It would be nice if some of the blistering nonsense would stop now the Miami Heat are world's champions. The outlandish Heat hatred began almost immediately LeBron James announced his decision to sign with the franchise the summer of 2010 and hasn't stopped since.
The vitriol and malice were insanely overwrought from the beginning, and in the course of one playoff season, most of the critics' central talking points have been kicked from under them, like the trapdoor to the gallows.
"The Decision," as those clever marketing people branded it, was a foul piece of staged, hour-long check-book journalism from ESPN, and a poor career move for LeBron. In all honesty, I'd turned it off before the first commercial break; partly because I can't stand that ingratiating little weasel, Jim Gray, but more importantly, because spending even an hour on something as commercial and insincere as that—when there are books to read and your life to live—is painful to me in the same irreconcilable way as a wasted day.
I caught one of the several millions of replays, though, of the actual moment when LeBron uttered the fateful lines, and I thought the whole bloody show was ill-conceived and badly executed.
But, in this day and age of organized, commercial sport, was it that bad?
Two years later, are people still not over that? I remember the videos coming from Cleveland, and later from across the country, where spontaneous conflagrations of LeBron hatred, in the form of burning jerseys, glowed like oil fires in the darkness.
And, to tap an obscure undercurrent for a question, what did Kobe Bryant do when sports fanatics across America nearly started rioting over their anger with LeBron's wording? In my mind, I see Kobe setting his drink quietly on the corner of the bar and retiring to quarters—a little too nonchalantly—to wait out the storm. Or was he goaded that LeBron had plagiarized his high school declaration? Kobe's deafening silence on the issue could potentially speak volumes.
If I am remembering correctly, one of the immediate reactions—it sounded like howling if you were anywhere near Chicago—was that Michael Jordan would never have combined forces with another chieftain to win greater glory. Beyond my personal feelings on that—which is that Michael's avatar ought to be left to enjoy the nightly feast of champions at Valhalla, because his career arc has nothing to do with LeBron's—is genuine curiosity about Scottie Pippen's apparent disappearance from the argument.
Pippen is one of the finest players the NBA has ever had. In the old days in Minneapolis, I had seats inside Target Center to watch the Portland Trail Blazers drub the Timberwolves from the playoffs in the final game of the first round. Pippen, still dominant and clever-as-hell in his 13th consecutive season, led that Trailblazers team. He remains one of the three most amazing basketball players I've ever watched in person. Television did not do him justice—he was clearly a cut above everyone on the floor, and he was a completely unique participant in terms of how he did his work. That was Michael's wingman through all six titles. The only difference is Michael was lucky enough to have his franchise make a draft day trade for his top lieutenant, as opposed to having to leave in free agency to find him.
But that is indulging the debate again.
LeBron and Dwyane Wade are a new hybrid—they are something different. Because Jordan and Pippen established a template for professional superiority does not compel the generations that follow to make themselves an inferior carbon. I am always glad when they don't—a heartfelt original beats the most sincere derivative every time.
And if the Heat do not "beat" the Bulls in championship rings won—despite their playing in a vastly different era of professional basketball—it will not diminish in any way what they have done and may still do. That sort of nonsense debate, with all its open-endedness and unanswerability, is for sports-media hacks like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith to have on bad cable television shows, with a million "fans" taking each side and arguing as if their good name rested on its being settled.
Another little talked about reality here is that someone who loves basketball—the actual game, not the professional packaging and selling of it—does not have to be a "LeBron guy" to appreciate the Heat's attacking greatness.
I've never been a big personal admirer of LeBron's game. I've never doubted its effectiveness—the irresistible force of it—but I never learned much from watching him play. It's difficult to relate to someone that big, strong, fast and athletically explosive. LeBron is a genetically superior physical prototype. So much so that people who hate him forget he's human, as he tries to make clear again and again, despite having it continually obscured and forced underground by his many rabid "enemies." His physical attributes are quite literally 1-in-10 million, to be conservative about it.
I've always been a Wade partisan, personally, from his days at the head of Marquette's charge into the 2003 Final Four, and afterwards, especially, when I learned his Hoop Dreams personal story. Wade is 6'3" in shoes but plays like a Goliath.
Next to Kobe—whom he routinely beats head to head—and LeBron, I think Wade is the most ferocious wing attack 'copter in the game. Defensively, he's a marvel; I've never seen a better shot blocker at his size. And defensively is where the basketball knight-errants show themselves—a game-long, possession-by-possession, maximum effort at the less glamorous, grinding end of the floor to prevent their opponent's scoring.
As a player, Wade is all heart and on an even keel with the most competitive people on the planet. His style of playing is inspirational—as a sort of model for undauntability and the attitude that makes every moment a personal opportunity to prove yourself.
Despite what is probably a fact that I should long ago have come to accept, that vicious, personal hatred and personal joy extracted from the public failures of men most people never meet is an inevitable part of the human condition. That in our time it is based mostly on a profit-driven media's unrealistic portrayal of the successful and famous makes it all the more strange.
Nathaniel West tried to show how this burning hatred for the famous is food for the man who feels he's worth more himself, but has accomplished significantly less. Shakespeare, too, wrote something on the subject—it was Cassius to Brutus while plotting the assassination of Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
In this instance, my personal inclinations lead me toward a pleasantly detached, vicarious enjoyment in the achievement of what has become a Band of Brothers hardening against the buffeting winds of an intense hatred, and winning their game's highest prize while staring the massing hoards in the teeth. As an accomplishment, it is chock-full of professional character—competitive greatness, as John Wooden called it—and brass. I respect deeply the demonstration of those things.
I tend also to side with a man's peers when making an evaluation of his worthiness. Many fans may have caught Clyde Drexler—a spectacular offensive basketball player—on Sportscenter last week, reminiscing about the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. He was asked what fellow players—especially those of his own generation—thought of LeBron. "I think he walks on water," was the response. I have a hard time seeing it otherwise.
The respect was there also from the champ's peers in the sincere embraces, smiles, heart-felt words and pats on the back from every player and coach Oklahoma City brought to Miami. Despite being crushed—professionals paid millions for their work crying bitter tears in the tunnel beneath the stadium—there was a genuine congratulations for the most ludicrously criticized athlete and team in all of American sports.
So now LeBron, with his three state high school basketball championships and three Mr. Ohio awards to match them, an Olympic gold medal, three regular season NBA MVPs, a Finals MVP and an NBA championship; and Wade, with an Olympic gold medal, two NBA championships and a Finals MVP; have another offseason to take leisure on their thrones, looking out and listening to the hyenas yelping ceaselessly and pointlessly from the safety of an obscure darkness.
I'll bet this summer the sound from the tumult makes better their sleep.