He had an appeal that extended beyond the world of sports, where he became a fixture in popular culture, appearing as a guest host of "Saturday Night Live", starring in a series of Nike commercials titled "The LeBrons" in which he played every character, and being only the third male and first African-American male to be featured on the cover of Vogue.
Then on July 8, 2010, James uttered the now infamous words, "In this fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach..."
With that announcement made on "The Decision", the ESPN show created specially for this moment, LeBron James went from being one of America's most popular athletes to one of its most vilified, virtually overnight.
While it's unrealistic to think that LeBron did not expect some sort of backlash from his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team he had played for his entire career since being drafted in 2003, it's even more inconceivable that he could have anticipated the sheer volume and veracity of the backlash that did result.
From having his Cavaliers jersey burned on the streets of Cleveland before "The Decision" show even ended to the nationwide ridicule and criticism in the media that's been unrelenting for weeks, with even his "The Decision" partner, ESPN, getting in on the act by featuring LeBron as the running punchline in their annual ESPYs award show, the reaction to LeBron announcing his decision on his one hour made-for-television special has been brutal.
Perhaps the most hurtful comments came from his childhood idol, basketball legend Michael Jordan, who expressed that given the same circumstances, he would have never made the same decision that LeBron had. Other NBA greats such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird expressed similar sentiments.
But while LeBron's decision to play for the Miami Heat, and perhaps more so how he chose to announce it to the world and to Cleveland, was an undoubtedly a public relations fiasco, the unexpected result may be that for the first time in his career, LeBron will have the right motivation, driven by the chorus of doubts from the naysayers and the overwhelming desire to prove his critics wrong, to break free from the cocoon of stifling adulation that has haunted him since high school, and finally reach his potential to become a champion.
Consider that prior to this summer, LeBron had never been criticized so harshly for any aspect of his life, whether on or off the court. While adoration and praise for basketball skills is not uncommon for NBA superstars, unlike many of his peers, LeBron had never run afoul of the law. And while he has two out-of-wedlock children with his childhood sweetheart, who lives with him and their children, LeBron has never had a personal scandal or had been accused of committing a personal indiscretion or indecency.
On the court, he was phenomenal. He had been a six-time NBA All-Star, four-time All-NBA First Team, two-time All-Star Game MVP, a league scoring champion, the Rookie of the Year, and had won an Olympic Gold Medal with the "Redeem Team" in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. From taking his team to the NBA Finals in 2007 in just his fourth year in the league, to winning back-to-back NBA MVP awards in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the same years he lead his team to the best regular season records in the league, he was the league's new shining star and the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. Other than Kobe Bryant, there was no other player that rivaled him for the title of "Best Basketball Player on the Planet".
All that changed after "The Decision".
With Kobe Bryant winning his fifth NBA title this summer, and all while staying with the Laker franchise, LeBron has being compared unfavorably to Bryant in almost every aspect of his game, from his maturity on the court and his focus and desire to improve his skills, to his willingness to take over in clutch situations and will his team to victory.
Now for the first time in his career, being challenged by doubts on his ability to win, being questioned on his heart and desire to be a champion, and free from the baby blanket coddling of adoration, praise, and expectations of a seemingly pre-ordained NBA championship, LeBron has created the opportunity for himself to prove that he is better than people think he is.
By destroying people's perceptions of him and by lessening the expectations of him easily winning a championship, which might have hindered him most in his progress to develop his game and suffocating his desire to improve his play, LeBron can now rightly take on the mantle of the underdog with a chip on his shoulder, something that would have been unimaginable just a month ago.
Through "The Decision", he has now placed himself in a similar situation to Michael Jordan before he won his first championship in his seventh season in 1991 NBA Finals.
Prior to winning his first title, and despite having won the NBA MVP Award, appearing regularly in the NBA All-Star Game, and winning the league's scoring title numerous consecutive times, Jordan was not considered a "winner" by the media and the fans. Rather, his reputation was that he was a "ball-hog", "a selfish player", and someone that wouldn't "trust his teammates", and because of these traits, it was believed that "he would never win a championship".
Perhaps most hurtful to Jordan, however, was that he was considered a "lesser" basketball player to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and even Isiah Thomas, his contemporaries who had each lead their teams to multiple championships. And in the case of Bird and Thomas, their teams were the reasons why Jordan's Bulls were unable to advance to the NBA Finals, which further poured salt into his open wound.
Using these criticisms as his motivation, and fueled by the desire to not only be as good as Magic and Bird, but to be better, Jordan's already competitive nature and will to win was driven to unprecedented levels. By focusing on the doubts placed on him, Jordan found the fire to win not just a NBA Championship, but to win it multiple times, resulting in six NBA titles, six Finals MVP awards, and the elevation of his status to that of a basketball "god".
The same scenario also happened to Kobe Bryant. Despite having won three NBA Championships with the Lakers early in his career, much of his success was attributed to having Shaquille O'Neal on his team, who was the NBA Finals MVP for all three of those titles, and having Phil Jackson as his coach, who had already won six NBA titles coaching Jordan's Bulls.
When Shaq left the Lakers in 2004, leaving Kobe as the undisputed leader on the team, the Lakers had a terrible season the following year, failing to make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, and for the first time in Kobe's career.
Coupled with a personal scandal from the previous year which resulted in a well-publicized criminal investigation and legal hearings, on top of feelings of ill-will and public arguments with Shaq, Phil Jackson, and Karl Malone, his teammate during the 2003-04 season, Kobe saw his popularity plummet as his former "nice guy" image was transformed into that of a villain, both on and off the court.
When his Laker team struggled for two more years, despite having Phil Jackson back as the coach from the 2005-06 season onwards and making the playoffs though losing in the first round for consecutive seasons, many fans as well as the media made similar accusations of Kobe as they did of Jordan before he won his titles, namely that Kobe was a "ball-hog" and "selfish", that he didn't "trust his teammates", and that his pursuit of the NBA scoring title lead to his team losing critical games in the regular seasons and resulting in low playoff seeds.
Similar to Jordan, Bryant crystallized these criticisms and doubts from his cynics to not only improve his game, but to improve the play of his teammates. When the Lakers were able to pick up Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in a trade for Kwame Brown, they added the "missing piece" to their team, someone that was not only a great defender in the low-post, but could provide much-needed scoring and assists to compliment Bryant's perimeter game.
Coupling the addition of Pau Gasol to the Lakers with his revitalized desire to prove the "haters" wrong, Kobe was able to lead his Lakers team to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, resulting in two championships in the last two years.
And by winning his fourth and fifth championships, Kobe rehabilitated his public image to not only that of a winner, but claimed the honor of being the "best player in the game" in the eyes of the public, and tied for the #1 ranking with Tiger Woods as "America's Favorite Sports Star" in a nation-wide poll conducted by Harris Interactive.
LeBron James has now created a similar opportunity for himself. By internalizing all the negativity, doubt, disrespect and ridicule that he has received in the past month and will continue to receive in the foreseeable future from the media and the fans, he has made available to himself an almost unlimited source of motivation to tap into for improving his game and reaching the highest apex of his profession, that of winning the NBA Championship.
While it is beyond a doubt that LeBron is a talented basketball player, it is also without question that he has not reached anywhere near his potential. And should he had stayed in Cleveland, never making "The Decision" that has now completely altered the public's perception of him, his potential may have been perpetually stunted by the undying fawning of the media and the public, particularly in his hometown, and thus never having to challenge himself, never needing to elevate his play, and never having to win the NBA championship in order to be prematurely anointed "King James".
And by no longer being a "king", LeBron James might finally become a "god".
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