7 Polarizing NBA Stars Whom Fans Love to Hate
No American professional sports league lends itself to the criticism of individual stars quite like the NBA. The proportional importance of every player in the top tier of pro basketball, combined with the Association's long-standing strategy of promoting its biggest names 'til kingdom come, lends the sport to a more cohesive connection with the national celebrity culture.
That, in turn, leaves the NBA's superstars susceptible to the ritual building-up and tearing-down that marks the 15 minutes of fame "enjoyed" by pop culture phenoms everywhere.
It's no wonder, then, that the NBA went "BIG" to promote its product last season—big people, big personalities, big paychecks, big powerhouses and, as it happens, big backlash from the viewing public at times.
Not surprisingly, it's the biggest stars of all who tend to invite the bulk of said backlash. They're the ones whose on-court talent lands them in the spotlight, where their flaws are exposed and, thus, can be picked apart more easily.
It's the faces of the league, then—like these seven superstars—that tend to become the focal points of vociferous debate among hoops heads everywhere.
The roller coaster ride of LeBron James' highly-scrutinized pro career appears to have the NBA's preeminent talent easing back into the good graces of the court of public opinion.
The three-time MVP had his fair share of detractors during his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he was a gifted but spoiled child whose cronies were given the run of the asylum by owner Dan Gilbert and his entourage of enablers.
LeBron's true heel turn, though, didn't come until the summer of 2010, when he co-opted an hour of primetime on ESPN to announce his "Decision"—that he'd be "taking [his] talents to South Beach"—and, intentionally or not, stomp on the already-battered hearts of Cleveland's sports faithful. He was lambasted for forsaking his hometown team in the most humiliating way possible, for chasing championships with friends rather than trying to achieve them "on his own," even though he took less money to do so.
LeBron subsequently spent his first two years with the Miami Heat cast in the leading role of the NBA's newest "Evil Empire," with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in support. The Heat were the target of America's sporting Schadenfreude, thanks in no small part to King James.
Interestingly enough, Miami's title success this past season, and LeBron's brilliance through it all, seemed to shrink the target on James' back, if not remove it entirely. After all, America is a nation that tends to worship success, and LeBron—as the regular season and finals MVP—was the picture of such in the NBA after the lockout.
Still, there are plenty of fans whose distaste for LeBron remains, and some for whom the glow of a championship has only strengthened their anti-LeBron resolve.
There may be no winning for LeBron with certain pockets of the world, though it's probably more to his advantage to be reviled for his dominance than mocked for his inability to conquer, as was the case up until recently.
LeBron's case comes in contrast to that of Dwyane Wade, who's been a winner and a villain for far longer than his celebrated teammate.
While James has gone out of his way to right his wrongs over the last year or so, Wade has never seemed to have any problem with being the bad guy. He does anything and everything within his power to get under the skin of his opponents, from flopping and acting to throwing shoes into the stands.
That seems to be how the basketball player formerly known as Flash acts out his competitive instincts. He looks to gain an edge wherever and whenever he can, going so far as to push the boundaries of the rule book and transform himself into a focus of vitriol.
You know, like Batman...except without all the heroism.
Wade's a pest on the hardwood, if a darn good one. Not even a rash of injuries could keep him from finishing seventh in scoring and third in player efficiency rating this past season.
And not even playing alongside a much-hated hooper like LeBron could make Wade look like a protagonist by comparison.
Now that LeBron and Wade have their title together, the dunce hat of non-champions from the vaunted 2003 NBA draft now rests on the head of Carmelo Anthony.
The five-time All-Star and former No. 3 overall pick has been to the playoffs in each of his nine NBA seasons, but has managed to advance past the first round just once—in 2009, when he and Chauncey Billups led the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals.
A drawn-out exodus from the Rockies to the Big Apple during the 2010-11 season didn't help 'Melo any. Neither did the subsequent struggles of the New York Knicks with him on the roster. He appeared to spoil the good times that Amar'e Stoudemire had brought to the Big Apple, force Mike D'Antoni to jump ship this past season and purportedly convince the Knicks to pass on retaining fan favorite Jeremy Lin.
Needless to say, nothing that Anthony has done on or off the court since returning to his childhood home has helped to ingratiate him with long-suffering Knicks fans. He's still one of the best pure scorers in the game, though putting the ball in the basket won't earn him many admirers unless it leads to more wins.
But hey, at least the First Lady likes him.
Of all the polarizing stars in the NBA today, perhaps none has a more complicated legacy to navigate than Kobe Bryant.
The sources of the public's disdain for the Black Mamba are rather wide-ranging—his cocksure attitude on the court, his reputation for hogging the ball and berating his teammates, his dynasty-destroying feud with Shaquille O'Neal, the fact that he plays for the Los Angeles Lakers (who always seem to get their way) and, of course, his unfaithful and unfortunate exploits in Vail, Colorado.
But the fact that even some corners of Lakerdom tend to waffle back and forth on Bryant's behalf is indicative of just how confounding a figure he is in the basketball world. On the one hand, supporters of the purple and gold love Kobe and will almost always give him the benefit of the doubt because he's played a crucial part in adding five banners to the collection on display at the Staples Center and has a knack for hitting shots that seem impossible at first glance.
On the other hand, folks in L.A. can't help but yell at their TVs whenever Kobe decides to take over a game and single-handedly shoots the Lakers out of it.
His stats suggest he's a top-10 talent all-time, but can a player with but one regular-season MVP to his name be considered in the same breath as the likes of MJ, Russell, Magic and Wilt?
What makes the hatred of Kobe so interesting, then, is that it stems from a debate that spans his exploits on and off the court, that includes comparisons contemporary and historical in nature, that encompasses character profiles of a man who comes off as basketball genius to some and smug and selfish to others.
If the Lakers have their way again by prying Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic, they, like the Heat, will have two of the NBA's most contemptible stars on their payroll.
Of course, the derision toward Dwight is largely a new phenomenon. Prior to the start of the "Dwightmare" (i.e. when Howard first demanded a move out of Orlando), the superstar center was one of the most likable players around. He starred in commercials for ESPN and Call of Duty, ate cookies off his own face and even put an entire team on his back on the way to the NBA Finals.
Then Dwight demanded a trade, then rescinded his demand, then made it again and officially surpassed John Kerry as the most ballyhooed American flip-flopper of the 21st century. Along the way, Howard threw his teammates under the bus and strung the Magic along through a circus of a season.
All of this served to dismantle the mountain of good will he'd engendered among basketball fans.
The public has since grown fatigued with the "Dwightmare." Any mention of his future seems to elicit a chorus of moans and groans along with exaltations of "Finally! Please! Make it stop!"
Winning a title or two would do wonders for Superman's image, though doing so in L.A. would add Laker haters to the already-long list of those who'd just as soon never see Howard set foot on a basketball court again.
Until that day comes, Blake Griffin will lay claim to the dubious title of "Biggest Basketball Baby in L.A." The high-flying power forward for the Los Angeles Clippers has drawn the ire of fans and fellow players alike for his prolific flopping, his incessant whining and complaining to officials and his disrespectful post-dunk stare-downs.
The rarefied air into which Griffin's meteoric rise through the NBA has lofted him seems to have gotten to his head at times, and certainly not in a good way. Back-to-back trips to the All-Star Game have made Blake a marked man, to which he's responded thus far by forgetting how to shoot and re-injuring his knee.
Of course, it's somewhat unfair to criticize a 23-year-old who's averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds through his first two NBA seasons for the faults in his game, glaring as they may be. After all, he's still young, with plenty of time to refine his game and treasure troves of talent on which to draw in that process.
But that hasn't stopped some from berating Blake for his shortcomings. As Uncle Ben once said, with great power comes great responsibility.
Even more so when the one wielding that power so often acts like a jerk on the hardwood.
Russell Westbrook might well be described as the Blake Griffin of NBA guards. He's an uber-athletic guard who flies through the air with the greatest of ease and is best known for throwing down thunderous dunks, but has a tendency to play out of control at times.
The ever-spreading distaste for Westbrook, however, has more to do with the perception that he's selfish and unwilling to defer. As the argument goes, Westbrook plays with Kevin Durant, the league's preeminent scorer, and, as such, should spend more time deferring to his vaunted Oklahoma City Thunder teammate and less time jacking up shots and driving to the rim.
Except, such "logic" ignores the fact that Westy isn't really a point guard by trade—he's much more of a scoring combo guard—and that he and the Thunder are at their best when he's allowed to unleash his talents without much external restraint. At no time was this clearer than in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, when Westbrook kept the Thunder close with a 43-point outburst while James Harden and the rest of OKC's supporting cast failed to contribute to the cause.
In essence, Westbrook is stuck in a no-win situation, in large part because he plays with Durant. If he plays his game on offense—attacking the basket, hitting jump shots, occasionally setting up his teammates—he's trashed as a petulant child with a "me-first" attitude. If he doesn't, and his production slips, he's chastised for deferring and shrinking when his talent dictates that he should be doing more.
Luckily for the 23-year-old All-Star, he's still young enough to develop his repertoire and shift public perception in the process.