It’s nothing personal, LeBron.
You’ve just been caught up in a societal shift that causes us as a culture to instinctively want to build up icons only to tear them back down.
I blame Jay Leno.
You know, I don't think LeBron James is a bad guy. Not really, at least. He's cocky because he's obscenely talented and he's self-obsessed because everyone he knows is obsessed with him, too.
But whether we're aware of it or not, we infuse personal storylines into every sport we watch. We have an inherent need to root for someone—or more than likely, against someone—in order to care. It’s why there always needs to be a bad guy in wrestling and why we over-analyze the minutiae of every single thought every single athlete is forced to share with the media. We’re always in search of the next bad guy.
Dennis Rodman, who might be the most accurate real-life counterpart to Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler, realized this. Rodman intentionally cultivated his role as the NBA’s chief weirdo after years as a second fiddle. Why? Because crazy is interesting and interesting isn’t boring.
I think James, however, never wanted to be the bad guy. He was doing fine as humanity’s best candidate to one day dethrone Michael Jordan.
We want to see people succeed—especially people who come from difficult circumstances or overcome adversity. We want to watch an everyday kid rise from the dull gray light of real life and ascend into the blinding stratosphere of celebrity. Why? Because that guy is a stand-in for you. He becomes the guy whom you have subliminally decided will be your guy—your default good guy.
Tiger Woods was once like that. So was Brett Favre. And Kobe Bryant.
But any astrophysicist will tell you: The bigger the star, the more violent the implosion when it inevitably collapses in on itself. I’m not saying any of those guys is an angel. I am saying, however, that there came a point when we were kind of hoping each of those guys would mess up so we could punish them for their success. Luckily, each one of them eventually gave us a reason.
While Tiger, Kobe and Favre were all considered reluctantly forgivable because their transgressions were only really related to their personal relationships, we believe LeBron violated the cardinal sin of sports idol worship: He put himself above his hometown team, stopped playing by the rules everyone else has no choice but to abide by and tampered with the competitive fabric of the game.
Michael Jordan would never have done that. Larry Bird would never have done that. Shaquille O’Neal would never have done that. Wait, actually, Shaquille O’Neal did do that, but we apparently didn’t expect quite so much out of him.
When James chose to play alongside two other superstars in Miami and willingly unleashed a basketball version of the New York Yankees, he broke more than the hearts of Cleveland fans; he broke the hearts of fans of everyone who believed old-fashioned sportsmanship had survived Y2K.
The notions of putting in your dues, overcoming obstacles and standing for something (a team, a city or an ideal) apparently no longer applies to those with the financial means and political pull to do whatever they want.
The moment James announced his intent to play with the Heat, it was as if Anakin Skywalker had taken his first breath as Darth Vader. James was no longer a hero. He was everything wrong with the modern world and, in our eyes, he became the NBA’s easiest enemy.
Sure, the prime-time pomp and grandiosity of his abandonment of Cleveland and adoption of Miami was a bit divisive.
But it was when he guaranteed the Heat would win seven championships under his rule that he signed his own death sentence. That guarantee provided a concrete benchmark that will always provide an indicator of just how far apart James is from his own view of himself. Even if he wins five rings, it can never be enough, and way more people than just Mark Cuban were stoked when the Mavericks foiled his first attempt last year.
Still, now that James has been robbed of the trophy once with his dream team, I have the feeling we’re collectively more ready to again side with him—at least more than we were this time last year. Instead of fading against the Celtics, James seemed to single-handedly propel the Heat into the Finals.
Now, he and the Heat face the Oklahoma City Thunder, and it will be tough to market him as the good guy while facing a team that represents the blue-collared, small-market, middle-American dream. But should James and the Heat find themselves holding the trophy, I suspect we'll begin to be ready to accept it.
Because LeBron can't stay a villain forever. If his storyline stays static too long, it won’t be interesting anymore. We don't necessarily want bad things to happen to LeBron. We just want him to know bad things do happen, even to him.
But at a certain point, all we’ll really want is to see a guy play amazing and inspired basketball. And whether or not we believe him to be worthy of adoration, LeBron James is consistently our best hope at seeing anyone do that.
Still, it would be pretty sweet to see someone knock those stupid glasses off his face.