Last offseason, Cliff Lee was baseball's premier free agent. A fierce bidding war ensued between Lee's team, the Texas Rangers, and the New York Yankees, only for Lee to surprise both by taking less money to pitch in a star-studded Philadelphia Phillies rotation.
No one burned Lee's jersey in effigy. No nationally renowned journalists called him a "whore" and no one thought it would be acceptable to make fun of the fact that he didn't have a father growing up.
Of course, there were differences between Lee and LeBron's free agency. Lee had played for four different teams over the course of two seasons, while LeBron left his hometown and the only team he had ever played for. Lee didn't announce his decision on a nationally broadcast TV special, and Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels didn't celebrate his signing in an over-the-top spectacle in front of thousands of cheering fans.
Yet that doesn't completely explain the different ways in which the two superstars were treated. Before the 2010 World Series, Lee's career post-season record was 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA. In his two starts against the Giants, he went 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA.
No one thinks his failures on the game's biggest stage invalidates his entire career. No one thinks Lee ruined his legacy by choosing to play "second fiddle" to Halladay in the Phillies rotation, and no one thinks Lee choosing not be an ace makes him less of a baseball player.
The reason no one thinks these things about Lee is because no one knows who he is. Lee isn't a household name in the way LeBron is; he hasn't been the centerpiece of any national commercial campaigns.
Great baseball players aren't viewed by the public in the same way that great basketball players are. When a basketball player wins a championship, it's seen not as a validation of his basketball ability but of his personal character. That's why Michael Jordan still sells underwear and sneakers over a decade after his retirement while Rickey Henderson has faded into obscurity.
In public perception, Jordan is as much myth as man. His six championships are typically credited more to his indomitable "will to win" than his ability to score and defend at an unprecedented level from the perimeter. His shadow has loomed over the sport since his retirement, and the players who have come after him, from Kobe to LeBron and eventually Durant, are measured by whether they could follow his legacy.
For many fans, LeBron's poor Finals performance indicated that he has some type of character deficiency (arrogance? an inability to perform in the clutch? not having "Jordan DNA"?) preventing him from being a champion. Instead of being a contest between two basketball teams, the NBA Finals became a morality play, with Dirk Nowitzki and the "team-first" Dallas Mavericks beating the Miami Heat and their brand of "ghetto basketball".
In a post-game press conference after losing Game 6 to the Mavericks, LeBron refused to apologize to the media: "All the people that were rooting for me to fail; at the end of the day, tomorrow they have to wake up and have the same life that they had before they woke up today," he said. "They got the same personal problems they had today. And I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to the things I want to do."
In a sense, he's right. It's hard to feel too bad about the troubles of a man whose made hundreds of millions of dollars doing what he loves.
Nike and the NBA made LeBron an unimaginably rich man at the age of 26. The only thing they asked for in return was his humanity.