LeBron James and I have a history. No, he doesn't know about it, and no, it's not "having a history" like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal have a history. We haven't spent years mutually hating each other, because he has no idea who I am. Instead, it's a one-sided history that involves him playing basketball and me not liking him for it.
For years, I suppose I could be called a LeBron James "hater." I probably didn't go as far as to say that he was a bad player or that he didn't deserve the two MVPs he got, but I never liked him. It goes back to 2006, when James' Clelveand Cavaliers first played my favorite team, the Washington Wizards, in the NBA Playoffs. James and the Cavaliers ended up crushing my team's hopes in a thrilling six-game series, then returned to do it again the next two years. But my general dislike of James began during the series when he was whining about supposed hard fouls the Wizards delivered in Game 2. That pushed me over an edge.
Since then, I've always wanted LeBron to fail. His demeanor rubbed me the wrong way, and as his stardom rose to the point where people felt he could do no wrong, I sat there trying to fight what I thought was the good fight. Did people not see the way he carried himself off the court, giving himself nicknames and pouring as much of himself into business ventures as he did into the game? Did people not see how he got Cleveland's management do whatever he wanted, holding him at their mercy until he left without even giving them a heads-up?
Then, The Decision happened, LeBron left for Miami, and the backlash was swift. Fast forward 11 months, and James has caught himself in a no-win situation. His team has just taken a 2-1 lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, and James had done what so many people wanted him to do: defer to Dwyane Wade down the stretch when Wade had it going. For his efforts, he was deemed an "incredibly shrinking superstar." Imagine if LeBron's team had lost!
I should be proud. All my years of not liking the guy, and finally, he gets some backlash. But I'm not proud. In fact, I'm the opposite of proud. I'm disappointed in people, and I think we, and by extension I, are starting to blur the line between not liking James as a person and demeaning his accomplishments.
The greatest blessing and curse of professional sports is that the people involved are so different from the spectators. The blessing comes in being able to sit back and appreciate the jaw-dropping athleticism required to play the game. If that athleticism was something we could replicate, then it would lose its wonder. The curse, though, is that none of us really understand the people making the plays. Maybe some of us played on a competitive sports team all the way through high-level Division I in college. Maybe some of us are best friends with professional athletes and have seen how they live. But none of us have actually devoted our entire lives to a game to the point where our entire sense of self-worth comes from it.
Of all the athletes in professional basketball, LeBron James may be the most different from us. On the court, he's a physical freak, combining the agility of a point guard with the body of Karl Malone. He can't be boxed into a position with a set role, because he has the capability of doing what many different positions require. Off the court, James speaks deeply, answering questions with the kind of pre-packaged spin that comes from years of PR cultivation. He's a cliche machine, and in the rare moments where he drifts from that script, he comes across as a man who can't connect to those below him.
Really, the problem with James is that he's suspended in a world we don't understand. Back in 2006, I rooted for a Wizards teams filled with cast-offs. They played with a chip on their shoulder and talked with their hearts on their sleeve. Gilbert Arenas was the leader, but he was hardly the only one. Caron Butler had two teams give up on him. Antawn Jamison had been a career loser, toiling away on terrible rosters. Coach Eddie Jordan was given a head coaching job for one year, and he was fired. They were all characters and didn't hide from it. LeBron James represented the opposite of all that, and I resented it.
Others, though, couldn't help but appreciate his game. Then, he kept coming up short, and eventually punted on the city of Cleveland to go join two superstars in Miami, doing so in a live television special of which there is no defense.
In the year that has followed, James has put himself in a position where he is now loathed for everything he was once lauded for being. Now, granted, he put himself in that position, there's no doubt about it. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports is right -- this is the sacrifice he has made. To call what James did and ultimately put himself through this season was hardly courageous.
But as the fallout from Game 3 proves, James very clearly did not take the easy way out. In what should have been the highest pinnacle of his career to date -- a huge road win over a worthy opponent to take control of the NBA Finals -- James was instead forced to deal with dozens of articles about how he "surrendered" his spot in the Heat's pecking order. You'd think that we'd be past this now that the Heat are winning while blowing the CEO Theory of the NBA into smithereens, but clearly, we're not. We pleaded with James to cede responsibility to Wade, and once he did it, we didn't credit him for it.
To downplay James' impact in Game 3 is foolish. It wasn't his best scoring game, sure. But after vowing to go into attack mode before the game, James did just that with two huge first-quarter dunks that sent a message. He rebounded. He controlled the game with his passing, scoring or assisting on 23 of the Heat's 41 second-half points. In the game's most important possession, he set a great screen, caught the ball and delivered an unbelievable shovel pass to Chris Bosh for the game-winning jumper. He shut down Jason Terry in the fourth quarter again, which is no small feat because Terry is one of the league's best fourth-quarter scorers. All this happened, and yet we're talking about LeBron playing poorly and shrinking from the moment.
It makes me think our inability to understand the guy has clouded our judgment on just how good a player he is. I'm never going to like LeBron. He grew up a lot this season, becoming much more coachable, but the memory of The Decision lingers, and he will always come across as having an entitled attitude to me. The Heat could win the NBA title, and it wouldn't change the person he is. I will root against him in pretty much every series he plays.
But I will not make the mistake of failing to appreciate his on-court talents. Hate the player, but don't hate his game or the adversity he faced to get to this point this year. He may have teamed up with two other superstars, but he sacrificed his reputation and any chances of ever being deemed the greatest of all time. If that wasn't clear already, it was clear after Game 3. That's no small sacrifice. We all want to be seen as being at the top of our field. James sacrificed that chance to win.
No matter what happens, James deserves our appreciation for his athletic accomplishment in the face of adversity. It may not be the adversity we're used to seeing, but it's adversity nonetheless. Appreciate the accomplishment, even if you don't like the person.
If I can do it despite not liking James for years, so can you.