LeBron James might be the most polarizing athlete alive.
Think about that for a moment. Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger (two of the highest profile athletes in their respective sports) have been accused of sexual assault. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds used performance enhancing drugs. Michael Vick ran an illegal dogfighting ring. These are just some of the most high profile examples of athletes with huge public relations nightmares.
LeBron James exercised his right as a free agent to sign a contract with a new team and did so in a manner that was an example of pretty poorly conceived public relations.
That’s it. That’s really what all of this is about. Really. No laws were broken. No NBA rules were broken. No one cheated. No one was harmed. The competitive integrity of the game wasn’t jeopardized (unless you were a pundit who desperately needed to fill a few minutes.) No one did anything wrong.
Let me repeat that: no one did anything wrong.
Was what LeBron James did a bad idea? If you mean signing with the Miami Heat, absolutely not. I would’ve done the same thing in a heartbeat. If you mean doing it the way he did it, with that one-hour-long announcement on national television, well, do I really need to answer that? Of course it was a bad idea. It was such a bad idea that, when I heard he was having a live special on ESPN, I thought, “Well, he’s definitely going back to Cleveland.” The idea that anyone would go on national television to announce they were leaving one of the longest-suffering fanbases in the country was inconceivable.
Then the backlash started. Jerseys were burned. Death threats were mailed. (Really.)
My reaction was predictable. I started rooting for them. When someone is met with an enormous amount of hostility for transparently stupid reasons, I’m going to tend to end up in their corner. When you’re sending someone death threats because of the game of basketball, something very serious has gone wrong.
The thing is, basketball doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In the same season, Derrick Rose (more or less confirmed to be motivated by James and Wade spurning Chicago) exploded into one of the best players in the NBA, winning the league MVP Award. On missing out on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, the Bulls General Manager remarked that they had missed out on two Top 5 players, but they had gained one with Rose’s sudden rise.
Not only that, Rose was a clear contrast to James. He let his game do his talking for him, he shied away from the limelight (actually admitting that it made him uncomfortable), and (and this is the best part) he showed every indication that he was going to stay with his hometown team for a very, very long time. (Yes: his hometown is a big market city and has always surrounded him with an exceptional supporting cast… but I ignored that part. I’ll get into why later.) It was such a great narrative, it was such a clear example of good versus evil, I bought it hook, line, and sinker.
The final straw was what happened in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Chicago Bulls blew the Miami Heat out of the building in Game 1, and gave us every reason to believe the entire series was going to look like that. They were just too deep. Miami’s bench wasn’t good enough. Miami was too one-dimensional. We were going to the Finals, and we were going to win. Chicago was back on top.
After that high, Miami swept the next four games in close contests. But the narrative of the series for Chicago fans became Dwayne Wade drawing an absurd amount of fouls and Derrick Rose not being able to buy a call despite being hacked to death. That’s how I’ll always remember the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. I’m a Bulls fan. It’s how it is.
So, naturally, I did something that is ruinous to objectivity: I got angry.
I honestly don’t know how sportswriters do it. Sports have these allegiances, these narratives. It sucks you in. When I look back at what I said when LeBron James first went to the Heat and faced this outpouring of hate, I realize that I was right back then. My initial reaction was the right one. But when the team you root for gets involved, when emotions get involved, objectivity goes out the window if you’re not careful. How do you maintain interest and passion for sports and not have that happen? More and more, I’ve been appreciating the game itself rather than my own narrow rooting interests, I’ve been able to appreciate stories and performances by teams I had no allegiance to… but I couldn’t stop myself from getting sucked in by the anti-Heat hype.
The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals are when my dislike of the Miami Heat really matured. None of it directed at James, mind you. In casual conversations at work, on Twitter, on Facebook, and elsewhere, I would continue to point out that though the Decision was ill-conceived, Dwayne Wade is the one player on the Heat I truly can’t stand. LeBron James plays with integrity, isn’t afraid to yell at his teammates when they’re being idiots, and all around doesn’t seem like a giant toolbox.
I’ve never really disliked LeBron James. There. I said it.
The thing is… I’m a Bulls fan, and I’m surrounded by Celtics fans. I happen to like the Celtics quite a bit. (A direct contrast to my opinion of other Boston teams.) I started taking it for granted that the Miami Heat were a team you just had to hate. Then this funny thing happened. Someone who doesn’t follow sports very much asked me what should be a really simple question.
When you’re defending an opinion that is, by its very nature, pretty irrational, “Why?” is a question that throws everything off-balance. You hate the Miami Heat because… they’re the Miami Heat! But as you try to explain why, you realize there’s really no way to say it without sounding silly. “Well, LeBron had this special on TV when he moved, and it was really painfully awkward, and they had this victory party when they didn’t really win anything…”
Oh. That… that doesn’t actually sound like a very big deal when you say it aloud. At this point, you kind of have the choice to either admit you’re being pretty irrational (this is a very difficult option to choose), get defensive, exaggerate so you sound less irrational, or weasel out.
I opted to weasel out. Then I watched the 2012 NBA Playoffs unfold. I knew what was going to happen: LeBron was going to fold. LeBron always folded when it mattered most. He folded against Boston in his final year with the Cavaliers. He folded against Dallas in his first year with the Heat.
He was on the ropes against Indiana, and he torched them when it mattered most. He was on the ropes against Boston, and he torched them when it mattered most. Twice. He was never really on the ropes against Oklahoma City, because he just kept torching them.
Every criticism anyone has ever had of LeBron James? Gone. That near-triple double he always averaged in the regular season and playoffs with the huge asterisk of “until it mattered”? He did it when it mattered. His seeming unwillingness to be the Alpha Dog on a team that included his best friend, Dwayne Wade, one of the few players almost a match for him? He finally decided “almost a match” wasn’t good enough, and took over. His infuriating tendency to turn into a perimeter player in the postseason instead of taking it to the basket? He started taking it to the basket.
He imposed his will on other teams. He played like he was the best player on the court (which he always has been) and knew it (which it really seems like he hasn’t always.)
He did everything we have ever asked, and more. And he put together the kind of complete performances that no one else in the NBA can match. Let me repeat that, because it’s very important: no one else currently in the NBA can do what LeBron James can do.
So here I am, un-weaseling out.
LeBron James might be the most polarizing athlete alive.
LeBron James is an NBA Champion, the reigning regular season Most Valuable Player (for the third time), and the reigning NBA Finals MVP. He is, without possibility of argument, the best active professional basketball player on the planet. If you can’t appreciate what he did in the 2012 NBA Playoffs and the 2012 NBA Finals, you are not a fan of basketball. You don’t have to like him, but you need to appreciate his performance.
We were all witnesses. Finally.