There he was, the greatest player since Michael Jordan, carrying a ragtag band of defined role players and former Knicks to the point that they played a competitive series against one of the most statistically dominant teams ever. The son of Akron had returned home to deliver title-starved Clevelanders their first championship, not just in basketball, but any major sport, in 50 years. Yet underneath the veneer of friendlier media coverage toward him remained an undeniable truth: LeBron James is still the villain.
As LeBron received near-unanimous respect from analysts for the physical and mental burden he shouldered through Cleveland’s run to the Finals, tweets that merely acknowledged his statistical dominance were littered with responses like these from the public:
Is the scrutiny towards him just heightened because more is expected of a player of his stature than even someone as great as, say, fellow MVP Kevin Durant?
Not exactly, because layered into the LeBron backlash is a lack of reverence. The striking part of how fans scoff at him isn’t that they’re reveling in his defeat, it’s how resolute they are in the belief that his defeat is to be expected. While plenty of great athletes aren’t liked, LeBron isn’t even respected. Lest it seem like putting too much stock into random Twitter replies, try to think of another player who could take a city to four straight Finals, including a pair of titles, and get this in return:
For many people, “The Decision” exposed for them what was already evident for others: you don’t know LeBron. Really, he’s the perfect superstar for this Twitter/Instagram-dominated world, seeing as he meticulously crafts his image to the point that it obscures attempts to figure out what’s actually beneath the surface. It could be argued that people didn’t turn on LeBron because of The Decision in and of itself, but rather because it gave them what they feel is their best glimpse of his true character.
He boasted along the way and ultimately came up small under the brightest lights in both 2010 and 2011. Combine that with the shock and callous format of The Decision, and LeBron burned a lot of goodwill. It’s as if everything that came afterwards felt…produced. And if there’s one thing we don’t forgive our athletes for, it’s being inauthentic, because buying into the feel-good narrative that follows is just another opportunity to get suckered in again. It’s no coincidence that being faux-authentic and crafting an “I’m too old to worry about what I say” persona is how Kobe Bryant turned his image around.
Now, everything LeBron does is viewed through a thick lens of cynicism. Even his “I’m Coming Home” letter was instantly broken down and meticulously analyzed, with suspicions about the exclusions of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett later validated. What’s real? What’s manufactured? With LeBron, one always feels at arm’s length:
Lebron James is a phenomenal player and one of my favorites all time. But this weird mixture of martyrdom and false modesty is off-putting.
— brittrobson (@brittrobson) May 25, 2015
As it turns out, LeBron the man is as unsolvable a riddle as LeBron the player, possibly due to some polarizing contradictions.
In the big picture, he’s a transcendent player who’s yet to have a iconic, dominant playoff run. Jordan famously was never pushed to a Game 7 in the Finals. Bird has the ’86 Celtics. Magic has the ’87 Lakers. Shaq and Kobe went 16-1 in the 2001 playoffs.
As for James, the 2012 Heat were pushed to the absolute limit by a Celtics squad that was two years past being two years past their peak. The next year they won 27 games in a row, only to need a miracle to beat San Antonio (and even ignoring that, they were pushed to a Game 7 by a Pacers team that probably lacks any Hall of Famers). Despite playing in a diluted conference for years and never having a legitimate rival from his own generation, it’s not hard to imagine a timeline in which LeBron never won a title, an oddity for a player of his stature.
Another instance of that duality is how his playing style clashes at times with his demeanor. LeBron’s meal ticket to greatness, other than unparalleled athleticism for his frame, is the combination of his passing gifts and the willingness to utilize them. He never went through the trials of learning when to defer like MJ and Kobe did. In fact, his “controversy” went the other way, as he was deemed too unselfish, dishing to role players for more efficient looks.
LeBron is possibly the most egalitarian superstar ever…except it doesn’t actually seem like that enjoyable of an experience. He’s played mind games with Kevin Love and isn’t above showing up his supporting cast:
I never much cared for LeBron's body language when he perceives his teammate as having screwed up, like w/ Delly there
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) December 18, 2015
It's like he has to show the viewers that Delly is the one who screwed up to make that pass go out, not him.
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) December 18, 2015
The other counter to his unselfishness is that part of the reason he returned to Cleveland is he’d never be able to influence the Heat organization the way he can with the Cavaliers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a player seizing a rare chance at control in a sports landscape designed to marginalize and replace them, it’s just that the combination of the petulance he demonstrates on court and the additional control he gained in going home seems to have created a “well, you made this bed, now you have to lie in it” reaction.
Though this may all sound extreme, consider that not many felt partial to him in last year’s Finals as he put a short-handed underdog on his back against a juggernaut, begging the question: If LeBron wasn’t the people’s favorite then, under what circumstance would he be?