Why we really target LeBron James – and why it’s compelling

Jun 7, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) talks to the media during practice before game 2 of the 2014 NBA Finals at Spurs Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Evans Clinchy

  • Pierre NyGaard

    Simply put, I think it’s just that he’s the player everyone wanted him to be but not the person (read: public image/persona) everyone wanted him to be.

    • supertriqui

      His image/persona is distorted because of his early exposure, and his comparisons to Jordan. Jordan PUNCHED team-mates in practices. Do you imagine what the reaction would be if Lebron does that?

      Let’s take “The Decision”. He made a special program about his free agency. That program raised 3 million dollars for charity, through advertising. People *destroyed* Lebron for that program. In people’s eye, it would had been better if he did just a press note, and do not scorn Cavs fans, even if that means 3 million dollars less for charity.

      Whenever Lebron does something that can be seen in good or bad spotlight, (like the aforementioned Decision and it’s charity fund raising), people focus on the bad part. He’ll never be treated fairly. Because, as Wilt Chamberlain once put it brilliantly, “nobody roots for Goliath”

      • Mint

        I think it’s a sad statement about America that this is so overlooked.

        The man is the center of voluntary attention in the sports world, and he leverages it into $3M for charity without any fan paying a dime. And that turns him into an object of hate? WTF?

        No matter how many times someone tries to “explain” it to me, I’ll never understand that, nor will I get why people got annoyed voluntarily watching the “Welcome Party”, which was an event for Heat fans.

    • Sean Grimm

      You’re kidding, right? You mean the guy who has never been in trouble with the law? The guy who’s never been accused of sexual assault like so many other sports stars have? The guy who is always getting involved with charities and has taken the youth in Akron under his wing to ensure they are successful in school and life? I could go on and on. The public image is negative purely because of 1. Jealousy and 2. The decision. But to act like he’s some terrible person, like so many of his haters do, is just nonsensical. There’s no evidence of that outside of disgruntled people on the Internet who spew rumors about his character, often pointing back to the same things like his “King” nickname or attitude when he was a teenager as proof of their claims. The entire thing is a really nauseating joke.

      • Sean Chevelle

        no one says anything about LANCE be called the choosen 1, they just hate that he can do or go anywhere with his talents and they cannot control him . Mr Gilbert was upset that he would not stay

      • Pierre NyGaard

        Read: public image/persona.

        I didn’t say he was a bad person. I just insinuated that the persona he has created/the public has imprinted upon him is not in line with the persona we wanted LeBron James to have when he first entered the league.

  • Ian Orcutt

    — Paid for by Lebron James for President

  • Gregory Harlston

    I agree with many of the things that Evan wrote but I would like to offer different, more nuanced explanation of some of the hate that James receives.
    1. Many people prefer athletes/heroes who are humble or at least display some degree of humility. One of my favorite football players was Barry Sanders. I loved his unbelievable talent but I especially respected the way he would casually toss the football to refs after scoring a touchdown. No over the top show boating, no chest beating, no look at how great I am for Mr. Sanders–he was humility personified. For all of James’ magnificent gifts, humility is not yet among them.
    2. Two paths diverged in a yellow wood…many people think that James took the easier path to becoming a champion. He went to join his friends at South Beach instead of toiling longer in Cleveland. For all of the comparisons to Michael Jordan, Jordan kept getting knocked down by Boston, and then literally by Detroit, but he kept getting back up. As talented as Michael was, one of the primary reasons he is so beloved in Chicago is that he persevered. Lebron got knocked down too but when he got back up , he ran down to Miami.
    3. Would you be upset with an ‘ex’ if he/she went on national television to dump you? That’s tantamount to breaking up with someone by text! How uncouthed is that?

    • sbk

      To rebute your points:

      1. Not being humble? The player that always gives his teammates credit for winning? The player that would rather make the perfect pass to an open teammate in the last 10 seconds than force a low-yield shot? You think MJ was humble? Really? The largest ego the NBA has ever seen?
      2. I would say Lebron had the harder path. Lebron was never given a Scottie Pippen. Lebron was never given a Phil jackson. Heck, Lebron wasn’t even given a Dennis Rodman. MJ lost in the 1st round MULTIPLE times. Lebron has never lost in the 1st round. (People would argue that Jordan never lost in the Finals, but I would argue that losing in the Finals is infinitely more impressive than losing in the 1st round)
      3. Get over The Decision. Heck, he raised over a million dollars for charity with that stunt. How many players have been unceremoniously dumped and traded by their teams/owners without prior notice? If a player does it, suddenly it’s some unforgivable crime? Unless you’re a fan of the Cavs, you’re just being a little girl if you’re still pouting over that.

      • Gregory Harlston

        sbk I was trying to offer up some “legitimate” reasons why Lebron might be disliked. I guess our definition of humility is different. When a player dunks on another player and stands over him glaring, no not humble. When a player knocks down a game winning shot and then pounds his chest, no not humble. But it’s ok. Nobody’s perfect, but understand for some humility is a virtue. If you think MJ’s path was easier, then we’ll just agree to disagree. I am not a Cleveland fan and I have definitely gotten over The Decision but I just wanted to provide another perspective why James MIGHT be disliked that didn’t revolve around jealousy and haterade.

        • Wayne Green

          I recall Jordan dunking on Ewing and standing over him and yelling in his face…I remember Jordan dunking on Mutombo and wagging his finger in his face…I remember Kobe making a big shot against Phoenix and pulling his jersey to the side and pounding his chest to show he had heart…if you are a sports fan and have issue with people celebrating spontaneously, then I must have a loud LAUGH!!!…give me a break…the author is RIGHT…it’s must be jealousy.

          • Gregory Harlston

            Wayne, the world is NOT black and white! Try to find another word because ‘jealousy’ is not the right one. I’m not saying all spontaneous displays of emotion are bad. But let me put it this way, I preferred Barry Sanders’ style to Deion Sanders’ style. Both Barry and Deion were exceptional football players and I could appreciate both players’ talent, but I preferred Barry. This has nothing to do with jealousy. It’s called a preference. And that’s all I’m trying to say basically. In our either-or world, if you don’t like someone, then you’re automatically labeled a Hater or jealous. It honestly could have nothing to do with “hating” or ‘jealousy”. And I’m not claiming that some people are not Hating on or Jealous of Lebron because I believe that there are many who are jealous of his talent and his life. I’m just saying not EVERYONE who doesn’t like him automatically belongs in the Hater category. Honestly, I don’t think this is a terribly difficult concept to understand.