When you look at LeBron James in a bubble, he is one of the most inspiring, great success stories in any field. Born to a 16-year-old mother and an absent, ex-con father, James grew up in seedy living conditions that I could not begin to fathom. Despite everything working against him, he picked up sports, worked tirelessly at his craft to escape poverty, became one of the most touted basketball players out of high school and fulfilled his seemingly endless potential to become the unquestionable best basketball player in this world.
Yet, life is not lived in a bubble. People hate LeBron James and before his recent NBA Championship, they treated him as a cowardly, spoiled brat with no morals or ethics. I am no exception to the rule; even before The Decision, James has long been one of my least favorite athletes in sports. The reason why there is this incredible disparity between how I should have viewed him and how I did is a combination of my own biases (which are hardly unique to me) as well as his actions.
The moment James was drafted first overall in 2003 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, I instantly disliked him. This skinny, undeveloped high school kid wasn’t supposed to be drafted ahead of Carmelo Anthony, who had just led his Syracuse Orange to an NCAA Championship and seemed like a larger, stronger, more refined version of James.
As the season started, James played just as well, if not better, than Anthony. I had a tough time accepting that someone could be this talented and productive right out of high school. At that time, there had been no players who have played so well coming out of high school. Sure, there was Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, but they both started slow in their rookie seasons as they took an apprenticeship role and learned from veterans.
James was different — he was immediately the best player on the team and took over leadership responsibilities as a rookie. Looking back, I should have viewed this as incredibly impressive (the same way I felt when Chris Paul was the unquestioned leader of the Hornets as a rookie), but I did not. I didn’t like his confident attitude and felt no one this young should be this good.
Next year, James took a huge jump as he averaged an incredible 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists a game as a 20-year old. At the same time, Dwyane Wade, the fifth pick of the ’03 draft class, took a huge jump as Shaquille O’Neal was added to the Heat and they became a legitimate contender. I jumped onto the Wade bandwagon instantly, somehow justifying in my head that Wade’s improvement was infinitely better and more important than James’ evolution.
But why did I love Wade and hate James? It had to do with the underdog complex that all sports fans have; the same reason why we cheer for George Mason and Davidson in March Madness simply because they have a double-digit number by their name. In my mind, James’ physical gifts made it unfair to others — he was quicker, faster and stronger than anyone else and it was unfair watching people stop him. Wade was different — he obviously has great physical gifts, but his game relied more on quick dribble moves, body contortions and clever footwork to score, not just bully everyone with size and quickness. I viewed Wade as Butler and James as Duke. Something that added to my hatred was how easy it was to mock him. He had a propensity to shoot threes when he was clearly more effective in the paint. He never seemed angry and almost apathetic whenever they lost. And, of course, he had a terrible receding hairline.
The playoffs from 2007-2009 played perfectly to my dislike for James. He continued to fall short despite playing well himself and I thought it was fitting. It reaffirmed the fact that basketball was a team game and you cannot win with one player dominating everything.
The 2010 playoffs were the low point of LeBron’s career in Cleveland. With the series tied, 2-2, against Boston, the winner of Game 5 would most likely win the series. With all eyes on James, he threw up the most awful game of his playoff career, cowering from the spotlight, not shooting and playing like it was a pick-up game in Akron instead of the biggest game of his season. The Cavaliers lost 120-88.
We all know the next chapter. James held The Decision on ESPN and instantly became the most universally disliked player in sports, who deserved no sympathy for ripping out the heart of Cleveland — not exactly a city that has other things going for it. The hatred was so strong that people were burning his jersey, booing him in every road arena and watching Heat games just to see him fail.
When the 2011 playoffs rolled around, we saw an even more amplified LeBron James meltdown. Going into Game 4 in the Finals, the Heat were up 2-1 and a win would seal a championship. Again, all eyes were on James. In this game, he scored eight points on 3-11 shooting. The most telling number is the 11. In a game that could have sealed an NBA Championship, he shot 11 times. Mike Miller shot eight times in that game.
After being completely mentally picked apart in 2011, James came back with a vengeance in 2012. The Heat seemed to almost embrace James’ villain role (completely black jerseys) and James looked much more comfortable. The whole season he absolutely dominated and left nothing for pundits to criticize. This is when I started to finally appreciate him. I could no longer poke holes in his game. I could not mock his lack of testicular fortitude in the playoffs. All I can do is simply sit back and appreciate watching one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. I’m very glad he’s beaten the perception I — and I’m sure millions of others — had of him and he can finally get the appreciation he deserves and I can watch one of the greatest basketball players of all time in awe.