I give up. It is simply too hard to hate LeBron now. It is too much effort, and it makes me feel like a sad person.
Saying this goes against my nature. He was the bad guy for, in hindsight, simultaneously obvious and vituperatively stupid reasons. I will try to enumerate them.
A guy, Scott Raab, wrote a bunch of columns and a book about LeBron in my formative years. The book wound up being called The Whore of Akron. “May he suffer another decade of strokes and spend an eternity tonguing Satan’s flaming anus,” Raab wrote of LeBron. It felt fresh and perfect.
There was a media prescription for LeBron—a big, juggernaut of a teenager who had been lying around, cocooning in televised high school games on ESPN2, and we all had to like him. This was back when ESPN was infallible, and questioning its incessant starfucking was considered weird and wrong. Therefore, questioning why they were showing blowout high school games and lauding a 17-year-old as the next Jesus Christ wasn’t even on the radar.
The bloom is well off the rose on that network now—after three straight, static years of a sports network chasing Johnny Manziel from bar to bar so that two red-faced, middle-aged millionaires could argue about the definition of alcoholism first thing in the morning, every morning.
But back then, it wasn’t part of the deal to think that ESPN might be in it for the wrong reasons. So when Raab wrote a bunch of vicious columns about LeBron, it felt like home. I wanted to live inside it.
All of my skepticism about this restrictive and overall dumb way we talked about sports was able to calcify into pure, easy hate, and it was all seized and appropriated into one big villain: LeBron James.
After his Decision, when traditional sports media was leveling a seesaw over whether LeBron “taking my talents to South Beach” James was a misunderstood star or a standard antihero and nothing in between, Raab was playing around in the beautiful nuance and verbiage and color of hate. ESPN seemed so binary. These columns, about how LeBron ripped the heart out of his hometown, and then the guts, and then the pancreas, for good measure—they were real, and they were landscapes, and they were gorgeous.
Everybody else wanted to get their heart rate up while watching Hot Take Hell on ESPN7. Scott Raab was making outsider art that people used to reserve for graffiti against oppressive governments. It was the American male way to read big words without shame in the early 2000s: write about sports with a lot of provincialism, covered in blood.
Then LeBron got unbelievably good, winning a couple of titles in Miami before coming home to Cleveland to wonder why people still hated him.
I don’t know. I don’t have an answer anymore.
It was an anxious, impractical hate, one that required a lot of logic-leaping, emotional energy, and lighter fluid. And now I’m done with it.
He made five straight NBA Finals? Fine, but he only won a couple of them.
He moved back to godawful Cleveland from gorgeous Miami so he could make good on his word? Yeah, but he wrote a persnickety letter and left a bunch of players off it that wound up getting traded, and now—look here—there’s a conspiracy that he might have gotten those players traded himself. Does he secretly run the team? Does he have more say than the Cavs’ general manager? Is LeBron Machiavellian? Is he not a point forward but actually the Dictator of Cleveland? I mean, he got his coach fired, right? And replaced him with a buddy of his? Who does that? Boy, he’s gonna have it coming to him when some superteam just shellacks him twice and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He’s gonna get it good. Say goodnight to the bad guy.
And then there was none. He didn’t get it good. He served up a chasedown block from nowhere, like a teenager in an AND1 Mixtape—but at 31 years old. It saved the Finals. He led his team in every conceivable category. In fact, he led all players on both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, making him, as ESPN noted, “the first player in NBA history to lead all players in all five categories for an entire playoff series,” averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.6 steals.
It is undeniable. He won the NBA Finals by himself. He came back down 3-1. He brought his native Cleveland its first major sports championship in 50 years.
I’m too tired now to deny it anymore, and a little ashamed. LeBron’s one of the greatest there is. He’s up there with Jordan. Don’t let me tell me otherwise.
We hated a teenager because he was presented to us with the option to hate. We took the bait. And here he is anyway, a balding 31-year-old who just won an NBA championship entirely by himself. That’s not an accomplishment—it’s a miracle.