06.14.11

LeBron James, the Most Hated Athlete in America

Yes, LeBron James stunk up the court during the Miami Heat’s NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. But he still doesn’t deserve the abuse being rained upon him, says Buzz Bissinger.

I was listening to the press conference of Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra Sunday night after the team’s humiliating loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the National Basketball Association finals. I knew of the media’s perverse obsession not only with the dismal play of LeBron James but also with James himself. I still thought the first question at least would have something to do with the Mavericks and how well they had played.

Wrong.

The first question was about James. The second question was about James. The third question was about James, all of them in the same vein of what went wrong with him and why had he been so lousy in the Heat’s six-game losing effort. The Mavericks? The who?

It was like that all through the finals for James, constant and withering criticism of his play, constant dissection of every comment and every body movement. Anthony Weiner’s sexting? James made him do it. The crumbling economy? Bankers were only taking James’ advice. Rick Santorum running for president? It came to him in a dream where James said, “You’re the chosen one, Rick. Not me.”

Starvation. Drought. War.

James. James. James.

He truly is the most hated athlete in all of sports.

Which is absurd.

How about guzzling from the water bottle during a timeout as if he was the only one who was thirsty? What a selfish bastard.

In the 24-hour news cycle that brings out the starving rats feasting on instant analysis, everything James did was a portent of his being an arrogant assoholic.

Did you see that smile? What about the way he bent down to tie his shoelace? And how about guzzling from the water bottle during a timeout as if he was the only one who was thirsty? What a selfish bastard.

The rats ate up every crumb, regardless of the significance. The goal was to maliciously condemn him, and to that extent the media rats got their wish:

He is Public Enemy No. 1 of the tear-down culture in which human foible, unintentional mistakes, and boneheaded stupidity are not allowed. There used to be a period of grace. But not anymore. One gutter ball and you’re out.

It is absolutely accurate to say he was awful in the finals (conveniently ignoring his stellar play in the previous two rounds against the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls). But the vitriol, the spewing hatred spit out with such gleeful self-satisfaction by commentator after commentator, has sunk to a new level of nuclear negativity.

Why is he hated more than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was accused of sexual assault and is considered a stone-cold jerk by most players in the National Football League? Why is he hated more than recently resigned Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, who under the cloak of being a good Christian did nothing about his players breaking rules as long as his team won? Why is he hated more than Chris Webber, who pleaded guilty to criminal contempt amid a payoff scandal at the University of Michigan and whose conduct was instrumental in the Wolverines forfeiting 112 basketball games in the 1990s? (Ironically Webber, doing commentary for NBA TV, joyfully nailed James during the finals.)

Yes, we all know that James left Cleveland without grace or class. Yes, we know that the Heat, in some ridiculous version of a Las Vegas floor show, had the big three of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh greeting Miami fans in a raucous pep rally as if they had already won the championship before the season had even started.

Yes, millions of fans, including myself, were upset by the arrogance and self-centeredness with which James handled it all. On the other hand, James wanted to go to the place where he thought he had the best chance of winning. Where should he have gone? The Golden State Warriors? Why stay in Cleveland?

In baseball, players do that all the time in free agency, and no one makes a peep about disloyalty. Has there been any sustained criticism of Albert Pujols for not signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he has played his entire career? Should pitcher C.C. Sabathia have stayed with the Cleveland Indians because it would have been a really nice thing to do for the city? James went for less money than he could have gotten elsewhere. Baseball free agents are almost always looking for millions more.

The book I co-wrote with James, Shooting Stars, did not do particularly well. Maybe the fault was in the execution. Maybe the theme, about James and the four friends he befriended who all played together at St. Vincent-St. Mary high school in Akron, just wasn’t sexy enough. But I also believe that readers were hoping James would come off as a spoiled idiot in high school when, as far as I could tell by spending hundreds of hours with both him and his closest friends, that was not the case.

He did some stupid things at St. Vincent-St. Mary. He showed up to school in a decked-out Hummer that he obviously was not able to afford, as he and mother barely had any income. (Gloria James bought it from a dealer on the correct assumption that her son would soon be coming into a lot of money.) He was offered some throwback jerseys worth a couple hundred bucks—a violation of Ohio high school athletic rules on amateurism—and then promptly gave them back.

He wasn’t the one who called himself “The Chosen One.” The moniker was bestowed on him by Sports Illustrated when the magazine did a cover story on him as a junior in high school. (The first thing he should do in the off-season is get rid of the damn tattoo on his back.) He wasn’t the one who forced ESPN to show several of his games live on national television his senior year. He wasn’t the one who created a constant media circus.

He was the one who, after he signed a mega-million deal with Nike while still in high school, turned to teammate Willie McGee and said he would pay the tuition for McGee to go to Howard University.

But the image was cast. Fans were lying in wait for James to come into the NBA with the patina of being the greatest ever when he had not played a single game. Instead James pleasantly surprised everybody with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was approachable and humble while proud as any successful person in life must be. He never got into trouble—until the disaster of his free agency, when fans were able to say, “See! See! I knew he was an a--hole all along!”

Maybe he has gone hog wild in South Beach. He is a 26-year-old superstar athlete with testosterone who has sufficient money to party. But I think that the fundamentally decent essence of LeBron James is still there. Is he more guarded? Who wouldn’t be, given the avalanche of negative publicity he has gotten this season? Did it affect his play during the finals? Of course. Shutting out the constant noise of hatred is impossible.

But the most hated athlete in sports?

In the tear-down culture in which we engorge ourselves like ticks bloated on blood, I guess he truly is the King.