LeBron James of the Miami Heat has been successful y facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals — though less successfully facing heat from detractors. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES)

As the NBA Finals draw to a close, I’m trying to understand why people still harbor such an incredible amount of hate for the Miami Heat’s LeBron James. I get that he gave himself his own nickname, receives an outsized amount of media attention, and—at least in the past—often hasn’t played well in the clutch. I get why featuring himself in an overhyped, hour-long ESPN special called “The Decision” could make him look like a self-centered diva who put a knife in Cleveland’s back.

What I have a harder time understanding is why people turned against him for wanting to play with other stars. Yes, I realize that a league of “superteams” would make for less interesting games and a lesss competitive season. People will get bored if certain teams are overly dominant. And the intrigue of watching a team rebuild and grow together will be lost if there are too many dynasties. James, it has been said, has “sinned against competition”—the worst kind in the eyes of sports fans.

But as a supremely talented player, James wants to play with the best. And that makes sense to me, even if we don’t like it as fans. Not only will that mean he shoulders less of the responsibility of winning games; doing so is also likely to up his game. Taking the court with other stars offers him support and camaraderie from players who can empathize with what it’s like to have to carry a team. And of course, it offers him an even better chance to win his sport’s highest prize—a goal that fuels all top performers and that James may very well finally reach on Thursday night.

It would be one thing if James and the other members of the so-called “Big 3”—Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh—were elbowing each other out on the court, doing little to assist their teams, and showing us the downsides of packing a team with stars. But for James, at least, that’s hardly the case. He’s in the top 15 of all NBA players for assists per game during the 2011-2012 season. In the Heat’s win in Game 4 of the finals, he had 12 assists. He must have won over a few haters for his late-in-the-game return to play, stepping in to score a critical three-pointer despite suffering from leg cramps.

And it would be another thing if he hadn’t changed at all. But he has, writes the Post’s Mike Wise. He’s talking about his lessons learned and his past immaturity. He’s self aware of how his past actions hurt his fans, and how much he bought into playing the villain. And he’s cognizant of how much experience has taught him.

Maybe winning the championship won’t do much to win over James’ detractors. In fact, it may serve to only make them hate more, proving their point that an all-star team who “went for a shortcut” will take some fun out of the game. But over time—and especially if his game and off-court approach continue as they have—more people might come around to the idea that wanting to play with other stars isn’t just an act of selfishness. It could also be an act of self-improvement.  

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