LeBron James has the perfect opportunity Thursday.
After enduring months of torture from the Cleveland Cavaliers fans he scorned by signing with the Miami Heat, James has a chance to put it all past him. Disliked by most NBA fans, also, for the selfish way he handled his departure from Cleveland this past summer, James still wishes to be liked by fans across the country.
At this point, James has one option and one option only. As he pondered in his recent Nike commercial, LeBron James needs to embrace the villain role. And the best way to ensure his spot as the NBA's top villain is to absolutely scorch his former team in his return to Cleveland this week.
Picture this: James takes the court at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland and phases out the crowd's boos and insults. He doesn't crack a smile. He has his game face on.
Then, he takes over. He has one of those LeBron nights that impresses any basketball fan, love him or hate him. He buries a shot from the perimeter on Miami's first possession. He pins Mo Williams' layup attempt on the next possession, takes it the length of the court and slams it home the way Cavs fans saw him do so many times before.
A silence hushes over the capacity crowd. After the final buzzer, LeBron's stat line reads: 45 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists. The Heat blast the lowly Cavaliers, 128-90. LeBron is hated even more in Cleveland, but he just showed them what they're missing. And, in a sense, he wins.
In my mind, the most interesting piece of the LeBron puzzle since his decision to sign with Miami has been his sensitivity to the public's negative perception of him. For a player who has been in the national spotlight since middle school, James has trouble understanding that some people just won't like him. And, he has yet to see the absurdity in making his free agent plans known on the ESPN special, “The Decision.”
When the Heat made the offseason additions of James and Chris Bosh, joining Dwyane Wade in what was publicized as the most fearsome threesome in the NBA, LeBron became public villain No. 1 regardless of his desire to be liked by all. It's just something that comes with the territory when you're the best basketball player on the planet.
Still, James has tried to remain a fan favorite and struggled to do so as the Heat clunkered to a less-than-stellar 10-8 start. If James wants to take control of both situations, he needs to embrace the role of the villain. And that role starts Thursday upon his return to Cleveland.