I love the artistry of basketball; the staccato dribbling of Chris Paul, the rhythmic passing of the San Antonio Spurs, the aerial improvisation of Blake Griffin. And yet I hate the game’s greatest artist, LeBron James.
That disconnect is irrational, unjustifiable and increasingly unsettling. Hatred towards anybody, regardless of the reason, is detrimental to the hater. It eats away at him. And it bothers me that I am depriving myself of the joy that can be derived from watching such a spectacular athlete.
My goal for the 2013-14 NBA season is to let go of that hatred. In order to do so, I must unearth its source. The problem lies with me, not LeBron.
It’s not the first time I have despised the greatest basketball player in the world. I hated Michael Jordan in his prime, though my reasons for doing so were clearer.
Jordan and his Chicago Bulls were the biggest obstacle between my beloved New York Knicks and a championship throughout most of the 1990s. The Bulls eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs four times that decade. (It was not a coincidence that the Knicks advanced to the Finals in the two seasons (‘94 and ‘99) after MJ retired for the first and second time.)
Jordan had what I wanted and I hated him for it. To some extent, that captures my feelings towards James. Yet, I like to think that as a 36-year-old man, jealousy alone is not at the root of my feelings.
I did not hate Dirk Nowitzki when the Dallas Mavericks won the championship in 2011, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant during their three-peat or Tim Duncan and the Spurs. Plus, unlike the 90s, the Knicks have not been championship contenders during James’ reign, and with the exception of 2012 playoffs, James has not stood directly in their path.
My animosity towards LeBron stems from something deeper. I am averse to change, and LeBron’s ascension has represented a drastic shift in the style and substance of the NBA, from the division of power between owners and players, to the brand of basketball being played, to the personalities and relationships of the athletes.
Michael Jordan has been the gold standard of the NBA, especially among fans of my generation. His shadow continues to linger over the game. Fans like myself and the media have been searching for the next Jordan, while glorifying the era in which he played.
Major changes have occurred gradually within the game over the past couple of decades (the move to small ball, increase in three point shots, decrease in fundamentals and team play, influence of AAU, branding of athletes, greater camaraderie among stars etc.), though no star has symbolized them like James.
Consider the elite players of the post-Jordan era. Shaquille O’Neal was a dinosaur, one of the last dominant back-to-the-basket big men, molded more by his military upbringing than AAU. Tim Duncan’s bland personality and old school game hardly scream 21st century superstar.
Sure, Kobe Bryant skipped college, but he spent most of his childhood fine-tuning his skills overseas. He is fundamentally sound, has played his entire career for one team and gives the impression that he hates his competition.
James has come to represent the AAU and “prep to pro,”/“one and done” era though he himself is highly skilled and extremely competitive.
His unique combination of size, skill and athleticism, allows the Heat to utilize a smaller lineup more effectively than other teams, further diminishing the significance of the seven-foot post player and ushering in greater reliance on the three-point shot. And he is often seen carousing with close friends like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.
LeBron infuriated hoops fans and players of previous generations, including Jordan, for violating playground etiquette by joining forces with two other elite players. Not only did he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh team up, they controlled the process by allegedly agreeing to do so a year beforehand.
The Decision was personal for me. James spurned my team and city when he signed with the Heat. The Knicks spent two years clearing cap space in the hopes of signing him and he openly flirted us the Knicks before rejecting them. I was angry because I knew the Knicks were missing out. There is no comparable alternative to the best player on the planet. New York has won one playoff series in the three years since “The Decision,” during which time Miami has made three consecutive trips to the Finals.
LeBron made a decision based upon what he believed was best for him and his family. Who am I to question that? I subscribe to the notion that you prove you are the best by beating the other top players, not joining them, but James is not required to agree with me. I am quick to criticize athletes who do not make winning their top priority. LeBron put winning first when he signed with the Heat.
His mistake was not in opting to play in Miami, so much as in the way in which he announced it. Plenty of great players before him signed with a new team via free agency or forced their team to trade them. They just did not to make their intentions known publicly during an hour-long television special.
His arrogance at the pep rally after he, Bosh and Wade signed with Miami, particularly, the infamous, “Not one, not two, not three, not four, etc.” championship proclamation caused plenty of people, including myself, to want him to fail. And I bow down to no man, particularly a kid in his 20s who refers to himself as “King James.”
But that’s just it, he was a kid in his 20s. I, like many others, am guilty of holding him to too high of a standard because of his exceptional gifts. James was 25 when he decided to take his talents to South Beach. At 25, I was still a student and had no idea how to conduct myself in the real world.
We all spend our 20s ironing out our personalities as we discover our place in society. But most of us do not do it in a fish bowl with billions of people watching our every move. I wish the biggest mistake of my 20s was a little too much bravado.
LeBron has matured immensely since joining the Heat. He no longer clowns around in the huddle prior to games and has abandoned his signature pre-game chalk toss. How long are I and others going to hold the minor mistakes of his youth against him?
James has never been arrested, linked to performance enhancing drugs, had a significant on-court encounter or been involved in any other type of real scandal.
For basketball fans, there is a great deal to like about him as a player beyond his remarkable physical gifts. He always plays hard, prioritizes defense, is dedicated to his craft, has incredible instincts and is exceptionally unselfish. James respects the history of the game and has embraced his role as ambassador for the sport. By all accounts, he is a great teammate.
He persevered through years of playoff failure and overcame a potentially disastrous disappearing act in the 2011 Finals before winning two championships, transforming from villain to hero in the process.
With the 24-hour news cycle and prevalence of social media, it is as if James is the star of his own Truman Show. We scrutinize every comment and move he makes as with no athlete before him.
Grand judgments based on limited information become inextricably linked with our feelings towards him as a player. Combined with often misguided or nostalgic notions about how the game should be played or players should carry themselves, it easy to form an unfavorable opinion about arguably the greatest athlete in the world.
Intellectually understanding that is one thing, allowing it to sink in on a visceral level is another. Hatred is sticky. It becomes part of our identity. Letting go of it requires us to admit that we have been deeply wrong for a long period of time.
I do not feel compelled to root for James, or even like him, though I will try to free myself up to enjoy him. Each moment I fail to is my loss.