LeBron James was never comfortable as an NBA villain. The only thing he's ever actually wanted is for everyone to like him. To be an NBA villain who stands the test of time, one must truly embrace that role.
James tried to at first, after forcing himself into that position by the way he left Cleveland. He'd inevitably lose the 2011 NBA Finals because of it.
As a Cavaliers fan, his false portrayal of an NBA bad guy was initially amusing. While James attempted to embrace a persona as foreign to him as Miami is to Cleveland, he was collectively booed by fans all over the NBA.
That response, during his first season with the Heat, was somewhat therapeutic for me as a native of Northeast Ohio. I'm not necessarily proud of that on a personal level, but it's only fair I disclose.
This past season, though, James stopped trying to pretend he was the NBA version of Jason Voorhees. He'd win everything imaginable because of that decision, ultimately shedding the title of NBA's biggest villain in the process.
Here's what an actual NBA villain looks like
Bill Laimbeer was an NBA villain. He earned that title by doing things like tackling Larry Bird by his head, clotheslining Michael Jordan in mid-air and punching friendly people like Brad Daugherty in the face.
Below are a few of those highlights.
As the great Chuck Daly said of Laimbeer in the video above, "He was probably the most hated man in the NBA at the time."
Hated because he tried to hurt people on the basketball court and truly didn't care if anyone liked him.
Here's what a YouTube search of "LeBron James Fight" turns up
A YouTube search for fights that LeBron James has gotten into on the basketball court turns up this brawl with Ron Artest. It took place during LeBron's first season in Miami, before Artest became the embodiment of World Peace.
Anyway, this is about the extent of LeBron's NBA fighting career. To James' credit, of course.
Truth is, James is essentially a nice guy. Nice guys really can't be NBA villains. Laimbeer was an NBA villain because he is not a nice guy.
LeBron was always most comfortable when he's doing things like this
Dropping big hugs on opposing players. Introducing a rookie teammate to Jay-Z. Giving a kid his headband, wrist band and shoes, while playfully pulling said headband down over the kid's eyes.
On the road, in another team's gym.
LeBron quit trying to pretend he was a villain, then won big
During the last 12 months, James won a regular season MVP, NBA Finals MVP, NBA championship and Olympic gold medal.
The biggest reason he allowed himself to accomplish all that was because he stopped trying to be an NBA villain. Before the season, he talked with Rachel Nichols from ESPN and revealed those intentions.
I play the game fun, joyful, and I let my game do all of the talking and I got away from that. That's what I lost last year. Going through my first seven years in the NBA I was always the liked one and to be on the other side -- they call it the dark side or the villain or whatever they call it -- it was definitely challenging for myself.
Then he actually did what he said he was going to do, and nobody could stop him.
As he hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy over his head, in celebration of his first NBA championship, the NBA universe started to like James all over again. Or at least stopped disliking him as much.
The more James wins from here, the further he'll distance himself from that role of NBA biggest villain he struggled to embrace two seasons ago.
A role that was never really meant for a guy like him in the first place.