world way. I can’t stand him. I don’t know why. It isn’t like I’m a rabid basketball fan. And he isn’t really a part of a vicious rivalry for my favorite team. I’m an Orlando Magic fan. He was on the Cavs and Heat, but they aren’t hated rivals. The only rivalry we have is with centers that we draft first, that lead us to the Finals a year early, and then bolt to Los Angeles. We hate those guys. So that doesn’t really explain why I hate LeBron so badly.
When he first entered the league, his arrival came with such fanfare. As a segment on the Dan Patrick show reminds us recently, he was dubbed “The Chosen One” when he was a junior in high school. (Chosen for what? That just pours fuel on the fire, I’m afraid.) He was drafted first by the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers thanks to a not-at-all rigged lottery system. He was supposed to bring a title to the tortured fan base in Cleveland. Poor Cleveland. What a miserable place. First, it is Cleveland. It isn’t Pittsburgh (get used to the unnecessary digs at Steeltown), but it still is a depressing city. Recently my wife was applying for jobs and was considering Cleveland. A knowledgeable mentor asked her, “Do you like your family? Your husband? Don’t go to Cleveland.” That’s a stellar endorsement.
As far as sports go, Cleveland has not won a title in fifty years. Let’s look at that again. FIFTY YEARS!!! The Miami Marlins have won two World Series in that time. The Arizona Diamondbacks have won one. The Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Bucs, and New Orleans Saints – the triumvirate of sports ineptitude in the 1980s – have won Super Bowls. People love to talk about the Cubs’ curse. But Chicago has had the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox win titles. Cleveland doesn’t just fail to win – they epically and heartbreakingly fail to win. John Elway kills the Browns with “The Drive.” The next year Ernest Byner kills his own team with “The Fumble.” The Browns move to Baltimore and promptly win two Super Bowls. The new Browns bring a level of suckitude that is unparalleled in modern sports. The Cavs get their hearts broken by Michael Jordan’s last minute shot. The Indians make it to two World Series(es?) – losing to the Miami Mercenaries and the choke-artist Atlanta Braves.
So LeBron shows up, bringing all the hope he can muster. And I hated him. I don’t have some vendetta against Cleveland. I grew up in Florida. Cleveland is about as irrelevant as it can be to me. I wanted him to fail. And fail he did. He didn’t win the title. They got swept by the Spurs in the Finals one year, bounced by the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals one year, and humiliated by the Celtics the next year. That one was my personal favorite. James self-destructed and the Cavs got blown out. I, along with tons of sports fans, laughed at the failure. James wasn’t clutch. He didn’t have the guts, the strength to win it all. And then he proved us all right by bailing town to form a super-team in Miami.
Oh man, oh man. My hatred exploded for James when he went to Miami. I wanted them to lose so badly. That first year, when they couldn’t win the title against the Mavericks, I loooooved it. I hoped they never won a title. Then the next two years came, with the Heat climbing on James’ back and winning two titles. The accusations of being weak and gutless couldn’t hold any more. But I didn’t respect James for those titles. I loathed him. I loved it when they lost to the Spurs last year. And when he bailed on Miami and went back to the Cavs, I was thrilled at the impending collapse of the Heat. Instead of admiring LeBron for going home to help Cleveland win, I have rooted for the Bulls to knock them off. I am rooting for Golden State to crush them in the Finals. What’s wrong with me?
I really have no good reason to hate LeBron. He seems like a good enough guy. His teammates love him. His family loves him. He says and does all the right things – most of the time. He is a genetic freak and one of the most talented basketball players in history. Yes, he has made mistakes. But he also has claimed to try to fix them. So why the hatred?
My favorite basketball player ever is Michael Jordan. I have never been a Bulls fan, but while MJ played there, I suspended all of my loyalties and cheered for him. He did things on a court I had never seen. It was like he played at a different level than everyone else. He violated the laws of gravity and physics. And he was just cool. I watched THAT slam dunk contest live. I watched every NBA title he won. I was a big dorky white kid in West Palm Beach, but I wore Air Jordans. And I loved pretending I was His Airness. (I have a scar on my right hand that I got pretending to dunk like Jordan in my bathroom. Unfortunately, I slashed my hand open on a broken light fixture. Moving on.) In any argument about the greatest player ever, I say Jordan and then plug my ears and go “Lalalalalala” when anyone else tries to defend another player. For me, the NBA hit its apex with Air Jordan and it can never hit those heights again.
Like many people in that boat, I didn’t like LeBron being compared to Jordan. It was too soon. Jordan was too great. The media was so desperate to find another megastar to cover that they were going to create one. LeBron fit the mold and they decided to hammer him home. But we weren’t taking it. People like me didn’t buy that James was the next Jordan. There would not be a NEXT Jordan. There is only one of those.
All of the things that I hated about LeBron, they tied in to Jordan. LBJ couldn’t win the big one. He choked. He could only win with other big names. He abandoned his team. He was all about himself. He wasn’t tough enough. Jordan wasn’t like that.
But, the reality is nothing like what I remember. James was 18 when he entered the NBA. He took the Cavs to their first Finals when he was 22 – in his 4th year in the league. Jordan didn’t get to the Finals until his seventh year, when he was 28. James did his best when accompanied by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Jordan had Pippen, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, Dennis Rodman … AND Phil Jackson coaching them. James left Cleveland. Jordan retired to play baseball and then played for the Wizards. James has a brand. Jordan INVENTED the concept of players having a brand.
The last accusation that James wasn’t tough enough is perhaps the hardest for a Jordan apologist to deal with. Jordan was tough. Everyone knows that. (Utah Jazz? Byron Russell? Flu game?) But he was almost pathological in his desire to win. He eviscerated teammates constantly. He was arrogant. He has never been accused of being a nice person. In fact, it has been quite the opposite. So James isn’t wired that way. Does that make him worse? He may never be on par with Jordan, but has he already surpassed him as a human being?
I think that my problem with LeBron came from the fact that he arrived pre-packaged as the next big thing. He already had his logo, his nickname, his shoe deal, his image. He worked hard to cultivate that. He CONSCIOUSLY worked hard to cultivate that. It was like we were watching him do it, mumbling to himself that a player like him should do this or that. Jordan kind of just happened. He was good in college. He was drafted high. But no one really knew to expect … well Air Jordan. He didn’t come in touted as the Next Anything. He came in, made our jaws drop, and then created an icon. Jordan was groundbreaking in his play but also in the marketing of himself. We take things like celebrity endorsement of shoes for granted. Jordan is why the shoe market is the way it is. He and Nike struck out into a new frontier. We didn’t really recognize what was happening. He was crafting our image of him and we never saw anyone pulling the strings. We always see James puling the strings.
It sounds like a dumb reason, perhaps. But there has always been a level of falseness about LeBron. It is still there. People didn’t buy his “I’m coming home” narrative. We knew it was a smoke screen. Cleveland was the best place for him. He was tired of carrying the aging Heat and figured if he was going to have to carry a team, he might as well look good doing it. And it was a no-lose proposition. If he tanked, he could leave in a couple years. He saw it as a way to repair his reputation, to make people like him again.
That is the other big thing about LeBron that bothers me. He wants people to like him so much. He needs that. You could see him deflate when he was younger when he got booed or questioned by the media. He was really surprised The Decision backfired. He didn’t like having to fight Wade for alpha dog status. He wants to be loved. Jordan was loved. James wants to be loved. But Jordan didn’t care if he was loved. He knew it meant more money for him. But he didn’t live and die on it. He was going to do what he wanted to do. You could get on board or get off. He didn’t care. Remember when he wore his crazy shoes and necklace when he was younger? People hated him for that. They hated the tongue wagging and the scoring. They thought he was a showboat. And they were right. And he just kept doing all of that stuff and didn’t care. He knew that we would end up loving him. Even post-playing career, Jordan still hasn’t given a rip. He gambles all the time. He divorced his wife and married a younger woman. He made stupid draft picks. He mismanaged the Wizards AND the Bobcats. And in the last lockout, he turned on the players with a callousness that was quite disturbing and shocking. But he still endorses T-shirts and his shadow still looms over the NBA like a thick London fog. (The actual fog, not the jacket.)
In wrestling, they have a thing called a heel turn. [Let’s all take a moment of silence for Bill Simmons here – the man who came up with this concept for basketball players. May you land on your feet, Sports Guy.] It is when a wrestler just doesn’t give a crap about the fans’ opinions. He just does what he wants and gets painted as a “bad guy.” The things is, though, the most effective heels don’t stay heels for long. Eventually the fans start to rally to them because they are just cooler. The Rock started out as a heel. Stone Cold Steve Austin was a heel. HHH was a heel. Michael Jordan played the heel turn. Other players have done that, with varying levels of success. Kobe Bryant embraced the heel turn, but he never fully could shake the name because he is just a punk. Allen Iverson played the heel and eventually won over the stuffed shirt NBA fans. Bill Laimbeer never has shaken the heel label because he is the most obnoxious person ever. Shaq and Charles Barkley both were very successful heels and now they are beloved NBA personalities. LeBron never embraced the heel turn. He was like the NBA’s John Cena. They couldn’t afford for him to be painted badly, and he couldn’t handle it. So when he did the stuff that he should have done and was perfectly justified doing, he expected the public to love it and love him. When they didn’t, he was lost as to why. People don’t like being told they have to like something or someone. They want to discover it. And many athletes have to go through a period of intense hatred before they can become beloved: Larry Bird, John Elway, Peyton Manning, Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor. I remember all of those players being absolutely detested by large fan bases before their talent eventually forced people to respect them. The newer players don’t get that. LeBron wants people to love him no matter what. Dwight Howard thinks he should always get his way without consequences. I think that is why Steph Curry is so popular; he’s a throwback. People hate him, say he doesn’t play defense, call him a gunner. He doesn’t care. He just keeps shooting threes until people finally go, “You gotta admit, that kid can play.” He didn’t come into the league like royalty, predestined to be a superstar. He was “discovered” by the fans.
So even though my hatred is completely illogical and poorly contrived, I will continue to harbor it. That is my right as a sports fan. I will continue to wish LeBron’s efforts will be thwarted. I will continue to try to minimize his successes and inflate his failures. Maybe, when he has retired, I will admit that he truly was great and I was stupid. Either way, I know that I will be glued to the tv for the NBA Finals, rooting for Steph Curry and the Warriors to break Cleveland’s heart once again.
Now for an opposing and incorrect view on LeBron James, check out Jonas Arca’s piece: East Coast Basketball on the Brink.