I’m fascinated with why so many people hate Lebron James. It’s easy to point to his “decision,” when he went on national TV to announce that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Heat. I get that you can argue he could have handled it better, although I don’t see how that on it’s surface produces so much hate. He generated $2.5 million for The Boys and Girls Club of America with his decision. He took less money personally to give himself a better chance to win, and aren’t we always killing players who just take the money and don’t care about winning? In doing so in the prime of his career, he turned himself into an international brand that can generate millions if not billions of dollars. Would any of us have made a different decision given that opportunity, to cement yourself as an internationally known brand and generate hundreds of millions of dollars moving forward? I don’t see how we kill him for that.
When we look back on Lebron’s career we are going to have a tough time explaining why we hate him so much. On the court, it’s going to be hard to argue, if we look at his numbers objectively when he’s finished, to claim there’s ever been a better player. No one has ever been able to do what he’s done in the NBA for as long as he’s been able to do it. And this year, at 33, he’s had the best year of his career. He’s won 3 titles already, been to 8 straight finals, won 4 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, been an All-Star 14 times and First Team All-NBA 11 times. And he’s still in the prime of his career. He’s not done.
You can talk about Mike and his 6 rings, while keeping in mind Robert Horry and Derek Fisher are never in the discussion despite their jewelry collection. I can’t help but think the argument against LeBron as the best player ever has to do with the fact that we don’t like him. Because when you look at the facts, it’s hard to find ways that Mike or anyone else had more of an impact on the basketball court. But the argument for Mike is usually about the things we liked more about Mike – he won more rings, he wanted the ball late, he was a great competitor, he had that “fire” that we like to see in our superstars. And the argument against Lebron has to do with the fact that we don’t like him – he doesn’t have that “killer” instinct, he passes up opportunities to shoot late in games, and he’s lost more finals than he’s won. But it dismisses the facts, like when he puts up 45, 9, 7 and 4 in an elimination game like he did on Sunday. The way he’s produced makes it hard to argue against him as the greatest player ever.
Off the court he’s had an even bigger impact, and when reporters ask him about his legacy he constantly talks about the influence he’s had over the youth in Ohio with his foundation as more important than anything he’s done as a player. He sponsors bike rides to raise money to buy books for underprivileged kids. He recently pledged $87 million – yes, 87 – to pay for 4-year college scholarships for 2,300 kids in his hometown. He’s never been involved in any scandals off the court. He’s a married father of 3, and on his off days from the NBA playoffs he goes to watch his son play and shoots imaginary arrows into the sky after he sticks a 3.
Put it all together, and 20 years from now when we are explaining Lebron James career to our kids and grandkids, we are going to really struggle to explain why he’s so disliked. Put his basketball resume’ up next to Mike’s and take the personalities out of it, and the discussion is different. Throw in everything he’s done off the court and we should be celebrating him as one of the most impactful celebrities in the world. But we don’t like him that much, so it’s hard for us to celebrate him.
When I ask people why they hate Lebron James, they usually struggle to tell me. They can’t really give a clear answer, and it usually comes back to “I don’t know, I just don’t like him.” They talk about the way he complains to the refs after every call – as if that isn’t the case with every player in the NBA. And keep in mind when Tom Brady bitches at the referee every time he gets hit we celebrate his intensity. They say he’s selfish, yet he only recently became the highest paid player on his own team. He’s taken less money to help his teams and his teammates. And on the court, his assist rate for a superstar at his position is off the charts. He’s averaged 2 more assists per game than Mike over his career. The bottom line is this – he just doesn’t have the characteristics or track record of a person who – if you took “Lebron James” out of it – we should dislike.
I think the real reason is power. To me, what Lebron’s legacy will be, aside from going down as the best player to ever play the game, is the way he changed the power dynamic in the NBA. Maybe Lebron’s “decision” was too big of a charade for you, but he created a new NBA – one where the players have the power. Now the players are deciding where they want to play and who they want to play with. It’s not simply who offers you the most money in free agency. They are taking shorter term deals with opt-out clauses, just like the one Lebron has this year, so they can get paid but also give themselves the freedom to make decisions as they move on in their career. And they are talking to one another about where they want to play and how they want to play with. The players are now making the decisions in the NBA, and Lebron is the one who started that.
A change in power is something that makes us uncomfortable. First of all, we long for the days when our superstars wore one jersey and were committed to or hometown team. Larry Bird was a Celtic. Michael was a Bull. Magic played for the Lakers. We want to believe that they were as committed to us and our hometown or favorite team just like we committed our time and energy to them. It’s much easier to fully invest in players who stay around for a long time, and that’s what we want. That NBA is gone.
We are also used to a certain power structure, one where the very rich, white owners pay the players a lot of money but also get to tell them what to do. Ownership and management make the decisions on who plays where and how much you make. It’s the same structure in any business, and that’s what we are comfortable with. Lebron has completely flipped that, and we don’t like it. Lebron has provided the blueprint, and other players are following it.
It would be naive to think there isn’t some racial element to this as well. I’m not talking about overt racism against the players, but just a sub-conscious uneasiness when the power structure we are used to gets adjusted. I’m not saying we dislike Lebron because he’s black. But the idea that he’s helped the players in a mostly black league usurp the power from the mostly white owners is worth thinking about. It’s okay to examine and discuss race as a factor, sub-conscious or not. You can’t deny that we are used to rich, white men having the money and the power in America.
It’s so interesting to me that so many people hate Lebron James, yet have trouble articulating exactly why they do so. We often let emotion get in the way of the facts, especially when it comes to sports. I’m continually amazed at what Lebron is able to accomplish on the court and off, but also fascinated that he generates so much negativity. Not only has he been one of the all-time great athletes we’ve ever seen, but he’s found a way to change the power dynamic in his sport.
To me, our arguments about Lebron are not about him as a basketball player. They are about the power dynamic that he has changed in the NBA. His accomplishments as a player and his impact off the court actually should make him extremely likable. But he has so much power and control – which are really smart business decisions on his part – that we celebrate his failures to confirm our narrative that Mike was a better player.