LeBron James is in a good place right now. For the first since the 2008 Olympics, he’s got reasons to. An Olympic Gold this year would bookend the four most most tumultuous—but ultimately rewarding—years in the career of any American athlete. In that time (let’s just go ahead and assume he’s winning a Gold medal this year), he’ll have notched two Gold medals, three MVP awards, four All-NBA and All-Defensive Team appearances, an NBA Championship and subsequent Finals MVP award. (Can’t forget the engagement ring either. He’s taking the hand of his high school sweetheart—an admirable courtship.) Through all of the accolades over those four years, he’s single-handedly pissed off every non-Heat fan for a laundry list of emotional and irrational reasons, ruined the economy and hopes of Cleveland, and had his sneakers infiltrate streetwear culture. He’s the most polarizing basketball player since Wilt, the most universally hated American athlete in recent memory (I would say of all-time, but my sports consciousness only goes back a decade), and was ranked last year as the tenth most unpopular American, up there with the likes of Mel Gibson, Donald Trump, and Paris Hilton. But once the summer has passed and the NBA season kicks off again in October, will we (“we” qualifies as all non-Heat fans who follow pop culture) hate LeBron just as passionately as we did in June? While you explore your feelings for LeBron now, which are probably softer because he’s dunking on Tunisians for our freedom (MURCIA!), it’s important to revisit how we got to this point.
The summer of 2008 sparked a career evolution for LeBron. Coming off another disappointing season with the Cavs, he played with the best basketball team assembled since the Dream Team, and probably thought, “Holy shit I need team up with one of these guys.” That thought, however, had been implanted (it was done Inception style by David Stern. There’s proof. Watch Inception backwards and you’ll notice things that weren’t there before) in 2006, when LeBron’s agent, who just also happens to be Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade’s agent, all got them contract extensions until 2010. But in the summer of 2008, that cute 2006 thought of playing with Wade and Bosh was realized—LeBron actually was playing with them, and it was fun. After playing with, and working out with a great team (Kobe’s work ethic infected LeBron), he started counting down the days until free agency 2010.
The following two seasons with the Cavs were MVP campaigns, but once again, ended in disappointment. The scope of what we expected out of LeBron was much less though. While 30-8-8 nights were expected, he was forgiven for not winning a championship. He still had an excuse: his team. The Cavs surrounded him with Delonte West (motherfucker), Mo Williams (carried bags for Chris Paul last season), a past-past-past his prime Shaq, and Antawn Jamison (scored five points in the season-ending/LeBron-endng loss to the Celtics in the playoffs). (Sidenote: I’ll never forgive the Cavs for trading for Jamison instead of Amare Stoudemire because they didn’t want to trade J.J Hickson to the Suns. Guaranteed LeBron gets to the Finals with Stoudemire instead of Jamison.) Needless to say, LeBron never had a good second-banana throughout his seven seasons in Cleveland. (Sidenote #2: I’ll never forgive the Cavs for botching the Carlos Boozer re-signing in 2004. Boozer and Stoudemire aren’t Pippen or 2000 Kobe, but they’re still miles better than whoever else the Cavs were plugging in next to LeBron.) The Cavs had seven years to put acquire help for LeBron, and they never did. So LeBron took the lifeline in the summer of 2010.
That lifeline came in the form of Wade, Bosh, and Miami’s tax-haven waters. This was the summer that everyone got pissed off—an appropriate middle point between the universal love we all had for LeBron in 2008, and the weird feeling (getting to that) we have for him now. With The Decision, he shamed an entire city, turned his back on basketball immortality (the option the Bulls and Knicks represented), and for any NBA fan who preaches purity and loves watching the Spurs play, ruined the NBA as we knew it. He took the easy way out. There’s no way Bird, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, or Kobe would’ve willingly teamed up with conference rivals. He’s putting superstar hero ball over teamwork. LeBron is a pussy.
Here, the hate that’s followed LeBron for the past two years was born. In our insatiable desire to anoint a new Jordan, we felt betrayed when LeBron, the greatest player since Jordan, did the most un-Jordan thing possible: He became neighbors with his best opponents instead of vanquishing them. (So far, we’re 0/4 in finding the next Jordan. High school O.J Mayo, Kobe, Wade, and LeBron have all failed, which isn’t a bad thing.) We wanted LeBron to follow our script towards Jordanism, when really he’s Magic 2.0: a power-point guard who can play any position and do any task on the court. Our disappointment that a talent like LeBron is not, and would not, be Jordan transformed into pure hatred for the man, when all LeBron did was live his life. We ripped on LeBron for being condescending, when in fact, we were the ones who felt high-horsed enough to feel obligated to determine what LeBron should do with his career. This all feels immature and sick when written out and fully-realized, but believe me, at the time it all felt so right.
In June, the will of millions wanting LeBron to fail was trumped by LeBron himself. Usually the best player in any sport is championed and marveled at by all. We all tip our hats in appreciation of their talent. More people got satisfaction in seeing LeBron fail than seeing him succeed. When was the last time the best player in any sport could say that? Maybe A-Rod in 2007? Ronaldo in 2008? Or Tiger 2010? Even then, those three were either successfully torn down or another player trumped them as the best. LeBron was clawed at in attempts to tear him down before it was too late. After he won his first championship, it became too late. LeBron escaped it all with his career in tact, and a championship notched.
With a brief history of LeBron hate rehashed, it’s easy to see why the cultural damning of LeBron was stupid. It was based on our own desires, and our own view of LeBron as an object of entertainment rather than LeBron as a guy who just wants to win ball games. With a championship, the wide-array of LeBron jokes are dead, criticism of his lack of clutch/a winning instinct is invalid, and the notion that he won as Wade’s second-banana is just false. LeBron won as the alpha-dog playing 45 minutes a night with Wade playing on one leg, Battier and Miller shooting inconsistently, and Bosh injured for almost two rounds. LeBron had more help than he had on Cleveland certainly, but it wasn’t like he was playing with Pippen and Rodman.
Where does this leave us? As a self-proclaimed Colonel in the army of LeBron haters, I suspect to see a mass of deserters. Unless you’re a fan of an Eastern Conference team or from Cleveland, there’s little reason to dislike LeBron, and almost no reason to hate him to the degree that we saw a few months ago. It’s never fun to root for something that feels preordained (as was the case with LeBron’s 2012 championship run), but it’s less fun to root for a losing cause, which is where we stand at the moment.
When I heard that LeBron asked an Olympic swimmer if she “Would you like to come eat with me at the dining hall?” and got turned down, I found myself saying, “Awwww, LeBron.” It was such a cute question that reminded me of middle school dating days. Want to get pizza with me after school? Can I walk you to class? LeBron didn’t fake thug it and say “Yo you tryna come grab food with me shorty?”. He approached her with the innocence of a 13 year old. Who would’ve thought that the diabolical LeBron James could ask a girl out in nerd glasses with his tail between his legs like a kid?
The moment I found myself laughing, “Awwww”ing, and feeling bad for LeBron’s dining hall rejection, I hung up my Colonel fatigues and handed in my hater pistol. I’ll still dislike him with the passion of a Knicks fan, but hate? Now that’s a strong word. LeBron didn’t silence the haters, but instead won them over. I’m sure I’m not alone.
I still hope he chokes next year though.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49