10.28.10

Stop Picking on LeBron

This is ridiculous: It’s time to stop hating LeBron James. We may as well forgive him now because we're going to forgive him later.

"What should I do? What should I do?" asks a pensive LeBron James, the world's greatest basketball player, in his new Nike ad. Don Draper would have called it "confessional advertising"—an ad designed to offset a client's tarnished image.

Actually, it's too late for LeBron to be asking what he should do, and LeBron knows it. He already did it.

He is, if you surf the Web, listen to talk radio, or read through Twitter, the most reviled man in sports since he announced on ESPN prime time on July 8 that he would leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Sun Belt glamour guys, Pat Riley's Miami Heat. As the Miami Herald's Greg Cote recently put it, "No team, in any sport, is more wrapped up in 'great' and 'hate'' than the Heat."

Let's call a time out: We may as well forgive him now because we're going to forgive him later. LeBron is not a bad guy, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be happy if and when he wins a championship ring. 

We should also ask: Where, exactly, is LBJ hated and by whom? Well, by Cleveland fans, of course. One might say the hatred is in direct proportion to the bitter disappointment they felt when LeBron decided to move on. OK, that's understandable, but just about every sports town has gone through something similar at one time or another.

The next level of we-hate-LeBron intensity can be found in the New York area. Let's be honest, New York fans could care less about the agony of Ohioans; their contempt for LeBron is based solely on the fact that he snubbed New York. In a May issue of New York magazine, Will Leitch and Ira Boudway wrote a pitch, "If You Live Here, We'll Name a Sandwich After You," in the form of an open letter telling LeBron about the wonderful perks he would enjoy when he signed on with the Knicks. But their argument was based on the outdated notion that New York had something to offer an NBA star that he couldn't just as easily get somewhere else—endorsement deals, for instance.

Video screenshot

But James can make just as much on endorsements playing in Cleveland or Miami as in New York. As Cleveland Plain Dealer sports columnist Terry Pluto told me back in May, "LeBron is already the third-highest-paid endorser in sports, behind only Tiger Woods and David Beckham. Tiger may be ready to drop from the pantheon, and Beckham is no spring chicken. King James may soon move up to the No. 1 spot ... In the NBA, it doesn't make that big a difference what town is your home base."

Simply put, as long as they're a winner, it doesn't matter to Chinese fans who buy NBA jerseys whether someone plays for the Knicks, the Heat, or the Lakers—the team of Kobe Bryant, who moves more threads in China than any other NBA player. As Darren Rovell, sports business reporter for CNBC, put it, "Kobe Bryant is bigger than LeBron in China because he's won championships."

Which means that LeBron was being disingenuous, if not downright hypocritical, when he told ESPN's Jim Gray on his now-infamous announcement show, "I'm not doing this [going to Miami] for the money. I could have made more money staying in Cleveland." Yes, more money on his contract because unlike baseball, where a star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians like C.C. Sabathia can virtually double his paycheck by going to the Yankees, the NBA salary cap restricts what teams can pay free agents.

Ah, but the shoe and shirt deals, where the really big money is, is another story. And that money is to be found in whatever city can walk off with the NBA title—and LeBron (with advice from his agent, I'm sure) very shrewdly perceived that a combination of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were by far the most likely to produce that result.

What LeBron has thrown in the face of New York fans is that, Frank Sinatra notwithstanding, he doesn't need New York to make it anywhere, which is an unpardonable blow to New York's ego. So, for those of us who aren't Cavalier or Knicks fans, why is it that we're supposed to hate LeBron James? What dog have we got in the fight about where he should play?

And why, while we're on the subject, is there a fight about it in the first place? Whose business is it to tell LeBron where he should and shouldn't live and play basketball? OK, he grew up in the Akron area. Does that mean he must spend the rest of his professional life there? He put in seven years with the Cavaliers. How many of those who are claiming to hate James have any idea what that is like? How many of them have ever even been to Cleveland? If Dante were alive and writing about basketball, he would probably call seven years with the Cavs the round ball equivalent of a century in Purgatorio and grant him a free pass to Paradise.

Precisely how many years was LeBron supposed to stay in Cleveland before he was permitted his freedom?

All these questions are rhetorical, and in a couple of years I don't think they're going to matter. I don't think anyone really hates LeBron James, not even fans in Cleveland. By all accounts—particularly his own, as expressed in his 2009 book, Shooting Stars, about him and his buds playing high school ball in Ohio—he is a decent, amiable guy. If he had been an asshole in the first place, Cleveland fans wouldn't have been so angry when he chose to leave; there wouldn't have been such a feeling of betrayal. It's only because he inspired such enthusiasm that they're so hurt by his departure.

So what should you do, LeBron? Well, for one thing, stop apologizing. Well, maybe you could apologize to all of us for that abomination of an ESPN program where you announced "The Decision." But the memory of that will fade in time, and all the more quickly if you win a championship.

Whose business is it to tell LeBron where he should and shouldn't live and play basketball?

To me, at least, and to the overwhelming majority of basketball fans in this country and around the world, it doesn't matter a whit whether you play in Cleveland, Miami, or Oklahoma City. All I care about is watching a good game. I've never actually been to a professional basketball game in my life, and I probably never will. (On TV, all courts look alike.)

What should you do, LeBron? You should win, of course. That's what we're paying you for.

Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.