LeBron James is, at current time, probably the most widely reviled active professional athlete in America. Almost entirely because of two things – his transcendent, undeniable talent on the basketball court and one gigantic PR gaffe – an overwhelming number of NBA fans and even more non-fans have been rooting for him to lose for the past two years. These factors make sense; anytime anyone is so universally good at any sport, there is an almost inherent tendency to turn on him eventually (unless, of course, he plays for our team). And “The Decision” – the public relations stunt turned image nightmare – came across at the time as possibly the vainest display of personal promotion we’d ever seen in professional sports. It also seemed like the antithesis of this idea of “loyalty” we’ve for some reason come to expect as sports fans, and time hasn’t done much to change that perception.
(NBA fans (both of you), you might want to skip this next section. It’s a bunch of background you already know. Seriously, it’s okay; I won’t be mad. Just scroll down to the next picture of LeBron and pick it up there.)
For those of you who don’t know, “The Decision” was, in short, LeBron James’ very public announcement that he was leaving his hometown team to go play with two other all-stars in Miami. If you watch the video without any context, it all seems pretty harmless. But the devil is (and was) in the context.
James grew up in Akron, Ohio, and by the time he was a sophomore in high school, he was generally considered the best NBA prospect in a long, long time – definitely in the last two decades, possibly ever. I distinctly remember on instance when a 16-year-old LeBron was participating in some boys basketball camp over NBA All-Star weekend. The camp in which he was competing just happened to be in the same city as the All-Star game, and more than one NBA scout was quoted in saying that young LeBron was playing in the wrong game – instead of his high school tournament, he should be suiting up in the All-Star game. Right then, as a sophomore in high school. He was that good, and the hype was that big.
Not surprisingly, the state of Ohio immediately clung to James as its native son. Already he was the most famous Ohioan since Neil Armstrong (who I just learned was from the state; I had to Google “famous people from Ohio” because I couldn’t think of any). His celebrity grew as ESPN began nationally televising his games. He had the look of a gigantic, agile, finely tuned basketball-playing machine, and the demeanor of a seasoned veteran. And he had just gotten his driver’s license. LeBron graced the cover of magazines, segments of SportsCenter, and was officially dubbed a “can’t miss” prospect; as much of a sure thing as there can be in professional sports.
He turned 18 and graduated high school. The thought of college was nothing more than a fleeting muse, if even that. This was when players could still go straight to the NBA from high school, and nobody ever actually expected LeBron to do anything else. He was ready. Then, as if the stars had finally aligned for the moribund city of Cleveland in the sad and trampled state of Ohio, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the draft lottery and were blessed with the number one pick in the 2003 draft. The Cavs – a laughingstock for years – would be able to draft their dominant, can’t-miss native son first overall.
The hype was huge, and when LeBron arrived in Cleveland, he did what was nearly impossible with such high expectations – he lived up to them. As a rookie, he averaged 20 points, six assists, and five rebounds, and quickly showed the rest of the world what all the fuss was about; LeBron James was, as an 18-year-old, the most complete basketball player in professional basketball. And the stats were not empty – in LeBron’s first year, the Cavs more than doubled their win total from the previous season. The King had arrived, the NBA had a new poster child, and the future in Cleveland was as bright as it had ever been.
Fast forward seven years, four 50+ win seasons (including 2008-09, when James and a decidedly average supporting cast went an incredible 66-16), five playoff appearances, and one NBA Finals loss, and The Decision happened. James was a free-agent, and after the most ballyhooed courting process in sporting history – again, thanks in part to ESPN – he decided to take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat. He would be teaming up with All-Stars Dwyane Wade, already an NBA champion, and Chris Bosh, who had left the Toronto Raptors to complete the three-headed monster.
It was a dream team of sorts, a presumed juggernaut that seemed likely to dominate the league for years to come. And the fans hated it. Cleveland naturally considered it a betrayal of epic proportions, and fans literally rioted in the streets and burned LeBron jerseys. Much of the nation agreed, many put off by the seemingly unsportsmanlike idea of so many superstars stacking themselves on a single team. And even more than that, the way he did it just seemed arrogant – a nationally televised, one-hour special just to announce the team with which he would sign. Vain was an understatement.
This was two years ago. Now, in his second season with the Heat, James has a good shot to win the Eastern Conference finals and advance to the NBA Finals again. Last season, Miami lost an epic Finals series to the Dallas Mavericks, in what was widely considered among NBA faithful – myself included – as a triumph of good over evil. It was the first year of the superteam, and nothing made us happier than seeing them not win the title. And, more importantly, seeing LeBron “choke”down the stretch.
This has become the main point of contention for LeBron haters – of which there are many – in the past few seasons. Basically, for as much of an all-world superstar as he’s become (MVP three of the past four seasons – and unheard of statistic), the masses need a reason to cut him down. He’s gotten too big, too famous, too good, and when that happens it is incumbent upon our society to knock someone down a peg or two. Plus, the whole “Decision” thing just made it 10 times worse – most NBA fans now actively look for a reason to root against LeBron. And to be quite honest, the clutch factor is a legitimate one.
The main thing that separates very good players from great players is, and probably always will be, how they perform when the game is on the line. The great ones embrace the moment and take – and make – game winning shots. The non-greats shrink from pressure and pass the ball. The best example of the former, of course, is Michael Jordan – often considered the best player to ever play the game, and the architect of countless clutch, career-defining, and all-around badass game winning shots. Michael is the standard by which all others are judged, and that is just fine. The best modern-day example is Kobe Bryant, who shares many of the same traits as Jordan but just doesn’t have quite as many championships (yet). Players like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony join him in a lesser capacity, but that isn’t the point. The point is that LeBron James, for the most part, is not a member of this category.
About halfway through his career, when the Cavaliers started winning all those game, we (the NBA faithful) began to notice something: LeBron James doesn’t seem to like taking end-of-game shots. It seemed ridiculous; a player of his obvious talent and presumed self-confidence seemed tailor-made to want the ball in crunch time. Yet for some reason, he didn’t. It wasn’t that he freaked out or shrunk from big moments, he just seemed to find ways to avoid taking the last shot. Generally with the Cavs, when the game was on the line, LeBron would draw the defense in and then kick the ball out to a wide-open teammate. In basketball terms, this is a good play, except most of James’ teammates weren’t very good, and they would usually miss said wide-open shot. After a season or so of this, the grumblings began. LeBron was a terrific passer – one of his many dominant traits – but that wasn’t the skill he should be using at the ends of games. A man of such supreme talent should surely be taking the last shot, shouldn’t he?
These grumblings grew into full-grown shouts over time, and with every late-game shot passed up (or sometimes missed), LeBron solidified his fatal flaw in the minds of most. He wasn’t a clutch player. This was an easy complaint to highlight, and when he moved to the Heat it just got worse. We want our heroes to be fearless, to dodge bullets and laugh in the face of danger, and to be the ones standing over their enemies with a smoking gun when the dust settles. Through his youth, hype, and maturation as a basketball player, we all just assumed this would be a part of LeBron’s game. When we found out it wasn’t, it was a flat-out disappointment. LeBron is an outstanding basketball player, but not a stone-cold killer. He is not the Lone Ranger, he is just some guy. And we hate him for it.
For the most part, that hate continues. Combined with “The Decision,” which most are still holding against him, LeBron is the player most NBA fans love to hate. They root against him because they root against unfairness, against synthetic team-building, and most of all, against unfulfilled potential. Yes, the fact that LeBron lacks the killer gene means, to most of us, he isn’t as much of a basketball player as he could’ve been. This might be true, but isn’t necessarily fair.
I, for one, am rooting for LeBron.
Basically, I’m rooting for him because as far as I can tell, he’s actually a decent, likeable human being. He seems like a good teammate, has never (as far as we know) raped or assaulted anyone, and I’m reasonably certain he isn’t a dick. In the grand scheme, these things are far more important than any basketball aptitude, and are often nonexistent in those that possess such aptitude. When you look at it impartially, LeBron pretty much seems like a good guy. And I like good guys.
So I’d like to break down my argument based on some of the arguments made against LeBron James:
He Can’t/Won’t Make Clutch Shots
True, but the reason he doesn’t truly want to take the last shot is the same reason he isn’t an asshole. Now, LeBron will never tell you he doesn’t want the pressure possessions – he’s always said the right things, used the right clichés, and generally appeased the fans by saying essentially, “I want the ball when the game’s on the line.” But that’s just what you’re supposed to say, and that’s why he says it. And it’s not as if James has never turned in a clutch performance – he has had some downright sensational ones, most notable in my mind the time he scored an absolutely unfathomable 29 of his team’s last 30 points in a double-overtime, Eastern Conference Finals Game 5 win. Moments like this are transcendent; that performance is still the single best individual playoff performance I’ve ever seen. But moments like that, no matter how great they are, are too few and far between, and haven’t happened in quite some time. They are the exception, not the rule.
Basically, while LeBron James lacks absolutely nothing physically, mentally there is something he doesn’t have. Whatever extra gear, special drive, or overall psychological disposition it is that makes Michael and Kobe stone-cold killers at the end of games, it is absent in LeBron James. No matter how good at basketball – or any other sport – a person is, there is something in the human makeup that makes some guys honestly believe they are the best player on the floor, that nobody can guard them, that their dick is bigger than every other man’s in the building, and that when they let go of a shot when the clock hits zero, there is absolutely no way it isn’t going in. It doesn’t matter whether these things are actually true or not, what matters is that they believe them. I call it the, “fuck you, give me the ball” factor, because that’s what I assume Michael and Kobe said/say to their teammates on a regular basis. This even extends beyond sports – in business, politics, and life in general, this same trait exists in many wildly successful individuals. It’s the win-at-all-costs, cutthroat attitude that makes some people obsessed with beating others, no matter the consequences.
The thing is, this is not a normal human trait. As basketball fans, we’ve been spoiled by those who possess it, so we expect everyone else to act as such. But most people – and most pro athletes – just aren’t wired that way, which is what makes the ones that are so unique. However, this same thing that makes Kobe and Michael (who I’m using as prime examples, but are certainly not the only examples) such good primetime players, is also the thing that makes them bad teammates, husbands, friends, and – as far as I can tell – people.
By all accounts, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are complete assholes. In the case of Jordan, it’s well documented – “The Jordan Rules” by Sam Smith being a terrific example (and great book, by the way), but all you have to do is watch his hall of fame acceptance speech. It is painfully clear in those 20 minutes that Michael Jordan – after the MVPs and NBA Championships and general public considering him the best to ever play the game – is still not satisfied. He has a chip on his shoulder, and he wants to prove to anyone and everyone that he is better than them. He doesn’t care about the legacy he left; he still feels like he has something to prove, and probably always will. And I think that’s sad. As Adrian Wojnarowski said in his apt commentary on the speech, “It’s over, Michael. You won.”
Some will say this is just competitiveness, and to a degree it is. But it is so much more than wanting to win; it’s when winning becomes all that matters. It’s when pride, arrogance, and – as Michael showed – pettiness overwhelm all else. It’s an enormous character flaw, but we let it slide (and even embrace it) because it breeds good basketball.
LeBron James lacks this gene, which makes him prone to pass off the last shot but – more importantly – makes him the kind of human being for whom I want to root. James doesn’t yell at his teammates, he clowns around with them. He doesn’t get tried for rape; he got engaged to his high school sweetheart. He defies security to make sure military servicemen get a picture with him and his teammates. The list goes on. Why do we hate this guy when all he’s done wrong is pass off the last shot in a basketball game and decided he wants to move to a warmer climate to play with his friends? Which brings me to…
“The Decision” Was Reprehensible
Yes, the way the one-hour, all-about-me special transpired, it certainly seemed like an exercise in conceit. I bet LeBron would like to have a mulligan on that one. Of course, it was ESPN’s idea, and it wasn’t actually as self-absorbed as it came off at first blush: James arranged it so the special would raise over $3 million for charity. Still, was it self-serving? Absolutely. Did the phrase “taking my talents to South Beach” sound crass and stupid? Of course. But $3 million for charity might justify those things, no?
He’s a Traitor
LeBron James grew up in Ohio. He played the first seven seasons of his NBA career in Cleveland, taking the franchise to heights it hadn’t seen before. The man had essentially never left the state. Can you blame him for wanting a change of scenery, wanting to exchange Cleveland for Miami, wanting to play with other good players with whom he happens to be very close? What would you do? The city of Cleveland acted as if the man had murdered Neil Armstrong. In reality, he gave the team, city, and state seven good years, watched as management failed to build a championship team around him, and decided to try something else.
He Needs to Play With Other All-Stars to Win
Name me one player who has ever won an NBA title by himself. One guy who has singlehandedly run through the rest of the league to win a ring. Anyone?
Has there ever been a player to win a championship in any major sport without other significant talent around him? The answer, obviously, is no. Kobe had Shaq – one of the best of all time – for his first three titles, then went ringless for a few years until fellow all-star Pau Gasol arrived. Jordan had a uniquely talented team around him, most notably hall of fame wingman Scottie Pippen. The great Celtics and Lakers teams of the 80’s were each stacked with multiple hall of famers. Do we diminish the achievements of these players because they teamed up with other greats? No. So why do we do it with LeBron?
Admittedly, when a player joins other all-stars via free agency – as James did – it makes it harder for fans to swallow. James willingly left his current team to go play with better players, and this seems to diminish his competitive credibility. It feels like cheating. “Why does he need to do that?” we ask. “He couldn’t do it by himself?” Well, no, he couldn’t.
Despite the fact that we all know it’s impossible for a player to win a championship without significant talent surrounding him, we still for some reason want him to try. Kobe did it with Shaq – pretty much presenting management with an “it’s me or him” scenario – and Jordan froze out and forced out countless players in his day. And this makes us happy. We embrace the narcissism and competitive arrogance of such attitudes, and disregard their stupidity. We want our heroes to want to win titles by themselves, because anything else is seen as some sort of weakened spirit.
Well, weakened spirit or not, LeBron James is not stupid, and he realized something after seven seasons: he can’t do it alone. Despite his massive talent and ridiculous achievements with the Cavaliers – where his supporting cast was, as I put it (nicely) before, very average – there were two problems. One, of course, is that it’s impossible to win titles without significant talent around you (at the very least, a sidekick capable of carrying the load in certain big games). The second is more complicated, and gets to the crux of the issue: LeBron realized he needed more than a sidekick. He needed a killer. Good teams are made up of complimentary players whose strengths make up for their teammates weaknesses. And as a basketball player, LeBron James has exactly one weakness: his lack of a “fuck you, give me the ball” factor. He knows it, too. Despite what he says publicly, James is – obviously – keenly aware that he is a subpar clutch performer. He is either unwilling or unable to take and make the clutch shot, so he found someone else that was: Dwyane Wade. Wade is a solid clutch performer who already has one ring, but of course it’s much too early to put him in the Kobe/Michael category. I don’t know if he has that extra special gear, I don’t know if he’s an asshole, and I’m not going to go into it because this post is already far too long as it is. But I do know that he wants to take the last shot; you can see it in his eyes, and in the way he plays. And LeBron knows it too. Wade – despite missing a game-winner in game four last night – has at least some Lone Ranger in him, and that’s good enough for James. Because some is better than none.
I have no idea whether or not this marriage of talent will work long-term; in the second season of the experiment, Miami has a good chance to again make the NBA Finals. After that, who knows. I do know that being paired with a player like Wade is probably the best situation for LeBron, a supremely talented basketball player who is self-aware and humble enough to recognize his own flaws. And when I look at it that way, I can’t find much of a reason to root against him.