It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

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King James and the LA Fans

            The contempt is not as bad as it once was at the peak of it all, because Lebron has been so great for so many years, only someone with no objectivity could hate. But let’s be honest, Lebron James is arguably the most hated on athlete in the history of sports.  He attracts an unprecedented number of naysayers for a star of his magnitude in any sport.  Lebron is the most polarizing figure in the history of sport, viewed from a strictly sports context.  Ten years later people continue to bring up the much talked about “Decision” in early July 2010, when James bolted the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat on National television. His critics labeled him a egomaniac and have rooted against him for a decade.

However, the “decision”, and the acrimony that came from it was just a smoke screen for the real reason, the biggest reason why Lebron James has had so many detractors amongst basketball fans. A large segment of basketball fans was rooting against him way before he took his “talents” to South beach. The real reason? There are so many Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant fans in the basketball universe, and both factions never wanted to hear anything about Lebron being as good as their heroes, or dare I say, better than either of them.

So, you had two large segments of fans rooting for James to fail at every turn.  When he was beaten by the Boston Celtics and their big 3 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, during his 7th season in 2010, the Jordan and Kobe crowd were poking fun at the fact that he was called “The King,” yet had zero championships. Although he had demonstrated that he could do more with less than any player ever during that first stretch in Cleveland, with a supporting cast so weak they lost 26 straight games, then an NBA record,  the season after he left.  Eclipsing what had been the NBA record of 24 straight losses, by the Cavaliers in 1982.  Jordan and Bryant fans resented Lebron being compared to these two basketball icons.  “Never was a fan,” David “Paco” Ortiz says of Lebron.  Ortiz has been a Lakers fan since they drafted Magic Johnson in June of 1979, just a few months after he watched Magic face Larry Bird in the 1979 College basketball championship game.  “I said to myself after that game that I’m going to follow this guy to the NBA.”

The biggest blemish on Lebron’s career occurred a year after the decision.  Nine years ago, when he and his Miami Heat lost in the NBA Finals to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.  The tension in that series was palpable, who can forget the cameras following Chris Bosh as the Heat walked off the floor after losing game 6, and watching Bosh, so distraught that he collapsed to the floor in the hallway from the weight of the pressure, on his way to the locker room.  That NBA Finals series felt different than usual.  When basketball fans don’t have a team in the fight, usually they just causally watch and enjoy the championship round, and whomever wins wins and that’s that.  But during the Mavericks – Heat final, it seemed like 90% of basketball fans in the country were rooting for Dallas! Not because of any specific good feelings for Dallas or any of their players, only because they wanted to see Lebron lose. 

            With the advent of social media, when any and everyone can make their feelings known  to the world, outside noise and criticism was ratcheted up louder than in past eras.  It seemed that never in the history of the NBA, and sports in general, had there ever been a public so happy to see a player lose.  In the contemporary media environment, it was easy for a public figure like Lebron, who is very active on social media, to hear the vitriol coming his way.  When Miami fell to Dallas in six games basketball fans across the country celebrated like they were Dallas Mavericks fans. 

At the postgame press conference James was asked what he thinks about all the basketball fans who were getting a big kick out of his underwhelming Finals performance, and subsequent loss.  What other athlete has ever been asked such a question in the championship round?  James replied with an air of sarcasm: “At the end of the day, all the people who want to see me fail, they got to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had when they woke up today.  Same personal problems they had today.  I am going to continue to live and do the things I want to do and be happy with that.” A reasonable response from someone living in a fishbowl with seemingly the world converging on him.  And all this because Lebron decided to exercise his right to change teams?   Not really.  The hostility from some fans was inspired by  his great play on the court, which had reached a level that he was naturally being compared to the two basketball legends. Lebron had had enough, and on this occasion, he returned the disdain of his detractors.

From that moment on Lebron rose to the challenge and answered the critics, showing intelligence, wit, and great intestinal fortitude.  With all the pressure on his shoulders to win, Lebron made it back to the Finals the next 7 seasons, winning three championships. Yet the mob of naysayers were out chanting in unison every step of the way; rooting against him, ready to pounce at any slip.

Kobe Bryant fans are Lakers fans and Lakers Nation is large.  The fabled rivalry the Celtics and the Lakers featuring Magic and Bird, is  credited by many with saving the NBA in the 1980’s.  During that great rivalry black basketball fans identified with the Lakers and their cast of black stars: Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Nixon.  And Lakers nation grew larger than it ever was.  They have been winners most of their existence and its easy to like a winner.  Kobe landed in Los Angeles out of high school at 18 years old, and from day one he was paired with maybe the most physically dominant force in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal.  Kobe would win five championships with the Lakers, getting Michael Jordan comparisons the entire time. 

What is interesting however, is how Kobe Bryant has for the most part always been embraced by Jordan fans.  More so than they have Lebron.  “I think it’s true that Jordan fans embrace Kobe,” says Anthony Ford a long time Lakers fan from New York City. “I think it’s because of the similar game play.  They literally are identical.  There is a video of them both side by side doing the moves, and you would think it was the same person. Kobe is the closest thing there is to Jordan.”  Maybe it is because, as great as Kobe Bryant was, as his career played out, he never did quite enough to realistically put himself in the conversation of being better than Mike.  Jordan fans probably never looked at Bryant as a serious threat to his airness.

Lebron on the other hand entered the league out of high school, seven years after Kobe, and received much fanfare from NBA fans and media.  When he entered, Lebron was so good that a lot of people began to say they had never seen anybody like him; he was beyond category. The Jordan and Kobe crowd were not going to quietly let that ride.  Lakers nation became hostile to Lebron.  “Very true,” says Ford.  “I have iffy feelings towards Lebron, and it is indeed because of Kobe.” 

When Lebron carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, four years removed from High School, leading the weakest supporting cast in NBA Finals history, he scored 28 of the Cavaliers final 29 points in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, against a very good Detroit team.  Indeed,  for many watching, along with his overall game, it really was something they had not seen before.  Surely, Kobe was in the Finals four years removed from High School in 2000, but he had Shaquille O’Neal on his side and the Lakers had made the playoffs the season before Bryant came, and they had made the playoffs 18 of the previous 19 seasons before his arrival. 

The Cavaliers franchise which Lebron went to was a model of ineptitude, rivaling some of the worse franchises in sports today.  Much like the Cavaliers have been frankly, since Lebron left the team in 2010, and then again in 2018.  The Lakers were big winners before Kobe, the Cavaliers were perennial losers before Lebron.  A lot of great players had come through the NBA over its history, but very early in his career, the standard for Lebron James became Michael Jordan. Who is widely considered the best ever! That is the standard Lebron has always been held to, bypassing Kobe along the way.

When Lebron went to his first NBA Finals in 2007, Kobe was losing in the first round – a round Lebron has never lost in – to the Phoenix Suns, for the second year in a row.  His partnership with Shaquille O’Neal had ended three years prior, after Kobe made it clear he no longer wanted to live in O’Neal’s shadow; so O’Neal was traded.  Then the next season, young players on the Lakers suddenly got better, and management pulled off a great trade for center Pau Gasol.  Kobe won his lone league MVP and the Lakers found themselves back in the NBA Finals in 2008, where they fell to the Boston Celtics, who were in the first year of their three prong star grouping with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.  For the next two years it appeared as if Kobe and Lebron were on a collision course to face each other in the NBA Finals, which promised to become the greatest Finals showdown of all-time.  Nike even released Kobe and Lebron puppet commercials in anticipation.  One of the commercials featured Kobe’s puppet making fun of Lebron’s puppet for having no championship rings.  A matchup between the two would have settled a lot of questions  for the annals of hoop history.

In the 2008-09 season Lebron and the Cavs won 66 games and Kobe’s Lakers won 65 and in the 2009-10 season the Cavs won 61 games and the Lakers 57.  Both seasons they finished the regular season as the top seed in their conferences, and Lebron unseated Kobe as league MVP, winning both seasons.  Only the Lakers though, would make the Finals.  Alas, Lebron’s  lack of a supporting cast finally caught up with him and the Cavs were derailed before reaching the Finals both seasons.  “I hated it that he was crowned King while Kobe was in his prime.” Says Ford.  It’s like Kobe just got overlooked completely.  Lebron is great, no question, but him being the chosen one, from so early on, never sat well with me.”

With the anti Lebron crowd, led by the loyal Jordan and Kobe supporters, constantly ridiculing him for being the ringless King, Lebron had to win a championship for his sanity.  With his contract with Cleveland over he realized he wasn’t  going to win one sticking around with an inept front office in Cleveland, who failed to get him one legitimate all-star to play alongside him from 2003-2010.  They had seven years and he figured that was long enough.  James left Cleveland to play with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.  The first legit all-star teammates in his career.  Kobe said he would not have made the same decision if it were him.  It is well documented that he tried to force his way out of Los Angeles and onto the Chicago Bulls before the 2007-08 season, because he realized after not being able to make it past the first round three consecutive years after breaking up with Shaq, that he didn’t win the championships by himself.

In 2012, the season after the collapse against Dallas in the Finals, James was being guarded by Bryant in the final seconds of the all-star game.  Down by two points, instead of taking the final shot, he passed the ball twice and ended up turning the ball over and losing the game.  Even though it was an exhibition with no real impact on the NBA standings or season, it was scrutinized like Lebron was playing an important game that actually meant something.  After Lebron passed up the shot Kobe got in his ear ribbing him a few times, telling him he should have shot the ball.  There was a strong agreement among basketball fans and media that Lebron did not have an assassin’s mindset on the court, and that is what set he and Kobe apart.  Although, he may not have had a ring at that point in his career, Lebron could not have done the things that he had already achieved if he did not have a killer’s mindset.  Nevertheless, that was the perception of many fans.  “I did not feel that Lebron possessed that killer instinct that Kobe did.” Says Monday Bryant, a lifelong Lakers fan from Los Angeles.  Anthony Ford agreed, it’ll always come down to that killer mentality that Lebron just doesn’t have.  That mentality that Kobe and Jordan both possessed.”

When Lebron chose to go to the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2018, he was recruited by Magic Johnson, a great businessman off the court, someone whom Lebron aspires to be like when his playing days are over.  Los Angeles is a great place for him to set up shop and begin planning for life after basketball.  “I knew I would be in a tough situation regarding him and my feelings when he signed to come to the Lakers.” Says Ford.  The hate that many Lakers fans have had for Lebron over the years,  was so strong that at times this season it seemed almost as if some Lakers fans would rather their team lose than to root for Lebron and give him credit for his critical  contribution to the team’s success. 

“A lot of Laker fans don’t like Lebron.”  Says lifelong Los Angelino Joshua Garcia.  “I know Kareem wasn’t home grown but he wasn’t looked at like Lebron.  Plenty of dudes got love trying to win with the lakers.  Gary Payton, Karl Malone, etc.  But to people in LA it was like Lebron was trying to leach on to the Lakers to be an even bigger star, and Laker fans truly in their heart believe that Lebron needs the lakers more than the Lakers need Lebron.”  Garcia then brought up a great comparison.  “How is Mookie Betts being accepted?”, referring to first year Los Angeles Dodgers star and 2018 American League Most Valuable Player, who was traded to the Dodgers last winter.  “Mookie is loved.  Lebron is tolerated in LA.  They love Caruso more than Lebron, they loved Kuzma more than Lebron, they hyped Kuzma so much.  Again, it’s about Lebron.  It feels like Mookie was brought up a Dodger by the way he is treated.  But he came from Boston and beat the Dodgers in the World Series!” Garcia says emphatically. “Lebron probably looks at Aaron Donald (LA Rams Defensive lineman) like what I got to do to get some free Roscoe’s like you bro?” 

Now that the Lakers are in the Finals for the first time since 2010 Laker fans have no choice but to root for Lebron and give him his just due, unless they just want to be miserable.  “I have to stay true to them, I’m a Lakers fan, and I won’t wish bad on them because of a personal feeling I have,” Ford says.  “Lebron is great no question.  I have to respect it.  I’ll be like ‘what the hell is he doing?’ and then he’ll wind up with a triple double.”  Monday Bryant cannot deny what Lebron has done in purple and gold.  “Prior to Lebron coming to the lakers I thought he was a great player, but I always struggled with just how great he was because he was in a sub-par Eastern Conference.  Now in the West in year 17 the dude is balling out!  I give him all the credit for once again proving his doubters wrong, I was one.”

It is eerie to think that the night before Bryant perished with his daughter and seven others, Lebron surpassed him on the all-time scoring list.  The two spoke over the phone and Kobe posted a tweet publicly congratulating Lebron.  Since Kobe’s passing Lebron has led the Lakers franchise through a very difficult time, and said the lakers were dedicating the rest of the season to Bryant, and they wanted to win the championship in his honor.

“I’m happy with it,” Ford says of the way Lebron has stepped up in the aftermath of the tragedy.  “I get that he is carrying the torch and keeping the flame alive, I was skeptical when he did it at first…when Kobe first passed, because he said he was carrying the legacy, they would do it for Kobe, he wears the 24 on his finger, so in my gut I was saying this can’t be a wasted season.  This was before the pandemic, so the Clippers were still a threat, as well as the Bucks.  So, I felt if he is going to put that kind of weight on himself along with the legacy of Kobe, failure this year would not be acceptable at all.  It’s win or nothing, and now it’s win it for Kobe.  Lebron has been representing great, and now we are in the finals, this would definitely solidify him, this moment, with greatness in LA as a Laker.  Like they say, I have to admit it, I am witness”

“If I’m speaking from a perspective of killer instinct, a ‘will to win’ if you will, Kobe has always had that,” says Monday Bryant.  “Lebron developed that over the years.  If I’m speaking from overall aspects of the game Lebron is a better all-around player.  So, I can’t believe I’m saying this but as a basketball fan and lover first, I’d have to say Lebron is the better player.”  When it comes to off the court activity Ford wants to make one thing clear when talking about who was the better man.  “Not on the court.  But his off-court behavior, meaning his social justice stuff is by far incomparable.  Off court he does more than Kobe and Jordan, I love what he does, his school is doing great, he has no scandals other than he WON’T shut up and dribble.  So, if we are going off court, he is the best and doing right by his people.  But on court, I’m stuck in my ways.”  Ford ends with a laugh.