There are many reasons to root for Lebron James and several reasons to root against him. Ont he plus side he is the most physically impressive basketball player since Wilt Chamberlain. With all due respect to Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Vince Carter, no athlete since Wilt Chamberlain has combine evolutionary-step-forward athleticism with size that seems impossible to support that athleticism. Statistically he has put together seasons that are only rivaled by Michael Jordan for completeness (30 points per game, 7+ rebound, 7+ assists per game, with a first team all defense selection). He is a gifted passer, a generous teammate (at least on the court) and one of the most impressive athletes on the planet. For my money, the only athlete I would want to see perform in person more than Lebron James is Usain Bolt (though I have already seen Lebron play in Cleveland and Miami as a member of the Cavs).
The reasons to hate Lebron – The Decision and the fact that at age 28 he has not won a championship (to say nothing of the fact that there are dozens of great players who never won or at least did not win in their first 9 years – just ask Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, etc.).
I hated The Decision. I hate the pomp of it and I hate the fact that he left Cleveland. I perform a lot in Cleveland and that city was in love with their (relatively) home grown superstar. They felt disrespected and betrayed and in an era where hometown sports heroes are a rarer breed it stung extra hard. But one group of people, more than any other forced me back into being a Lebron fan (beyond the obvious reason of wanting to watch him play):
New York Knick fans.
There can be no doubt that the New York Knicks are now professional sports most overrated franchise. They have not won a title in 39 years, they won a playoff game this year for the first time in eleven years, after setting a record for consecutive playoff losses. But two years ago, all of Knick land was buzzing with the hope that Lebron James would leave Cleveland to bring greatness (back?) to the Knicks. Photoshopping was out of control with Lebron in Knicks #23 jerseys, every Knick fan from the ardent supporter to the legion of wall street johnny-come-latelys-after-doing-coke-and-escorts. No one in the NY fan base or the NY media was saying, “Hey, what about Cleveland? Shouldn’t a homegrown superstar stay with their team?” Instead they were ready an willing to gut an entire franchise because, despite 37 years of championshipless basketball at the point, the Knicks were entitled to Lebron and it was inevitable.
And then Lebron picked Miami for less money to play with his friends. Cleveland, justifiably exploded. The burning of jerseys was a tad much, but their anger was justified. But you know who the second angriest city in America was? New York. And that has not abated. Never has a group of fans maintained a sense of self-righteousness about NOT being able to be the scumbag that gutted Cleveland. Let me get this straight Knick fans – Miami and Lebron are scumbags because they did not let YOU destroy the Cleveland Cavaliers? New York is no longer the Mecca of hoops, but it is the Mecca of hoops hypocrisy.
The hatred of Lebron has also reached a faith based level. Anyone watching basketball right now with an objective eye cannot doubt that he is right now, the most talented player in the game. Admittedly he has exhibited less than stellar play at the very end of games, but he has still hit big late shots THIS postseason. He still can guard anyone on the other team from point guard to center, and has done so as recently as the Celtics series (no one seems to ever mention how good he is on defense when they critique his game). He has great clutch playoff moments in his career – look at his one man battle against the 2008 championship Celtics or his epic one man take down of the 2007 Detroit Pistons. He may have changed some of his mentality and that will effect his placement among the all time greats, but the evidence is in – Lebron James is great. Dan Marino was great and never won a title. Ken Griffey Jr. was great and never won a title. Only in basketball and especially in Lebron’s case is greatness so obvious to the eye, but denied by haters based solely on the lack of a championship ring.
But fans who need a WWE style villain love attacking Lebron – that has become the sport itself (to say nothing of the fact that Dwyane Wade flops more, bitches more, plays worse, argues with his coach, was an unfaithful husband and won a championship on the strength of great play AND an unprecedented number of free throw attempts, more than a handful of which were on dubious calls). But Lebron abandoned Cleveland and went to Miami and announced it on television (a program that millions watched) so he now deserves a visit from Seal Team 6.
As I watched Game 5 of the Celtics-Heat series on Tuesday I felt bad for Lebron. I know, I know he is a millionaire and there is a book about him called The Whore of Akron, but I watch him because he is a great basketball player and seems to conduct himself in a good manner on the court and in a non-criminal fashion off of the court. What more, as a fan of the sport, do I need to appreciate a great player and athlete? As I sat alone in a bar watching the final quarter of Game 5 in midtown Manhattan (now a hotbed of financial industry employees, despite Occupy “Wall Street”) and it was great to see a bunch of rich men working in finance, an industry with about as much good will as 5,000,000 Decision announcements, booing Lebron James, calling him a scumbag and cheering for the Boston Celtics.
Now the Celtics are an actual longtime franchise rival of the Knicks, but Lebron was worth supporting the Green and White. It was a great symbol of what New York and New York Knick basketball fans really are: hypocrites with no sense of history – they actually have always had the impatience and petulance of the Twitter generation, which the rest of American culture is just adopting now (of course I know plenty of quality Knick fans, but the die hard fans with knowledge and perspective rarely, if ever, drive the story with the Knicks). I would rather appreciate what Lebron is doing, rather than make him more of a villain so I can feel good about myself. And hopefully Lebron gets a title or two as a stamp of his greatness at some point, because Knick fans have already gotten what they deserve: Carmelo Anthony.