"Is anyone having more fun these days than LeBron James?" The New York Times asked on Sunday. It's hard to believe, but James has been the center of attention of late for good deeds and adding a little lighthearted entertainment to his routine. And fans have noticed, rewarding him with praise and laughter. It's come during a season when LeBron has put up numbers that are arguably welcome him into discussion for the greatest year any player has ever had. For James, that might not be a coincidence, and the great performances have helped him repair his image. But just how has he pulled off this metaphorical no-look pass?
LeBron's drive to win has helped the Heat to an impressive win streak, but it's his happiness on and off the court that has earned him other accolades. Since the All-Star break just two weeks ago, everything that LeBron seems to touch turns to gold. For instance, his pregame warmup routine of showing off some spectacular dunks to fans has been graced with open arms from Heat fans and beyond. Joseph Goodman in the Miami Herald said:
There's something unnatural about a 6-8, 270-pound man skyrocketing into the air and acrobatically throwing down dunks with brutish grace. It's like a comic-book superhero come to life. James pushes the boundaries of the natural world, physics and biology to where reality meets imagination.
At this intersection, the show begins.
The old LeBron was talented enough to pull such a stunt off, yet not well-liked enough for these antics to work in his favor. Since the slam dunk contest during All-Star Weekend, there's been the annual debate over how to get stars like LeBron to compete. Magic Johnson is even now reportedly offering James $1 million to register for it. James' timing with these new versatile dunks couldn't have been better, keeping the focus on him and his abilities, while also giving fans what they want to see. It only whets their appetites more to see what LeBron will give away for free. What else might he be holding onto in his back pocket?
Of course, it will take more than a couple of pretty dunks and big smiles to win over all of his critics. During the same period of time, LeBron caused a mini-controversy when he sported a Cleveland Browns hat in public. For Cleveland fans, the pain from the betrayal still stings. And when James appeared to come up limping during a game in Chicago, Bulls fans responded with applause. People don't want LeBron to get hurt as much as they are still working through their feelings about him.
Now that LeBron has won his coveted and much-maligned title, Dave Hyde said in the Florida Sun-Sentinel, things have changed. Hyde wrote:
We're used to champions led by snarling greats like Kevin Garnett or bat-throwing competitors like Roger Clemens. We embrace humbleness like in Aaron Rodgers or do-rights like in Peyton Manning. But a champion who has fun even in pre-game warm-ups? That seems to go against so many fans' DNA.
And everyone has embraced it. Once the attention on LeBron's pursuit of a championship and questions of whether he was enough of a leader to pull it off had been removed, LeBron finally moved into position to just be himself. Free from all of the scrutiny and all of the haters. Sure, from time to time he'll rub people the wrong way; but that comes with the territory for NBA stars. Say the wrong thing once and it blows up in your face. What's different for James now, though, is that his narrative is being rebuilt. He's no longer just the guy who turned his back on the Cavs. He's a winner in Miami and he's rallied millions of troops behind him.
Showing what he can do and enthralling fans at the same time is the true showing of a superstar. His star power transcends basketball, and he has been treating certain aspects of timeouts and stoppages in play as times to entertain fans as if he's playing for the Globetrotters. "At twenty-eight, it seems, LeBron James is finally old enough to act like a kid," said Ian Crouch in The New Yorker.
He's paving his own way now. And, as a result, we're finally warming up to LeBron.