A hurricane hovers over the 2012 NBA Finals as Heat and Thunder converge. And in the eye of the storm stands a solitary figure: Lebron James.
Call him Benedict Arnold for the way he plunged a bayonet into the back of the Cleveland Cavaliers when he signed with Miami in 2010. Call him Gollum for the craving evident in his eyes every game as he seeks his precious championship ring. But whatever you do, don't call him beloved, because win or lose, James will remain the most polarizing player in professional sports.
What is it about him that so many basketball fans love to hate?
The fact is, every good story needs a villain. And while heroes often come in the singular flavor of tall, dark and bland, an antihero can evoke deep, complex feelings. Having someone to root against is often more gratifying than having someone to root for. As my grandpa used to say, "Every Sunday I cheer for two teams: the Bears and whoever is playing the Packers."
What makes the bile that James' induces particularly delicious is his origin story. After he donned the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 2002 while just a junior in high school, sports seers were already heralding the second coming: "Lebron James is so good that he's already being mentioned as the heir to Air Jordan." If you stare hard enough at that cover you can see the chip being placed on his shoulder, right there on the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School jersey.
It would be fair to say that expectations were beyond grandiose when Cleveland chose him as the number one draft pick in 2003. Expectations that were more or less greeted head-on, as James took the Cavs from perennial dung heap to Eastern Conference Champions in only five years. For this he was treated as a hero of the people, single-handedly putting the team on his back and reviving basketball fever in a town that had all but given up on the sport. But even so, the championship crown eluded the King. So when his contract ended in 2010, instead of staying faithful to the city he'd resurrected, James held a special announcement event on ESPN to publicly forsake the Cavaliers in favor of the wealthier, sexier, more talent-rich Heat.
Which is where contempt really began to blossom. It's what distinguishes James from other abhorred athletes like Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce: Despite their epic egos, those guys never sold out. By staying in Cleveland, he could've embodied virtues of true heroism like temperance and humility. Instead, lust for immediate success cemented his reputation as an antihero. Furthermore, he seems hyper-aware of the fact that he made the wrong decision, responding with childish indignation to even the most tepid taunt. When Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka suggested to the Palm Beach Post that James lacked defensive skill, he responded by calling Ibaka "stupid".
As much as James tries to act as if he isn't bothered by public opinion -- to embrace his role as antagonist -- his sensitivity to criticism suggests an underlying desire to be loved. Which is precisely what makes him such a good villain. Rather than being a one-dimensional bad guy, he appears authentically surprised and frustrated by the river of vitriol that has flowed in his direction ever since that fateful night on ESPN.
This year's Finals are on track to be the highest rated since the series between the Lakers and Pistons in 2004. And while it is important to acknowledge that many of those viewers are Miami fans, the harvest of haters is bountiful. I'm inclined to believe that a desire to see James lose is in large part responsible for driving such massive traffic to the series.
It's clear now that Lebron James is not Michael Jordan's successor. Despite the obvious athletic similarities, James is far too widely despised for his silhouette to plaster the shoes and shirts of future generations as a basketball deity. But animosity toward him unites fans like no heroic figure could. And if I were James, I might find some small satisfaction in the fact that, at the end of the day, regardless of reason, I'm driving people to care about basketball again.
And maybe that would be enough.