At about 11:15 pm Thursday night, my Facebook page ceased to promote videos of cats, happy birthdays, and thinly veiled viruses being sent amongst my friends and family. The primary currency was instead vitriol being spewed forth in the wake of the Heat’s comeback win in Chicago — most took the form of “I hate LeBron” and “I hate the Heat,” with a few rogue Miami fans piping in with “Let them hate” on the other side. Why do sports games, and more specifically individual players who most of us will never even meet, elicit this kind of visceral, unfounded aggression?
I don’t believe that Joakim Noah or Kobe Bryant hate the homosexual community, despite the horrible impact and literal meaning of the hateful word they both chose to utter. Yet I believe that many people really do hate LeBron James, really do hate a player who’s never had any flaps with the law, never done anything except allow fans to cultivate a certain image of him in the wake of the Decision. I probed the Facebook community further, looking for why this feeling exists, and most of it ties back to that one night in July — as one responder put it, “not much about LBJ has been objective since then.”
What is it about James that elicits such hostility and anger in people? He’s never gotten into trouble with the law, never had salacious pictures of himself released, never come across as anything that would indicate that he’s a bad guy. During the Internet Age, though, our society collectively decided to replace heroes with villains. Where we once wrote odes to our favorite athletes, now we spend more time looking for any way to break them down, knock them off their pedestal. The argument against James, against Sidney Crosby, against Brett Favre, is one of a resentment of success their successes leading to a resentment of supposed “overexposure” — the same alienated feelings that prompted Obama-haters to spread the birther controversy nonsense.
We lament the fact that we don’t have the caliber of celebrities that prior generations did, that our newsworthy today are all driven by money and fame, but we don’t allow our stars the casual privacy and luxuries of yesteryear. Sports stars, movie stars, pop stars, people are driven by success, by a desire to be recognized and lauded for our accomplishments. An independent blogger can promote his content over social media, trying to get one person to say, “Hey Ben, I really liked your piece.” Bill Simmons, while crossing the country on a book tour and taking the self-promotion to the nth degree, is only looking for the same thing. We shouldn’t expect any different of our athletes — they are still humans, just like the rest of us, always looking to become more noticed, more praised, more appreciated. If they will be happier in another city, with another fan base, then they have every right to try to make that happen. Is it arrogance? Sure, but it’s no more arrogant than fans thinking that these players owe us anything because we’ve spent a few years watching them on TV or going to a few games a season.
“It was not the best professional environment for me,” one superstar basketball player said recently. “I wanted to go some place where at least I had the opportunity to vie for the world championship.” This player was dominant, but played on a team that while consistently playoff-caliber, had petered out in the postseason the few years prior. In search of more spotlight, and a greater chance of future success, he let it be known that he wanted to play in either New York or Los Angeles. “I had free agency coming up, and I let the team know that I wouldn’t be staying around, and we were able to work it out where I got to go where I wanted to go and they got to replenish their team.”
Is this the screenplay to The Carmelo Anthony Story? Possibly a future newspaper article after Dwight Howard’s inevitable departure from Orlando? How about the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, explaining to Waiting for Next Year, a Cleveland sports blog, how he forced his way out of Milwaukee in 1975 for greener pastures. He didn’t feel indebted to Bucks fans, didn’t have every road trip he took during the 1974-75 season scrutinized to death under the weight of speculation. People hate Carmelo because they’re sick of hearing about him — the same way that the cloud of trade talks hovering over Amway Arena this summer and through the February trade deadline will make fans turn on Howard.
In the 24-hour news cycle, media outlets now have an unlimited, infinite amount of space and time to fill. Naturally, the players that are hated the most, who receive the strongest negative backlash, are the ones who draw the most interest in print, on television, and over the internet. For the millions upon millions of us who’ve spent the past five, six, seven summers pleading to Brett Favre to retire already, his Vikings’ trip to Green Bay in October amidst the Jenn Sterger controversy was the highest-rated Sunday Night Football game of all time. And speak ill of “The Decision” if you want, but you watched. 9.95 million sets of eyeballs tuned in last July 8, as James announced that he would link up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami (Wade and Bosh declared their intentions to, respectively, re-sign with and join the Heat on ESPN the previous morning). His television spectacle even raised $3 million for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and still the hate comes pouring in.
Obviously, the $110 million that James signed for is going to keep his family housed, fed, and educated for generations to come, but it’s still $23 million less than he would have earned had he stayed a Cavalier. There’s something a little off about a player getting raked over the coals for taking less money in the prime of his career, trying to win a championship. James was criticized afterwards by luminaries like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson for pairing up with two other all-stars as opposed to trying to beat them. Once the NBA royalty (replete with a hefty dose of Charles Barkley) began turning on LeBron, that was the green light for Skip Bayless, Rick Reilly, their readers, and the entire basketball blogosphere to do so as well.
But basketball is a team game, and no one should know that more than Bird and Johnson, two of the most unselfish winners ever. They, along with Jordan, happened to be lucky enough to be drafted by savvy front offices and surrounded by other Hall of Famers without leaving their first team. Bird’s first two championship teams lined him up next to fellow Hall of Famers Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson — with Bill Walton as a 6th man on his third title team. Magic’s five titles were all won with Abdul-Jabbar shouldering the scoring load at center, and major roles filled by Bob McAdoo and James Worthy. Jordan didn’t even win until he had Scottie Pippen on the wing and Phil Jackson on the bench. Dennis Rodman, the Hall’s most recent and colorful inductee, provided no small assistance in Chicago’s second three-peat, leading the league in rebounding all three seasons.
So LeBron James decided he couldn’t win a title as a Cavalier. Not when Cleveland GM Danny Ferry’s idea of a supporting cast was to sign an aging, decrepit Shaq for 53 injury-plagued games under the spectre of James’ impending free agency. Not when, after seven years in the wine-and-gold, his best teammates were Zydrunas Ilgauskas and…Drew Gooden or Larry Hughes? He took the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007, a team that started Eric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic in the backcourt. After trying to surround him with overpriced, ill-fitting veterans (O’Neal, Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams) in a feeble attempt to convince him to stay, forgive LeBron for not seeing his future along the banks of the Cuyahoga River.
So hate if you want. Resent his right, as a free agent, to decide he’d rather be somewhere else. Denounce the media circus surrounding his decision, and the worldwide interest that got Jim Gray involved and the ESPN seal stamped upon it. I choose to spend my next two weeks enjoying myself, watching the greatest basketball player in the world play the greatest game in the world, and doing it on a team that can finally help him put that first ring on his finger.