The widespread contempt for James, who at 27 is in his ninth NBA season, challenges the long-held notion that all fans care about is success. He is as polarizing as Tiger Woods or Michael Vick, despite never having been embroiled in scandal. James’ s offenses seem far more common: narcissism and a failure to deliver championships.
The mere sight of James didn’t always bring to mind sinister organ music. But then in July 2010, James and ESPN partnered on his ill-conceived announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami. “The Decision” should have been entitled “The Debacle.”
Cavaliers fans burned replicas of James’s jersey in effigy. A whole book was written about James being a duplicitous fraud.
Before that, James was just your average once-in-several-generations player. He had a sense of entitlement, NBA people say, but that didn’t make him unique in a league full of mega-ego multimillionaires. James’s botched exit from Cleveland — I mean, really: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” is just asking to be ripped — made him seem arrogant beyond any known standards.
To the guys who sit in the cheap seats and the old-school NBA legends alike, James appears to be someone who simply doesn’t get it. Even if James were to win his first title this season, would the basketball-loving public ever embrace him as it does the Jordans, Magic Johnsons and Larry Birds?
In the NBA, no one is more respected than Bird, who excelled as a player, coach and roster-building boss (he’s the only person to win the league’s highest award in each field). When Larry Legend talks, the hoops world listens.
Earlier this season, Bird made an unflattering comparison between James and Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, essentially saying James is not as committed to winning as Bryant. Asked whom he would choose to build a team around, Bird said, “If you want to win and win and win, it’s Kobe.”
Bird’s quote was like a surf-and-turf dinner for James’s hungry critics. By implying James’s priorities were not in order, the revered elder statesman stuck it to James as he once punished Boston Celtics opponents.
James is winless in two appearances in the NBA Finals. Bryant has five championship rings. In the all-about-the-scoreboard world of pro sports, James has thus far come up short. His fourth-quarter vanishing act in the Heat’s Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks last season reinforced the perception, which isn’t entirely accurate, that James disappears in what Johnson calls “Winnin’ Time.”