In hindsight, “The Decision” was the best thing for David Stern, his league, his network partner — and the new consumer in polarized American sports, Angry Man.
The moment Team LeBron partnered with Jim Gray and ESPN last summer to televise the career choice of the greatest free agent this side of Prince William, the NBA didn’t merely have its first uber team since Michael Jordan’s Incredi-Bulls; it had a built-in, ready-made villain: LeBron James, scorner of Cuyahoga County, taker of talents to South Beach, beggar of officials’ calls, a young man who travels more than Gulliver and Patrick Ewing.
What happens when the NBA’s best player is also its most unlikable? What happens when a 26-year-old virtuoso is hated with a disturbing intensity — but also sometimes behaves in a way that suggests he deserves it?
What happens is we get on-court performances so sublime and insight into our culture so profound that it’s impossible to look away.
With so many new stars and teams emerging this postseason, only the hoops junkies care enough to learn and appreciate Derrick Rose’s or Kevin Durant’s game. But that’s okay. In a culture in which games are opportunities to denigrate our athletic enemies as much as to celebrate our heroes, many fans see no need to pick someone to pull for — especially when it’s much easier to find someone to root against.
LeBron is three wins and a few crab dribbles from taking the Miami Heat to his first NBA Finals since 2007, and no one is in the middle on the debate of whether they want him to win his first championship and take the baton from Kobe Bryant. Indeed, half the country can’t wait to see the gifted young man complete his ascendance; the other half wishes him rickets, measles or worse.
The animosity predates LeBron’s NBA career. When he was just 16, Sports Illustrated anointed him the “Chosen One” in a cover story. Ever since, there has been a sense he has received accolades before earning them.
Without question, he has brought some of it on himself. He’s the poor sport who walked off the court against the Celtics in his last game as a Cavalier before it was over.
And though “The Decision” was the idea of his management team, LeBron ultimately decided to use a national television platform to essentially tell his team and town, “See ya. You weren’t good enough for me.”
For those not in Cleveland, LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh became like the three best guys at the YMCA, who, instead of choosing up teams fairly and getting a competitive run, decide to play together and laugh and dunk on all the hapless men, who have to keep waiting their turns while Team Collusion keeps the court. The Heat is the crew you can’t wait to see get beat.
This hasn’t happened in sports since Barry Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron’s career home run record, when all of baseball and beyond wanted Bonds to strike out swinging and the only souls who wanted to see him break the mark were either related to him or paddling their kayaks in the deep water and deepening denial of McCovey Cove.
LeBron has the sneer and the scowl. He has none of Wade’s baby-faced countenance or his lithe, sanguine frame. LeBron is one big bicep, flexing in your grille. All tats and ’tude, much more imposing than 20-something.
Yet LeBron’s haters miss that the magazine covers were given to the most amazing high school player I have ever watched in person — and that includes Jason Kidd wowing the Oakland Coliseum at 15 years old.
And there is something beyond sinister about Angry Man America gnashing its teeth at the thought of three young, African American players having the gall to make their own decisions and control their market — in effect, economically empowering themselves in ways their predecessors never could.
There’s something more than rooting interests behind Web sites named, “IHateLeBronJames.com” and “LeBronHater.com,” which features a May 12 post that reads, “You guys are just jealous that he can travel better than you.” (That was a little nicer than, “Punk. Trader. Fake. Arrogant.”)
Angry Man now has a homepage. Beautiful. Great.
Was LeBron jammed down our throats too soon? Probably. Was he proclaimed King James before he was worthy of the throne? Certainly.
But is misplaced animosity causing some to miss out on one of the most transcendent performers in the game’s history — the best passer over 6-foot-5 since Magic, an incomparable defender whose ability to chase down and swat away shots rivals Michael’s, a three-point shooter sometimes as deadeye as Bird? Absolutely.
Angry Man doesn’t want to hear it. He is only watching to see how many steps LeBron takes, how he acts as if his home has been foreclosed on when he’s called for a foul. LeBron is the perfect player to root against, an easy villain to fill the void.
When it comes to the game’s most polarizing player, the most hateful fans and the most appreciative have just one thing in common: None of them can stop watching.