Why LeBron divides fans

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - October 17, 2020 - 12:00am

“I want my damn respect, too.” – LeBron James

Okay, he did it again. By that, we mean the appearance of LeBron James tainting a historical triumph (his fourth NBA championship and the Los Angeles Lakers’ 17th overall), by saying something that was less than magnanimous or diplomatic. With a handful of words, an understandably emotional James gave his haters more reason to despise him. But is all this bile aimed at him really fair? Why does LeBron seem so divisive to NBA fans? This writer has some theories.

Envy. Let’s face it, there are many critics who may or may not realize that their making James a detestation comes from envy. How many high schoolers got that kind of attention? His games were covered live. Even a ban by the NCAA was overturned. He appeared to have everything handed to him. But this preliminary bias colors opinions about him to this day. It also invalidates all the hard work he has put into becoming the best player of his generation. Some people feel he got more than he deserved from Day One, so they deny him their respect.

His words. Aside from that latest quote about respect, LeBron’s unfiltered comments about others may actually be detached from the game itself or from his actions as a player, but aren’t. Like Pete Rose the player’s career  being diminished by the corrupt actions of Pete Rose the manager. When LeBron made a negative comment about Steph Curry’s MVP Award, when he recalled the exact moment he considered himself the greatest of all time, and on a few other instances, we were left scratching our heads wondering why he had to say those things. Did he feel no one else was saying it for him?

He made himself a big deal. Here’s another thing off the court that people use to stain James’s on-court performance. The big event surrounding his first departure from Cleveland seemed overdone. Teams were auditioning for him, instead of the other way around. Hometown fans tore down his billboards and burned replicas of his jerseys, in public. This launched the perception that he is a spoiled brat. But consider that  these were all business moves removed from his actual play, and that the teams went along with it. Every time that he had requests or demands after that, people howled that his teams had to be tailored to him, or he would walk away.

No villains. Michael Jordan had Jerry Krause, whom he felt either sabotaged the Chicago Bulls or took more credit than he deserved. He even insulted the team general manager in public, even when the star shooting guard ultimately got what he wanted. Michael also took a while to overcome the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, who clearly wore the black hats. For LeBron, there have been no arch-enemies, only also-rans or rivals who became teammates. His bouncing around from team to team also did not allow for any antagonists to develop, to further elevate him as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did one another. And when he walked out before Game 3 ended last week, in many fans’ eyes, he actually became those nasty Pistons of old.

Peer reviews. Many of the NBA’s greatest players will say that Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player of all time. If the blunt Larry Bird can call a young Jordan “God” in disguise, how do you top that? Magic Johnson could only go so far as to concede that LeBron was the “best all-around player” he’d seen, but that Jordan was still the greatest. And as for Isiah Thomas’ contrary opinion? It comes from a bitter Dream Team exclusion, Bulls victim and disgraced team executive. In 1997, many NBA players either wanted to be in “Space Jam” or at least play with Jordan on his movie-set court between takes. In this era, players have even declined to be in LeBron’s remake of the film.

Jordan’s stats were better. When you look at the numbers, Jordan seemed better, and you could say that even in terms of numbers, he was, despite LeBron’s voluminous curriculum vitae. But it also took Jordan seven years to win a title, he also entered the league older than James, and his years with Washington were cringe-worthy. The big issue is that Jordan did all those legendary deeds with only one other superstar (Scottie Pippen) on those teams, and in a vastly more physical era.

An “easier” time. How many Hall of Famers played in previous eras to this one? How many all-time greats were deprived of championship trophies by the two threepeat Bulls? And how many times did Jordan get knocked to the floor on his way to the basket? They say LeBron had it easier, which is inappropriate. This season in particular is being used to downplay the Lakers forward’s greatness. But the champs didn’t break any rules. The shortened season was not James’s doing. Regardless of the circumstances, he and his team are the best this year, period. I don’t hear anyone saying the San Antonio Spurs’ 1999 championship doesn’t count because the lockout shortened the season. Let’s be fair.

Is LeBron James – like Wilt Chamberlain – the Goliath people don’t want to cheer for? Can his critics separate his off-court behavior and self-aggrandizement from his incredible skill, achievements and hard work? Wilt Chamberlain’s reputation, like LeBron’s, has been affected by the Finals (and Game 7s) he lost in his career through no fault of his own. But the fact is that some still refuse to acknowledge that LeBron is closing in on His Airness. If he ever will be at least considered Jordan’s equal depends on how fair we all are to him in the years to come. Right now, he’s not winning the war of perception.

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