Why Do You Hate LeBron So Much?

The making of a villain

In my long career covering sports, I have never seen an athlete engender such visceral contempt as LeBron James.

During the NBA season and especially in the NBA Playoffs, James was the ultimate villan — Darth Vader, Mommar Ghadafy, and the Javier Bardem character in No Country for Old Men rolled all into one.

The basketball viewing world rooted so strongly against his success they nearly popped blood vessels. They hated LeBron so much, they made Dirk Nowitzki, an import from Germany, some kind of American patriot. LeBron became the Iron Sheik, and somehow we saw Nowitzki marching down Main Street USA wearing a stars and stripes bandanna with a snare drum harnessed around his shoulders tooting a fife.

And that was the least of it.

This week, the Governor of Ohio (who shall remain nameless because my policy is never to give any credence nor publicity to politicians who seek such fake grandeur just to make a few brownie points with citizen not smart enough to look past such a scam) gave a proclamation to the Dallas Mavericks for winning the NBA championship with special consideration to Nowitzki for staying in Dallas — an obvious sour grapes shot at James for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers.

And then some douche bag marketing tool from the world famous minor league baseball team known as the Peoria Chiefs (Peoria is in Illinois, a state that has no connection to LeBron James except for the fact that he didn’t sign with the Chicago Bulls and then kicked their ass in the Eastern Conference finals) organized a game giveaway called “LeBron James Replica Championship Ring Night” to mock the fact that LeBron didn’t get a ring. Jesus.

It is a fascinating psychological study.

What did the guy do to deserve this kind of hatred? My theory is this: the American sports fan likes our athletic stars big, but we don’t like them too big. We need to have some semblance of control. And when the superstar exceeds our control, he becomes the enemy.

And that’s what LeBron James did by having that television show called “The Decision.”

At one point, we liked LeBron. He was the very mature high school kid who had been drafted by his hometown team right out of high school and who carried a franchise to great heights. What a marvelous player this guy is, we said. He has four stiffs alongside him on the basketball floor and he’s still making this team win. The Cavaliers won 61 games one year and I dare you to name two other good players on that team. They went to the NBA Finals in LeBron’s fifth year in the league, which was more than Michael Jordan had ever done with the Chicago Bulls.

He left Cleveland and joined a couple of other star players. That was his right. He had played out the final year of his Cavs contract, risking injury to achieve that kind of freedom, much like any other athlete in every other sport. But we looked at that as selfish? As if he had some civic responsibility to stay in Cleveland? In this world of the mercenary, where owners use up and discard players and players come and go for the money, does that view even make sense?

But the TV show took people over the top. It was LeBron looking down at his subjects. He had the audacity to have his own TV show to choose his future team? Wow, this guy’s ego is out of control. He’s now TOO big for us.

I’m not even sure today whether LeBron knows that “The Decision” has caused all of his woes. He can’t take that back now. But it was a colossal mistake. The reality of it was that LeBron got caught up in the whims of the group of sycophants that surround him. Think Allen Iverson. Athletes spawned from the inner city normally have a lack of trust of people from the outside and so they create a protective cocoon of friends who they trust to handle their affairs. I’m quite sure that “The Decision” was the suggestion of a member of LeBron’s crew and he just went along with it. And now he’s paying the price.

But consider this: what sins did LeBron James actually commit?

He didn’t get into any rape controversies or demand to be traded because his team didn’t have enough good players, like a certain guard who plays in Los Angeles. He didn’t have any public domestic squabbles (I have to laugh at the people who said they were happy to see Jason Kidd finally get a ring, the same Jason Kidd who a few years ago slammed his wife into a wall and broke her ribs). He didn’t make it rain in some strip club or carry a loaded gun into a crowded Manhattan night club or orchestrate some dog fighting ring. He had a TV show. Isn’t America overreacting just a tad?

We created the guy. We patronized him since he was 12 years old. We showed his high school games on national television. We named him “The Chosen One” and “King James.” Those names were media creations. He didn’t wake up one day and decide to call himself that. We were captivated by his highlights. We bought the products he endorsed. In a lot of ways, we were Dr. Frankenstein who created the monster. And as soon as he steps off the slab, we want to kill it? Doesn’t make sense.

I was watching an interesting ESPN 30-30 movie the other night about when Michael Jordan decided to quit the NBA and try to become a professional baseball player. You talk about ego! What audacity it takes for a guy to think he can just pick up and bat and glove and be a pro baseball player? The disrespect it shows to anyone who ever tried to work their way up the ladder, through the levels of minor leagues and the days of getting paid peanuts and schlepping on school buses to get from one two -horse shit hole minor league town to another. And yet, the Michael Jordan baseball story was looked as charming. Gag me with a corn dog from a Peoria Chiefs game.

Perception is a hard thing to fight. And LeBron James has his work cut out for him.