It's hard to understand our culture’s revulsion to success.
The favorite is celebrated only if he achieves with absolute flawlessness, an appraisal based upon unpredictable variables and judged by conflicting voices.
The general perception of an NBA superstar, even if buoyed by fallacy, can rise and fall with too many eyes scrutinizing a player’s slightest of wrong moves.
Then there’s the underdog, the player loved for his oppressed nature, even if he is just a tier beneath the favorite.
While some of the game’s greatest celebrities are gaining momentous fan approval, others are losing favor in the market of public opinion.
LeBron James wasn't handling the hate.
Twenty months ago, James sat in a blue suit, beside his Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade, following the loss of the 2011 NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks.
With an unmasked smugness, James verbalized a defensiveness against the fans that had rooted against him:
“At the end of the day,” James said. “all the people that was rootin' on me to fail, they gotta wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They got the same personal problems they had today. I am going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do and be happy with that.”
The league's greatest player was also its biggest villain.
Cynics were not able to forgive him for how he managed the publicity around his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Somehow, the nation was—gasp!— shocked that the same kid who had his high school games televised and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated might actually crave the spotlight.
Crazy, right? The kid who was friends with Jay-Z before dancing at his prom wasn't able to handle his ultimate moment of media-craze with fake humility.
If he wasn't bashed for how he handled leaving, the critics went after him for joining forces with other greats, Wade and Chris Bosh.
After pumping up fans at a season-ticket rally with thoughts of not one, but multiple championships, and then losing in the finals in his first attempt, he became the punchline to every joke about superstars whom can't win a title.
But that's not where we are now.
Now, James is a champion. Now, James is the guy who will tackle a fan in delight after a half-court promotion. Now, James is starting to win back fans.
There's nothing left to complain about.
James is part of one of many NBA super teams. He has no holes in his game to attack. He has few PR blemishes. He wants to be liked.
James wasn't meant to be the villain and his approval rating is beginning to shift back to liked.
Could Kevin Durant follow in the footsteps of LeBron James?
There's been little negative to say about Durant in his first years of NBA superstardom. If anything, the knock against him is that he's too nice.
How's that for a reason to criticize a guy? I mean, "you know that new guy, Kevin? Man, he's always grabbing me coffee, washing my car and favoriting my Tweets. What a jerrrrrk."
But, now in his sixth season, imagine if Durant flips. As impossible as it seems, Durant could be slipping slightly outside that blurred measure of likeability.
It's nitpicking, but perhaps Durant's recently depreciating composure is a sign of a downhill tumble. Durant's nine technical fouls this season has him among the league's worst offenders. He's a league leader in whining.
Could the league's golden boy slip into the role of a bitter flop? Again, it's scrupulous distaste, but that's the nature of this generation of social media NBA.
The other truth in a player's approval rating is his ability to win. The gavel of judgement swings swiftly when a superstar still has bare fingers.
If Oklahoma City doesn't win a title in the next couple years, eventually the fault will fall somewhere on the slender shoulders of Durant.
The label can be attached over night. Look at Dwight Howard.
The more Durant whines about calls, or if he doesn't win a title soon, the more his approval rating could slip.
The double standards and ambiguous channels of fan approval create intriguing distinctions for certain NBA stars.
Kobe Bryant has been held to the fire of hypocrisy since entering the league out of high school. He was too cocky for a league winding down from the Jordan era.
As the years went on, Bryant was the face of a changing league. The approach of the Los Angeles Lakers star has always been more old school than today’s superstar.
He’s too competitive in a game that’s running dry of passion.
He says too much in front of microphones in an era in which guys get slammed for being too boring.
He earned his titles with one of sports' most polarizing franchises, the Lakers, so winning added championships just adds more distaste.
The rules aren’t always fair on the hard floors of public opinion.
Bryant is actually slipping into the role of sympathetic victim this season, as Dwight Howard plays the heel. Bryant’s statistical resurgence despite the Lakers’ follies has saved him from deepened individual scrutiny, so his approval remains status quo.
Those who love the purple and gold, love Bryant. For non-Lakers fans, though, Bryant is still one of the league’s most despised names.
Dwight Howard has exchanged his Superman outfit for the suit of Lex Luthor.
He’s now the league’s seven-foot punching bag.
Even Lakers fans can’t approve.
At first, it seemed like Howard might just be the latest casualty of Kobe Bryant’s bullying. Bryant’s recent strike, challenging Howard to play through a shoulder injury, seems to be just another example.
While Bryant’s words may not be entirely fair—and as Howard stated according to ESPNLosAngeles.com, the Lakers guard isn’t a doctor—there is further light revealing an already spotlighted issue.
Howard isn’t as competitive as fans expect their superstar to be.
Bryant expects others to be on his level of competitiveness. And when they aren’t, he goes off.
While it’s part of the reason Bryant isn’t high on the power rankings of love, it’s clear that he is going after Howard for the same rationale that fans have gone after him for in recent years.
Howard’s competitive spirit has been in question since failing to deliver in Orlando. That doesn’t make him a bad person, but perhaps he doesn’t have the same fire that it takes to win; the same fire that Bryant possesses and expects.
Lakers fans aren’t pleased and neither is the universal NBA fan. Howard’s transition to the Lakers has delivered a massive blow to his approval rating.
It's more clear than ever that Howard doesn't have the juice as a winner, a prime characteristic in whether or not a superstar is liked.
It might not be long before Howard fully embraces his role as villain; it may serve him well.
Chris Paul is benefiting from the Los Angeles market.
He's never been labeled such a winner.
He plays dirty, a style that this generation of fans aren't accustomed to.
He doesn't throw up 30 points or create highlight dunk finishes.
Still, despite wearing suits instead of his jersey lately, Paul has become known as the league's best point guard and his approval has never been higher.
Belonging to the first half of innumerable Blake Griffin highlights helps. That, and finally playing in a market that earns attention.
Paul has made six All-Star appearances, but he has been a starter in both seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Paul represents the new style of the league. He's quickly become an L.A. hipster with a I'm-so-cool-that-I-don't-need-to-be-cool demeanor. He's even friends with Justin Bieber—whether that fits the cool or not needing to be cool category is unclear.
Either way, his approval rating is climbing.
It is not easy to be liked in New York.
Knicks fans aren’t easy lovers.
New York embraces the blue-collar guy with Charles Oakley elbows or a John Starks jaw.
And then came Carmelo Anthony.
The prominent memory New York fans may have had of Anthony before he became a Knick was his sucker punch of Mardy Collins. Anthony, then with the Nuggets, delivered the blow and backpedaled his way toward the Nuggets bench in the brawl at Madison Square Garden in December 2006.
The brawl delivered a hit to his image due to the violence and the nature of his cheap shot.
But that was years ago, and now Anthony is the heart of this Knicks team making a run at an Atlantic Division title for the first time since 1994.
He's Mr. Offense for a team that's dazzled the scoreboard and he is second in scoring behind Kevin Durant.
Defensively, he's, at the least, doing a better job of buying into coach Mike Woodson's team defense even if it's still unsteady.
He didn't back away from an altercation over cereal with Kevin Garnett in January, showing an edge that Knicks fans crave.
Anthony is winning again, earning credibility among fans. If he can work past the Miami Heat in the playoffs, he’ll earn further approval.
Kevin Garnett will talk cheerios to a guy’s face and then be curious why that guy is upset in the postgame tunnel.
Garnett doesn’t care what his opponents think, let alone the market of public opinion. He borders on aggressive to dirty, and it’s all in the name of competition.
The alleged trash talk to Carmelo Anthony about his wife went too far.
It wasn’t the first time Garnett crossed the line. Charlie Villanueva claimed in 2010 that Garnett called him a cancer patient.
It gets worse. Further unsubstantiated, but a well-known story, Garnett once shouted "Happy Mother's Day" to Tim Duncan knowing that the Spurs star's mother died of cancer.
Fans draw the line. Family is off limits and fans understand that.
Whether you call him a jerk or the ultimate competitor probably depends on whether or not you’re a Boston Celtics fan. Similar to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, Garnett as a member of the Celtics is polarizing.
Like Bryant, Garnett is one of the league’s nastiest competitors, but that doesn’t mean public opinion approves.
Jeremey Lin is a superstar because he's not supposed to be.
He's the current face of the underdog. The Broadway Rudy turned Houston hype is America’s guard next door.
Despite his peak last season in New York, the reality is that Lin is a 24-year-old journeyman turned quality starter.
But Lin's stock of approval will remain high so long as he gives the occasional superstar performance.
That’s exactly what the Taiwanese-American guard will provide: inconsistent stardom. Lin has the ability to put up efficient scoring numbers and pile assists, and on other nights he simply looks average.
He’s not even the best player on his team, though he remains one of the league’s most popular players for his couch-crashing script destined for Disney.
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