As anybody who has read my comments on Bleacher Report would know, I've never been a LeBron James fan. In fact, I've been one of his biggest detractors since he joined this league.
My disdain for him has always stemmed from his lack of aggressiveness on the court, his apparent refusal to reach his full potential (how does someone that big and athletic have next-to-no post game?) and his occasional bouts of immaturity.
However, while I have a hard time respecting LeBron James the basketball player, I've come to respect LeBron James the person.
I remember the first time I saw this commercial, in which LeBron uses his status as a superstar athlete in the best way we could expect an athlete to do: encourage struggling students to stay in school. It was at that time that I learned that it wasn't fair to judge LeBron the person based on my disdain for him on the court.
After all, so many athletes are out setting a terrible example for the younger generation that looks up to them with run-ins with the law and the like. Whatever LeBron was as a basketball player, at least he was using his position to send a positive message.
Prior to his move to Miami, LeBron was on top of the world. He had fans in nearly every fanbase there is. Many of his detractors disliked LeBron simply because he would victimize their teams, and they would change their tune in a heartbeat if LeBron were to come and play for their teams.
However, "The Decision" was the start of a downward spiral for him.
I personally was irritated with "the decision" because it seemed like one giant ego-fest, though I did appreciate that the revenue from it was being put to good use by being donated to the Boys and Girl's Club of America. I thought it was a very immature way to handle his free-agency, and I still think that to this day.
However, while I still believe that he handled his free-agency with the efficiency akin to that of Andrew Bynum's three-point shot, I never was upset that he chose to go to the Miami Heat. He fulfilled the terms of his contract with Cleveland, and he was free to sign wherever he wanted.
The hate that LeBron got for both the decision and his choosing of Miami was fast, fierce, and unrelenting. He suddenly became the most hated athlete in the NBA, perhaps one of the most hated in the world. The man who was once known as a savior had suddenly become the league villain, a role he tried to embrace but ultimately failed, because that's not who LeBron James really is.
Faced with mounting criticism from fans, the media, other players, etc, LeBron attempted to handle the criticism with class, going about his business. Ultimately, this criticism would become too much. I attribute his terrible exit interview after his loss in the NBA Finals to the criticism becoming overwhelming. And make no mistake, I was surprised he didn't crack sooner, with as much hate as he was receiving, justified or not.
The hate was perhaps justifiable on some level when the decision first happened, but not only has it seemingly refused to go away, it's also increased in intensity. It's gotten so bad, it's become commonplace to demonize LeBron the person based on his actions on the basketball court.
Look, LeBron James may not be the most clutch player in the NBA. He may struggle sometimes with high-pressure situations. He may not appear like he's taking the game seriously at times. But that is who he is. He is human like us, and he has flaws in his game, just like we all have our own flaws. And if anything, all this irrational hate LeBron has been receiving has made me reflect on how we as people view our athletes.
We forget that beneath the superstar, there's a person with strengths and weaknesses, just like us. We as sports fans are far too quick to become character assassins, forgetting that there is a big difference between hating on someone's game, and hating on them.
I will continue to criticize LeBron James whenever he has a game like he did against the Indiana Pacers in Game 3. I will continue to question his mental fortitude until he can come through in a high-stakes situation. And I will continue to criticize him for failing to reach his full potential.
But all the while, I will remember that there is a human being there too, and while I don't have to respect LeBron on the court, I will always respect LeBron the man. It's time that LeBron's more hateful detractors learn to do the same.