Say what you will about the relentless hatred of LeBron James that numerous casual sports fans espouse from time to time, but you’ve got to concede at least one thing – it’s got a remarkable penchant for resurgence.
I’m no fashion expert or anything, but don’t most trends have a longer period of dormancy before they gain that “retro” appeal and become cool again? How long did Chuck Taylors go unsold and unworn before they came back – didn’t Converse go out of business for a minute? What about throwback ’70s ABA jerseys?
LeBron hate, though? It only took two years to vanish and then return. Two years precisely. You can trace it from Game 5 of the East finals in 2012, when the Heat were down 3-2 to the Celtics and it looked like LeBron would be without titles forever, to Game 5 of the East finals in 2014, when LeBron passed up a game-winner to kick it to Chris Bosh and the doubters spoke up again.
The immediate aftermaths of those two Game 5s were fascinating. After that 2012 turning point, King James absolutely eviscerated all of his haters, scoring 45 in Game 6 to torch the Celtics – soon, he was a champion and all was forgotten. But this year? The moment LeBron seemed the least bit vulnerable, people started to pile on. Hence the absolutely ridiculous outcry that followed when LeBron missed the last four minutes of a Finals game with a leg injury.
The responses to LeBron’s Game 1 exit were out of this world. They ranged from medical ignorance (people with no idea what cramps are who assumed he should have played) to social ignorance (people who think it’s funny to misogynistically liken LeBron’s injury to the type of “cramps” that some women experience once a month). There was historical tactlessness (really, people, cool it with the Jordan comparisons) and corporate tactlessness (really, Gatorade, you’re gonna use this to sell a couple sports drinks?). The LeBron noise was insufferable this week.
LeBron was asked during a pre-practice news conference this weekend why, in his estimation, he was the easiest target in sports. His answer was revealing but not altogether satisfying:
“I don’t think it, I know it. Because I’ve been in front of the camera, and the camera’s been in front of me, since I was 15 years old. You guys have seen everything from me – from being an adolescent kid and just playing the game of basketball because he loves it as a hobby, to now, playing as a professional and succeeding and going to the top, to falling off the mountain, to going up to the top again. You guys have seen everything that my life has had to offer, since I was a 15-year-old kid. Half my life, I’ve been in front of this, so that makes me an easy target.”
Sure, that’s part of it. We’ve watched LeBron for a long time. But that can’t be the whole story – a lot of guys have eyes on them from when they’re 15. Look no further than the AAU circuit in Brooklyn, which has produced guys like Lance Stephenson and Sebastian Telfair, and you’ll see that teenage hoopsters being placed under a microscope is not a foreign concept. There’s no way Stephenson or Telfair has ever been or will ever be the cannon fodder that LeBron is now.
No, the spotlight shines brighter on LeBron for reasons we haven’t fully uncovered yet. I’ll suggest two others, and they’re ones that LeBron may well be thinking, though he’s too media-savvy ever to share them publicly:
1. Jealousy. Plain and simple. Everyone on some level wishes they had the size, the strength, the speed, the intelligence, the coordination, the ambition, the charm, the marketability, the wealth, the fame, the power and the glory that LeBron has. None of us do. So we pout about it.
2. LeBron is the closest thing to perfection that we’ve seen in this sport in a long, long time. (Possibly ever, though that aforementioned Jordan fella may object.) When you have an array of talents that dazzling – when at least the potential to be perfect is that apparent – we all expect the perfection to manifest itself. Otherwise, it’s a waste. As fans, none of us want to invest all this time in watching LeBron develop, only to see the potential squandered.
LeBron may never say it in so many words, but he probably realizes that it’s an honor to be targeted the way he is. Why do we not level the same criticism against Kevin Durant or Chris Paul or anyone else that we do against LeBron? It’s obvious, really – it’s because those guys aren’t that good. And knowing that, I somehow doubt that LeBron would trade his life for KD’s.
We blast LeBron because he’s earned the privilege of being blasted. He’s reached the top of that mountain, to use his metaphor, and he’s grabbed our attention in a way no one else in this era is capable.
I suspect this trend has always existed. We’ve probably always looked to knock these living legends down a peg. This same “target” mentality likely existed in previous eras for Magic and for Bird and, yes, for Jordan. It’s just that now, we have the technology to put it out there. We’ve always resented our stars, only now we have the tweets and the blogs and the podcasts to show it.
Perhaps the more interesting question is how LeBron handles being a target. He hasn’t always been the best at it – he lashed out after a playoff loss in 2010 by telling fans they’d been “spoiled by his play,” and he delivered a weird diatribe about his haters after the 2011 Dallas loss, telling them to “wake up tomorrow and have the same life” and “the same personal problems.” Remember that?
It’s hard to blame LeBron for that stuff – first of all, because he was only 25 and 26 years old and still learning, and second, because dear lord, it must be miserable to deal with people’s nonstop criticism the way LeBron does. Very few people in human history can sympathize.
Now’s a different story. Eleven years into the league, almost 30 years old, with a long series of ever-scrutinized playoff runs under his belt? He’s used to it. He embraces it. You might even be able to say he’s fueled by it.
That last part might be a little bit of a stretch, but if there’s even a 1 percent chance that the off-court haters are driving him to be better on the floor, then that’s enough. I’ll take it. Let the hate keep flowing, because it only adds to LeBron’s legend in the end.
People have used LeBron’s failings over the years as a cheap excuse to question his masculinity, and there’s a great irony behind that. From 2012 onward his response, by and large, has been to shut up, withstand the criticism and wait patiently for a chance to retaliate with his play. Isn’t that mindset - the idea that actions speak louder than words, and he has the power to act – the most stereotypically “manly” answer of all?
I sure think so. And I think it’s what makes this NBA Finals so fascinating as it continues with Game 2 tonight. So please, LeBron haters, keep it coming. I think you’re stupid, but at the same time, I love you. I think it’s possible for those two opinions to coexist.