As LeBron James walked off the court last night, still ring-less and now 2-8 in NBA Finals games, most of America celebrated. The Miami Heat represented a team that many perceived hadn’t earned their way to the finals, but rather tried to “cheat” their way to it. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh: the two playground bullies and their giant best friend who refused to split up to play kickball.
Meanwhile, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry had felt their share of pain, had patiently worked through dozens of disappointing off-seasons. Dirk became the darling of the mainstream media and the casual NBA fan’s new favorite player. Much of it was rightful, but as I sat in a room of twelve friends to watch Game Five, I couldn’t help but notice another dynamic.
The room was split, roughly half Mavs fans (or anti-LeBron fans), and half Heat fans. Neither Miami nor Dallas was “home” for anyone, nor did anyone have any connections to either team. All rooting interests were essentially arbitrary; interesting, then, that the room was also split racially. Not a single African-American was anti-LeBron, and Dirk’s fans too tended to share his skin color.
Don’t get me wrong, this anecdotal quip proves nothing. It could be a simple coincidence. To be sure, there were no overtly racist thoughts going into any of the room’s rooting decisions. But are there aspects of LeBron’s decision (and his “Decision”) that struck home more to black NBA fans? It seems like a question worth analyzing.
The most glaring fact of the matter is that LeBron himself is black, raised by his single mother in a fashion more common in the African American community. But that can’t be all that goes into it; after all, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant do not see any strong racial divide in their fans versus their detractors. Dwyane Wade has been a favorite of fans for years, with no apparent racial divide, and he has been on the Heat all that time. So is my notion fanciful?
I would point instead to the showmanship that has highlighted LeBron’s last eleven months. The now-infamous “Decision”, predicting eight championships and the over-the-top celebration that followed did LeBron and the Heat no favors in the mainstream media’s eyes. Most of today’s sportswriters and media heads resent any individual display of swagger or celebration. If Larry Bird didn’t do it, they don’t want to see it.
From a showmanship standpoint—a trait far more valued in inner-city, informal basketball environments—LeBron could not have done a better job. He had record rating simply watching him choose where to play basketball on national TV. Did this, and the desire to play on a better team with his friends, simply resonate more with black fans?
Perhaps my room of friends was an anomaly, or merely a coincidence. And by no means is my racial hypothesis, if it holds any water, an indictment of either side. LeBron was sick of playing Batman to Anderson Varejao’s Robin, he was sick of Cleveland and he wanted to win a championship or eight. He was also egomaniacal, out of touch and downright childish in the way he went about things. Perhaps the impact of race on perception of LeBron will never be clear, but one thing is: watching him for the next ten years will never cease to be exciting.