There are Sentinels hunting down LeBron James as we speak. Trask’s metal men must figure that he’s wounded after being defeated by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, and this is their best chance at capturing him. Because let’s be clear, LeBron is a mutant.
Not only does that label speak to his superhuman stat line in this series (surpassing all players in points, rebounds and assists for the first time ever) it speaks to his unique and somewhat inexplicable place as the most hated man in the NBA.
LeBron James is a great basketball player. Hate him or love him he’s amazing to watch. But thanks to the ever-present commentary via social media I can’t imagine a player that has been more maligned despite his obvious gifts. He came into the league as a teenager and was collecting checks from Nike before he even took the court in a Cavaliers uniform. Billboards sprung up in the middle of every major city proclaiming him King James. He made good on the claim winning NBA Rookie of the Year with a stat line and four years later took the Cav’s to their first NBA Finals appearance in 2007. Mad Men loved him as he used his affable smile to promote soda, sneakers, headphones, watches and more.
However, after seven seasons in Cleveland, James announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat in a public relations fiasco that will go down in infamy as “The Decision.” The ham-fisted execution would only be topped by his declaration that the Heat would win “Not one, not two, not three, not four..” but a fist full of championships during their coming out cotillion as the “Heatles.”
Four seasons and two Championship rings later James is back in Cleveland and his prodigal son narrative almost got the perfect epilogue with a ring for his hometown. But the other feel-good story of Steph Curry and his fellow young guns shooting their way to a championship would preempt LeBron, and the LeBron haters could not be more pleased.
Players leave teams and get traded all the time. Don’t forget that Dennis Rodman was busting Jordan and the Bulls’ ass as a Piston before he joined their squad and Chris Paul was practically hand delivered to the Clippers by the league. Was there a cockier player than Michael Jordan in his prime? “Oh he flops”? More than Paul Pierce? Oh, ok. So that alone can’t be the reason people hate LeBron James.
The real reason LeBron is hated is that there are no true villains left in the NBA. No true rivalries. Everybody’s buddies. It’s no coincidence that the next player in line for villain status is his teammate J.R. Smith. But not because JR is a ruthless competitor, but because of his rep for not giving a fuck on and off the court.
Conversely, players like Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Rasheed Wallace, Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley and Ron Artest didn’t just get under the skin of their opponents, fans LOVED to hate them. Even as retired commentators Miller and Barkley can’t escape fan vitriol. We have none of that element in today’s NBA.
Do you know how bad it’s gotten? The biggest villains in today’s NBA don’t play basketball. Lil B, a rapper with a near cult-like following, looms larger as a NBA trash talker than any PLAYER on the court in 2015. His twisted sense of honor with “The Curse” is like the Mandarin, pointing out the evil in the perceived heroes profiting from WMDs. The Based God is only second to former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell the team after tapes of him making racist comments were leaked by his mistress.
We came close to getting a villain in Lance Stephenson when he played for The Pacers. His pesky antics on LeBron and company were meme-worthy but when the Pacers collapsed like Jenga in the 2014 playoffs it demoted him to more of an ill-tempered jester.
The other reason LeBron is so hated is that the media loves him. ESPN gets ragged on for their seemingly around-the-clock LeBron coverage even in the off season. Players of his caliber usually fall out of favor with the press at some point, with Kobe and Allen Iverson being prime examples. Their off court issues made them lightning rods for criticism which made hating them seem a little redundant. Also, Kobe had his own ongoing feud with Shaq to keep things spicy, but those 5 championships deflected a lot of that hate and also allowed him to climb back into the media’s good graces. As was the case with Jordan, who brushed off stories of his failing marriage and wanton gambling by hoisting that Larry O’Brien trophy in the air half a dozen times.
Conversely, LeBron is a model citizen. Even after four years in South Beach you couldn’t find so much as a speeding ticket on his social calendar to report on. He even married his longtime girlfriend and mother of his children. He’s a good dad and pays his taxes.
So who is left? Yeah we like to call Dwight Howard soft but he is nowhere near as dominant and only wins if he’s wearing a cape during All-Star weekend, so he can’t be a true villain. Kobe has already paid his dues in that spot and is on his way out. No sense in vilifying him now. As the face of the league LeBron is the perfect target. Everything from his magical Lego hairline to which pictures he likes on Instagram becomes fodder for jokes. It doesn’t matter that he’s won two rings, he didn’t win them ALL. The fact that his 2 and 4 NBA finals stat is being touted as a sign of his failure is proof of how low we’ve sunk to find a bad guy. Ask Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant if they’d like a 2 and 4 finals record over what they have right now.
If LeBron had never left Cleveland and remained a perennial also-ran like Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and the aforementioned Charles Barkley he’d be a “nice guy” but still have his critics for not winning at all. So if I’m LeBron with all of this natural size and talent to spare, coupled with the ability to choose my own path vs being traded about at will (a near super power in professional sports) and that’s all it takes to make me a villain? Pass me my magic helmet (no headband needed now) and start making the rims out of carbon fiber because I’m coming for you.