Last summer, as The Decision was taking place, I was in the middle of a 5-week Asia trip that took me to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and China. While I was all the way across the world, I found myself glued, first by where LeBron James would end up (I feverishly refreshed espn.com at our hotel in Vietnam), and, subsequently to the endless coverage dissecting both the way in which LeBron left Cleveland and whether he was copping out by joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat. Even as I was on a 13-hour time difference, I consumed every column and listened to as many podcasts on The Decision and its broader ramifications as I could get my hands on. After a week or two, I probably could have hosted the Dan LeBatard Show or B.S. report (or even a schizophrenic debate between the two) and accurately represented their viewpoints for about an hour.
“Jordan NEVER would have done this. He would have wanted to BEAT Wade,” Simmons would have said as LeBatard retorted sarcastically about how “Allen, Pierce, and Garnett should have wanted to BEAT each other.”
One of the foremost critics of how LeBron carried himself at the time was Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had previously co-authored a book with LeBron. At the time, Bissinger wrote:
“Strangest of all was LeBron’s complete lack of emotion when it came to Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of fans worshiped him, but it was clear last night that the feeling is not mutual. When asked what Cleveland meant to him, he talked mostly about what he had brought to the franchise and the city over the past seven years, how great he had been, how lucky, in effect, they had been to have him. He would not even commit to staying in Akron (I don’t think he will) and he did not even have the decency to talk to owner Dan Gilbert beforehand, even if only to say thanks for all the obvious effort Gilbert made to keep James happy.”
Ultimately, the self-unaware manner in which LeBron left Cleveland and his stubborn refusal to even feign humility and regret about his spurned lovers’ despair gave us the opportunity to collectively “sports hate” LeBron and the Heat to an extent which may have even surpassed the Spygate Patriots. We rooted vociferously against him and felt gleeful when he underperformed in the Finals and the Heat lost, so much so that the achievement of the Mavericks was grossly overshadowed by LeBron’s failure. Did we take TOO much glee? Was our level of schadenfreude too high?
Upon further reflection, Bissinger now thinks so. In an appearance on the Dan LeBatard Show yesterday, Bissinger explained the reason for his initial disdain: “I was merciless about LeBron because he showed a side that I had not seen when I was doing the book…arrogance and self-centeredness.” There came a point, though, where Bissinger felt the vitriol had gone overboard: “People act as if he killed people. People act as if he is the most hated athlete in America and I just don’t get it…This spewing of hatred I think is absurd…Jason Kidd beat his wife and nobody cares about THAT.” Further, in a Daily Beast column this week, Bissinger wrote:
“It is absolutely accurate to say he was awful in the finals (conveniently ignoring his stellar play in the previous two rounds against the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls). But the vitriol, the spewing hatred spit out with such gleeful self-satisfaction by commentator after commentator, has sunk to a new level of nuclear negativity.”
In evaluating how we have reacted to James’s failure and responding to Bissinger’s Daily Beast column, Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski acknowledges being “irritated with some of the over-the-top loathing of James” but generally rationalizes the glee at LeBron’s expense, analogizing our rooting interests to the way we cheer against pro wrestling heels such as Ric Flair (“Other sports are not all that real, either”). Posnanski continues, “But in the end, it seems to me, none of this is about HIM. We like and despise, root for and against the CHARACTER we know as LeBron James. The person, LeBron James, we don’t know anything more than a ghostly image and never will.”
With all due respect to Posnanski, Ric Flair PLAYED a character in a manner in which LeBron James did not. Flair calculatedly knew exactly what he was doing whereas LeBron James became hated, in many cases as a person and not just as a sports character, due to a public relations mistake (of admittedly colossal proportions) stemming from enabling handlers and a lack of both worldly and self-awareness. These circumstances, as well as stunning innate talent, converged to breed an arrogance for which LeBron became genuinely hated as a human being, moreso, as Bissinger argued, than athletes such as Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, and Jason Kidd who have committed or been accused of legitimate crimes.
Still, though, as a general public, we love nothing more than beating our public figures down only to help them rise up again. As currently constituted, LeBron is perfectly positioned for a brilliant story of American redemption. Over the past few days, he has FINALLY started taking the hint and has, at the very least, least faked humility. If he is true to the word and spends this summer working on his game, specifically adding the low-post game that his critics have been clamoring for for years and offers some sort of genuine-sounding (he doesn’t even have to REALLY MEAN IT!!) apology to the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers franchise for how last summer transpired he will no longer be a villain.
It wasn’t so much that LeBron underperformed late in last year’s Celtics series and this year’s Mavericks series that has made LeBron such a lightning rod, it was the manner in which it happened. If LeBron can then prevent whatever happened (there HAS to be some sort of explanation, right?), internally or externally, that made him play so passively in those series he will redeem himself in the eyes of the public. While he may never again regain his stature in popularity before the decision (some people perpetually hold unreasonable grudges, I believe they are called “haters”), I am rooting for LeBron to restore himself as a character that we root for in sports. With his magnificent natural ability, a combination of natural speed, strength, size, and grace previously unseen in my lifetime, it would be special to watch him realize his potential.