Why We Hate(d)
The morning after Game 5 of the NBA Finals felt like the series finale of one of those long-running shows such as Lost or The X-Files that had a central mystery, then spent several seasons planting clues that only further flummoxed obsessive fans, and finally tried to tie everything up with an episode that usually left viewers with more questions than answers.
The culmination of King James’s inevitable ascension to his throne probably means the end of the daily dissection of everything LeBron, and until he eventually comes clean post-retirement in some interview with GQ or an intrepid writer publishes a kick-ass tell-all about this whole turbulent two-year stretch, we’re still left with some lingering questions:
Who ultimately made the final call to televise The Decision special?
When did the Big Three really decide to join forces? (I believe it was well before the free agent summit and definitely not the morning of the special, as James told Jim Gray.)
What happened during Game 5 of the Cavaliers’ loss to the Celtics (aka LeBron’s total no-show)? (You can insert your own Delonte West theories in the comments. Also, check out James’s stat-line; it’s worse than you remember.)
Will Dan Gilbert ever discover the time vortex that allows his Big Three of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Random Draft Pick X to win a ring before the King?
But one question doesn’t have a definitive answer, and it’s probably a question we think we already know the answer to and thus isn’t worth revisiting: Why did we really hate this team so much? As has been written extensively and exhaustively, James was really guilty of nothing more than bad PR on a couple of occasions. But the Miami Heat backlash seemed to resonate and prolong far beyond the sell-by date of other sports-related controversies. (Casual fans were rooting for Michael Vick in less time than it took them to embrace the Heat.)
I consider myself a man of the people (okay, only a couple people, but play along) and I also have an English major and a lot of free time (those two are probably related), so perhaps I can end the “hate” plot hole before we move on to the summer, the next NBA season, and all the other juicy storylines that will soon take the place of this tired and well-tread ground. There are three reasons I can posit as to why we (and I use “we” meaning the aggregate of sports fans) really worked up such disgust toward this group and LeBron James in particular. The first two are pretty straightforward, but the third is a little more complex, hence the reason why I’ll be delving into that one the most.
Objects in the Internet era seem more hated than they appear
Already covered ad nauseam, but it bears repeating: We’re in an era where EVERYONE has a Twitter feed, Facebook page, blog, and some outlet to voice their opinion in the national conversation, meaning the inundation with anti-LeBron invective was not only easier to disseminate but more accessible. Plus, it didn’t help that the Heat basically turned a watershed basketball moment into one giant fucking meme from the onset with lines like “Taking my talents to South Beach,” “Not five not six not seven,” and “Big Three” being absorbed as part of this decade’s cultural vernacular.
Good ol’ fashioned Freudian projection
Few NBA fans ever had realistic aspirations of playing pro basketball, but certainly all had aspirations at the professional level of some field. Hence, LeBron James didn’t become “LeBron James” in the eyes of many but the embodiment of our bottled up antipathy and resentment that we wish we could direct at people like LeBron James.
When we see someone like James thinking America will be waiting with bated breath for where he will sign to play and possessing the naïve belief that three superstars and a cast of scraps would be enough to beat carefully assembled teams for eight or more championships, what many actually saw was the smarmy, smug, hubristic, overconfident asshole we all went to college with that thought his or her success was predestined and a God-given right. As a Heat fan, that angle helped me see it from the other side in greater detail.
Imagine this scenario: Some dickish wannabe investment banker with the most pretentious cover letter and overwrought resume ever written drags his entire graduating class to an assembly the day before commencement to announce which banks he or she would be sending their resumes to. That person follows it up by telling everyone in attendance that in a few short years, their salary will be “not five, not six, not seven figures.” If I knew that person (and I’ve met some that come pretty damn close), I too would want that insufferable piece of shit to be denied every internship, get stuck working at Jamba Juice through age 40, have his LinkedIn account derisively laughed at by every secretary who happened to stumble upon it, and be sleeping at the Y as his crummy, middling, pathetic stab at a portfolio blows up in his entitled, overprivileged face.
But that fictitious archetype is just that, an archetype. LeBron James is a real person. The projected person is just a composite of the various negative attributes in those we encounter throughout high school, college, and the workforce. Professional athletes are a genus all their own, so the comparison is really apples and oranges. But in the eyes of many, apples and oranges are both fruits.
LeBron James never understood fans’ obsession with sports
Of the 100-plus columns I read in the immediate aftermath of The Decision, the best was a quickly crafted piece by Will Leitch for the New York Magazine sports blog, posted just a couple hours after this whole shameful debacle unfolded. The crux of his argument wasn’t with the actual decision James made—really, except for a few blowhard basketball purists and revisionist history fans clinging to their own embellished hagiographic memories of the NBA’s salad days when superstars won it on their own (except not really), the decision was unprecedented, audacious, and game-changing—but with how this whole fiasco felt like a symbiotic relationship between the LeBron James Brand and sports as seen not through the eyes of loyal and passionate fans but through the Darren Rovells of the world. Here was the key passage:
Tonight, it felt like everyone involved — LeBron, ESPN, Bing, the University of Phoenix, Stuart Scott, the man who once chastised fans for having the audacity to boo, Jim freaking Gray — treated the millions of people watching like stupid, mindless consumers, empty lemmings ready to follow Sport into the abyss. Here, here are the Boys & Girls Club props. Here, here is your search engine. Here, here is your online college, Here, here is your Athletic Hero. Eat. Eat. Consume. You like it. You love it. You’ll always come back for more.
That night wasn’t sports as we normally see it, with a triumphant voiceover about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat and the hearts of champions; there was no speech about hard work and dedication and the mystical power of the games. This was sports in its rawest form, unvarnished, denude of all pretenses and phony bells and whistles and prepackaged glorification, an ugly glimpse into the shotgun marriage of commerce, celebrity, and entertainment laid bare for the world to see. Leitch had one more key passage that would pretty much sum up James’s struggle in the subsequent months and years:
LeBron James, thanks to this debacle, will never be the same. (That he appears unable to understand why is the precise reason why.)
Ostensibly, there was never anything to dislike about LeBron James. He was a good son, a good teammate, a good father, and a good citizen. He stayed loyal to the same girlfriend and inner circle of friends since high school. He had an enduring passion and love for the game of basketball and its history.
He seemingly had a pretty simple formula: stay true to his family, compete his ass off, and delegate the LeBron Brand and global icon stuff to the Maverick Carters, William Wesleys, and Phil Knights of the world. But he violated our belief in the mythology and transcendent abilities inherent to the sporting realm. On the court, he was inwardly focused on achieving his place in history. Off the court, he left the big decisions to his business partners, and by my observations, I’m using the idea of James being involved in a “partnership” sense loosely. But it was that combination of tunnel vision and blithe ignorance that led to his brand being damaged by that ostentatious spectacle on the night of July 8, 2010.
In the most technical sense, James wasn’t wrong about the things he said that led to the backlash, regardless of whether his sentiments were implicit or explicit: basketball is just a game; he was just doing what was best for his brand and career; it was a basketball decision; our lives are just as shitty if he wins or loses; Cleveland should be understanding of why he did what he did. But the thing it took him this arduous, painful, frustrating, about-damn-time journey to learn was that LeBron James isn’t LeBron James without fans and viewers investing an irrational and fervent amount of passion, pride, meaning, and significance into the game he plays and all the sports we watch.
We “hated” him regarding The Decision because we can reconcile the fact that our sports heroes will always be bigger, stronger, faster, more talented, wealthier, better looking, and more famous than us, but goddammit if all we ask is for them to not admit it. The most manipulative part about The Decision wasn’t that it got nearly 10 million viewers and a higher rating than James’s last game with the Cavaliers; it was that the handlers behind the special had to know it would. They didn’t play to our sports obsession so much as exploit it for King James™ and some advertising revenue and a pittance tossed to the Boys and Girls Club to slightly mitigate the ensuing public outcry.
We “hated” how he treated Cleveland, not so much because he left—any team that considered Mo Williams, Larry Hughes, an overweight Shaq, and Ben Wallace’s expiring contract to be “help” was worth leaving, and yes, Dan Gilbert somehow managed to give even querulous, pompous asshole billionaires a bad name—but because living in his own insular bubble with the same inner circle since high school seemed to emotionally detach him from how much he meant to that city. Trust me, we overstate his value to Cleveland and Ohio at large. His departure wasn’t as damaging to the Rust Belt as NAFTA, proposed Right-to-Work laws, or attempts to eliminate collective bargaining rights, but that’s the beauty of sports: It clouds our judgment. It’s foolish to say LeBron James was as important to the future of that state and its blue-collar citizens as the ways they’ve been sold out by government, but he meant more to them, and the real value of the soul of the city lies in perception and belief.
We “hated” because we want to watch guys get better, to see someone like him learn a post move, develop a better 20-foot jumper, and strike a better balance between facilitating and dominating; we never respect the athlete who doesn’t evolve and just expects to coast on his God-given abilities, even though there’s no empirical way to judge whether they “evolved,” and perhaps their God-given abilities were good enough.
We “hated” how he was naïve and presumptuous enough to believe a three-man team single-handedly made the Heat an indomitable unit and thus multiple titles a fait accompli. Yeah, on the surface it is about who is the most talented and strongest and most athletic, but the sports we watch allow the little guys and unsung complementary players to be heroes for one night. We know what Bird, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, Wade, and LeBron can do, but we celebrate the Steve Kerrs, Robert Horrys, Derek Fishers, and in this case, the Mario Chalmers’, Shane Battiers, Mike Millers, Norris Coles, and Udonis Haslems for taking an axe to the notions of predictability and limitations.
Most important, we “hated” his tone-deaf comments that followed his loss in Game 6 of the 2011 Finals. It was one thing to not exhibit the same dramatic, visceral reaction that Chris Bosh exhibited in the hallway upon the Heat’s blown Finals lead and ignominious collapse to the season, but this comment after the game really left me personally questioning James’s perspective:
All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. So they can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they got to get back to the real world at some point.
On the surface, everything about this quote was 100 percent correct. To the people relishing in his struggles and indulging in their schadenfreude or even those lamenting his loss, nothing really changed. Conversely, this year, my Heat won the title. There’s no rational way to describe a discernible difference in how your life gets any better or worse because of your team’s playoff run, but the funny thing is, as usually happens after a win, I do feel better. The future seems a little brighter, the air is a little crisper, the world looks a little better. I do have to go back to all my same old problems and same crappy, mundane middle class existence and a future fraught with uncertainty. The moments of euphoria will eventually dissipate, replaced by moments of heartbreak, stress, anxiety, anger, and lamentation, and probably pretty damn soon.
In fact, the problems pretty much resumed first thing Friday morning. Not one thing that bothered me is any less shitty than it was before or after the Heat celebrated their victory. I’ll order a championship shirt and wear it to the point of disintegration for a few years until it gets stained and worn out like my 2006 one. There will be moments ripe with disappointment that I’ll have to endure in this and the coming years, in the NBA and other sports and in other facets of life. But if rooting for James to pull down one more rebound to get that triple-double meant nothing, if pumping my fists when Mike Miller nailed that dagger of a seventh three-pointer meant nothing, if that special moment in the Yaros household that doesn’t happen all that often meant nothing, then why should we tune into his games, his “decision,” and his brand in the first place?
Yeah, it’s a silly notion that identifying myself through a team I support does provide a vicarious morale boost, but the emotions don’t lie. That’s sports in a nutshell. LeBron was dead right about what he said after Game 6 in 2011, but in an ironic twist, if everyone believed what he said and felt that way, his job would offer little of the fame or adulation or wealth that accompanies it since no one would buy into what he was selling.
It cuts at what the heart of what Leitch wrote, and why James would never be embraced until he changed his mindset on this. We love the game as fans, not consumers. We treat sports as a source of passion and pride, not a product. If sports is just going to be a combination of multi-million dollar contracts, advertisers, broadcasting deals, and billionaire owners using their teams as a toy, and all the stories we had to deal with were of the Jerry Sandusky or Junior Seau or Bountygate category, why the hell would we watch at all? It’s these little moments that really mattered, and I worried James would never fully appreciate that beyond paying lip service to the idea.
Fast forward about six months…
I would always root for the Heat and appreciate James’s skills, but consistently defending James and this team in public conversation turned tiresome. He had to meet me halfway on this, and the turning point for me, and the moment when I went from weary fan to an outright fan of James didn’t really happen until I saw three pivotal off-the-court moments this year.
One instance was the inspiration for an earlier blog post after Kendrick Perkins decided to rip into James for tweeting about Blake Griffin’s monster dunk, of which Perkins happened to be on the receiving end; Perkins ripped him for allowing plays like that to excite him and turning to Twitter to voice his excitement in the first place. It was clearly sour grapes from a guy who had been an accessory in one of the most mesmerizing dunks in recent memory, but rather than the media piling on Perkins for his petulant response, they called out James.
LeBron James was merely giving the same reaction all of us had, and it showed me he’s a fan of the game beyond his own solipsistic worldview. I appreciated that. Of course, he got ripped to shreds and forced us to engage in a three-day national dialogue on the appropriateness of athletes in social media and whether they should be commenting on highlight plays rather than the subtleties of help defense. That’s when I realized: What was once righteous indignation by our national media had led to them selling out and playing up their demagoguery against James to placate the anti-LeBron masses hungry for raw meat. Rather than trying to be fair and impartial in allowing people to understand the conflicted nature of the man, they fed into the cottage industry that was the anti-LeBron column and had no problem slightly modifying that template on any and all occasions as long as it was attracting readers. They were foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the next gaffe, the next piece of ammunition, the next talking point that would validate irreconcilable opinions of James. The backlash to the Perkins tweet was in January; I noticed this craven pattern continued with every non-controversy that bubbled up around James repeatedly for the next few months, and I finally realized after a year and a half, it exposed the hacks these people are: LeBron James was trying to evolve and change, and his critics had zero interest in doing the same.
The second instance came with James’s attempt to raise awareness about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teen shot and killed by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, and the haphazard investigation by the local police that led to his killer walking free on a dubious self-defense claim. By joining with Dwyane Wade to gather his teammates for a solemn photo of the Heat wearing the now infamous “hoodie” that Martin was wearing at the time of his death—with stereotyping based on that choice of clothing facilitating a dialogue itself—it was a daring moment and a selfless act by James. Athletes usually avoid stepping on the precarious ground that separates their sport and brand from social activism. It was the first time we could say about LeBron James, “Michael Jordan never would’ve done that” and have it serve as a criticism of Jordan.
The third instance came with his comments about Cleveland. Yes, he had already apologized for the way he made his exit, but he took another step by saying he’d someday be open to a return to Cleveland. It seemed to finally click that he needed to be cognizant of the interconnectedness of the Cavaliers organization and the city, state, and community at large, and even if it’s a flippant too-little-too-late remark to Brian Windhorst about maybe-possibly going back to his home state, he at least tried to give Cleveland some dignity in a way that he was too callous and aloof to display on the night of The Decision.
What these three examples showed that I hadn’t seen from James since he joined Miami was an acknowledgement of his own value off the basketball court. We know he appreciates the game and its history, and I was glad to see him acknowledge Griffin’s spectacular dunk rather than just utter some bland platitude like “The important thing is the Clippers won the game” like some banal Romneyesque automaton. I was happy to see him use his celebrity to bring attention to the attempts by Sanford police to shrug their shoulders at the shooting death of a young African American male without a full investigation, as well as the foolish notion that choice of clothing had something to do with this attack. And I was happy for him to at least take a small step toward thawing his icy relationship with Cleveland and reaching out to the city. That’s it. It’s not too much to ask.
Look, some people will never forgive him for the litany of gaffes he committed in the summer of 2010 and throughout last season. Then again, people hold grudges about plenty of stupid shit, and they let it irrevocably skew their perception. Some people will never forgive David Chase for The Sopranos finale and some people think less of Appetite for Destruction because Axl Rose made Chinese Democracy. You can’t win with these types of people. The only people James will be able to win are the ones who wanted to like him but needed to see a sense of shared enthusiasm about sports and witness emotional growth and maturity. James owed us way more than he had given us before this year, but he doesn’t owe people nearly as much as they think he does.
In the closing moments of Game 5, as it dawned on James that his elusive first title was at last coming to fruition, I also saw something I can’t remember ever seeing in a post-championship celebration with the exception of Kevin Garnett’s “Anything is possible” exultation and Mark Madsen’s dance: completely unbridled euphoria and ebullience. I think it represented a lot of different things, but what it showed me was that the gravity of the moment came crashing down on him all at once, in ways he wasn’t even ready for. And that’s what made it so endearing and so humanizing.
In those closing moments, there was nothing about global icons, Nike, King James, University of Phoenix, the Boys and Girls Club, or even dynasties and individual legacies. It wasn’t a feeling that could be half-heartedly replicated at a welcome rally or in a Nike ad. It had to be earned and lived to truly be appreciated. Even objective observers were in awe at James’s completion of one of the best postseason runs fans will ever witness. This was about the power of sports to allow us to live in that moment, not worrying about going back to the same problems tomorrow if you’re a fan or trying to defend the title next year if you’re the player. It’s about remembering where you were, if only for a second, when everything just felt right. Whether everything was “right” or not makes no difference.
It’s why these photos spoke such volumes:
That’s all Miami fans, Cleveland fans, casual fans, diehard fans, writers, bloggers, radio hosts, TV pundits, and NBA historians ever wanted to see from the King:
An understanding that what means so much to him means just as much to us.