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“Hating” Lebron

Why I root against Lebron James to win a title – and it’s probably not the reason you’re thinking of.

@BreakTheHuddle (e-mail: BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com)

Before I was a big NBA fan, and merely a casual observer, I was like most other people (I suspect). I enjoyed Lebron James. I watched his highlights, and semi-pulled for him, given his back story. He was from Ohio, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers back into NBA relevance. It seemed like a great, feel-good sports story: The local boy makes it big for the hometown team. What wasn’t to like about the guy? His play on the court backed up the hype. He was marketable, fun-loving and a great basketball player.

Then came ‘The Decision’, the flight to Miami and a 180 degree turn on the public perception of the man. He went from hero to villain in a matter of 15 minutes by breaking a city’s heart on live television. Two years later, the fallout from his ill-advised appearance with Jim Gray has partially subsided, and in the middle of the NBA season, much of the animosity has cooled. The burner will be turned up again in the postseason.  Many people were delighted at the Heat’s collapse in the NBA Finals a season ago, myself included. But after reflecting on it, I discovered I hated him for the wrong reasons. In my mind, there is only one valid reason to root against Lebron James winning a title.

First, here are the common reasons given for hating Lebron… which make no longer make any sense to me.

1. He betrayed Cleveland.

This story has been beaten to death.  I feel bad for contributing more than two sentences to it, but here goes: it was naïve to think that a professional athlete could be wedded to a city or a franchise, no matter who that athlete is. Perhaps I was left jaded by the way Brett Favre and my beloved Green Bay Packers went about their public, messy divorce. Business is business, and as callous as it sounds, you’re insane if you think that territorial fealty motivates millionaires. The Cavaliers had seven years to surround Lebron with the type of talent necessary to entice him to stay – and failed.

Now, did he have to do the breaking up on national television? Of course not. That was a huge mistake on Lebron’s part. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the rights of Clevelanders to hate the man; I will (probably) always hate Brett Favre. It would be hypocritical of me to ask them to forgive. But for all of us who don’t live in Cleveland, this reason to hate Lebron isn’t valid. (And at some point, even the folks in Cleveland will have to let it go. Holding on to that hatred just isn’t healthy. Ask anyone in my family about my feelings for Favre, and they will let you know I should’ve sought professional help at some point.)

2. He’s a narcissist.

Narcissism is a clinically defined term given by psychologists to denote someone who meets the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I don’t know the man well enough to diagnose him, officially. Chances are, neither do you. (I am also not a psychologist.) But here is what I do know – he’s a self-promoting, self-interested professional athlete who occasionally speaks in the third person and had one of the most shameful displays of a lack of self-awareness (‘The Decision’) in television history. However…

Chances are, if you think all that is unforgivable and narcissistic, you probably don’t like sports all that much. Basketball seems to have the most trouble with self-centered athletes. The latest fad seems to be that they all think of themselves as a “brand” that must play in big markets (Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, etc). But baseball has its share, as does football. If you really pay attention to the big stars, few of them seem down-to-earth, regular people. If you’re able to separate the entertaining they do inside the lines from their personal foibles (which is what I try to do), it’s not that big of a deal. Do I wish they were less solipsistic? Sure. But they aren’t. Lebron’s no worse than most other athletes in this regard.

3. He’s overrated / He can’t come through in the clutch.

“Clutch-ness” seems to be what a lot of people talk about when they need to stir up a debate that seems to just go around in circles. Depending on who you talk to, and which nerd-tastic statistical website you prefer to frequent, Kobe Bryant is either one of the most clutch players in the NBA or mediocre. There seems to be an awful lot of short-term memory when it comes to this; failing to come up in a big spot, in a big game, leads to headlines the following morning about a given player’s lack of “clutch” ability.

All that feeds into some who criticize Lebron as being “overrated”. Has he failed to come up big in fourth quarters of big games? Sure. But while that is valid criticism, even something to be gleeful about if you root against him (like I do), it’s shaky foundation to base hatred on. And failure to come up big in the NBA Finals does not mean Lebron is overrated. Let’s get this out of the way, right now: he’s the best player in basketball. He has been for a few years, now. Anyone who tells you otherwise has an agenda. Remember, I DISLIKE the guy. I’m telling you – he is the best, and appropriately hyped as such. End of discussion.

4. Joining forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami was “cheap” or “unfair”.

Now, this one is close to being valid, but isn’t, in the end. It’s close because, as everyone who has ever played a pick-up game knows, the object when picking teams is to make them as evenly matched as possible. If you don’t like that explanation, how about this- Michael Jordan HATED Isiah Thomas. Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer still hate each other. There was no chance they’d ever join forces. And instead of competing to beat Wade and Bosh, two stars in his own conference, they all came together to form a super-team.

Where the argument falls apart is when you consider the stars of yesteryear. Plenty of them lobbied to get out of ‘unsatisfactory’ situations (Alcindor left Milwaukee, Erving left the Nets, Barkley left the Sixers, Shaq left Orlando, etc.) to move someplace better. Jordan never did because he had Pippen. Bird had McHale, Tiny and Parrish.  Magic had Kareem and Worthy. In Lebron’s seven years in Cleveland, who were his best teammates? Jamison? Mo Williams? Anderson Verejao? No, there’s nothing to this criticism, ultimately.

Which leaves us with the only intelligent reason you can have for hating Lebron James…

1. He hasn’t come close to reaching his full potential as a basketball player.

I’ve spent more time than I care to share with you (fine, it was a full 60 minutes) attempting to track down a clip of Lebron in the 2011 Finals that I cannot get out of my head.  It was late in Game 6, and he got the ball down on the block. Through a series of picks and ball screens, he somehow found himself posted up against J.J. Barea, who was isolated on him. The rest of the Mavericks responded by… not helping. They let it play out. Apparently, they were unthreatened by his post game. The play resulted in Lebron dribbling awkwardly off of his foot, recovering, and committing an offensive foul.

Am I reading too much into one play? Perhaps. But as anyone who knows the NBA will tell you, there are parts of Lebron’s game that have gone undeveloped, parts that would make him even more unstoppable than he is now, which is almost unconceivable. If – if – he ever develops a post game, it’ll be game over. He’s a matchup nightmare. The other criticism of James was his outside shooting – he is a 33% career 3 point shooter, but this season he’s hovering around 40%.

Despite the unfinished parts to his game, he’s still the best player in the world, leading a team that is on an absolute tear – blowing out teams that are likely postseason adversaries. I marvel at his greatness, but I cannot bring myself to pull for the guy.

I believe championships should be about a collection of individuals who came together to give it their all, maximizing their God-given talents 100%. That’s what excited me so much about the Mavericks of a season ago – Dirk Nowitzki finally had put it all together and had the role players to help him out, playing unselfish, team-first basketball. I’m not saying Lebron’s a ball hog – quite the contrary, in fact – but he hasn’t maximized his potential. And the idea that someone could rise to the top of their profession without giving it their very best, without putting in the requisite work, half-assing (somewhat) their way to the mountaintop – that is something I just have to root against.

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