Hello, my name is Mike, and I’m a LeBron hater. I’ve been sober for seven games…
Let me explain.
I can’t remember exactly when I started hating LeBron, but I can remember the first time I saw him: Dec. 12, 2002. Crammed into a buddy’s dorm room, a surprisingly large group of freshmen and sophomores gathered around the standard definition television to watch the first nationally televised High School game in history. The broadcast featured Dickie V, Bill Walton, and other ESPN talent covering the matchup between the number one team in the country versus the number one prospect in the country. It was certainly a spectacle, but most of us came away wondering what the hype was all about. Certainly LeBron was physically talented and skilled enough to be a high-level prospect, but he forced far too many shots and didn’t put on a show to match the relentless hype circling around the event.
You forget LeBron was 17 years old at the time. A fact that was not lost on me that day, but not in the “give him a break” kind of way. Being four months his senior, LeBron was the first major athlete younger than myself. An early but inevitable realization that happens to all young sports fans that technically these stars were merely your peers. Supernaturally large, fast, athletic peers but your age none the less.
Maybe that’s all it took to plant the seed of hate? From there things escalated quickly. A well-deserved rookie of the year, a franchise changing talent, and a couple 40-point games, LeBron was proving to be really good. The Cavaliers? That took a little longer. Yet, there they were always on prime time; always being considered much-watch television. The Cavs were now bumping better teams and better players so people could see a great, young talent. That was a little bothersome, but not hate-worthy. I get it. People want to see a spectacle, but at least make the playoffs. This was supposed to be the next “greatest of all time.”
Then it happened. After losing to Detroit in his first trip to the playoffs, LeBron returned to Detroit and looked, quite frankly, bad. With the series tied 2-2, something clicked. In a historic must-win game, the much-hyped King James finally arrived. Hitting insane shot after even more insane shot to score the Cav’s final 25 points, LeBron was able to pull out the clutch win in the second overtime. A 48-point performance whose momentum sent him to his first Finals. That’s the kind of game that defines careers. The hype train was fully loaded. LeBron really could be the greatest of all time. Maybe even I could be a witness?
The Cavs were quickly swept by the veteran Spurs in the Finals. So much for the hype train. A disappointment for sure, but probably just a setback. The door was open. The talent and performance finally matched the spectacle.
That spectacle turned into a circus. More wins turned into more hype. LeBron was already starting to be prematurely touted as one of the best players of all time. Winning turned to pride. Dancing around on the sidelines while watching a guy named Boobie score in garbage time. Openly mocking other players. Shooting left-handed free throws. Phantom elbow injuries. Lots of flopping. Complaining about every single call. All while never getting back to the Finals.
Unable to get past the big-three Celtics was understandable, but Dwight Howard? The hype was a sham and people were comparing him to Michael Jordan. This was outrageous! LeBron had the talent but he never seemed to master it. When LeBron fell apart against the Celtics and basically gave up on his team at the end of his first stint with the Cavs, there wasn’t one aspect left of that greatness from the Detroit series. As I watched the hype overshadow his actual performance over those three seasons, my hate grew strong.
Then there was the ultimate spectacle: the Decision. Thousands of articles have been written about how classless and immature the Decision was, but what fueled my hate wasn’t how the decision was made, but the actual decision itself. LeBron could have easily created a historic legacy with multiple teams. He could have stayed on the Cavs vowing to be the hometown hero and to end the long suffering of Cleveland sports fans everywhere. Guess that wasn’t good enough? He could have slid into the Bulls’ young roster to become instant dynasty contenders. Didn’t want to play in the shadow of Jordan? He could have saved basketball in New York and expanded his brand; could have gone to LA and become a Hollywood star. Too big of a stage? Too much pressure? Instead, he went to Miami to team up with his buddies and hang out on South Beach. The most non-competitive and selfish choice possible. How could LeBron even attempt to build a historic legacy when he colluded to partner up on a super team?
The LeBron hate had reached critical mass and the public had finally caught up to me. Miami became the most hated team in the NBA. Collusion, pre-championship gloating, and entitlement were exactly what set it off. If the spectacle was a circus in Cleveland, this was other-worldly. Now instead of just King James, the big three were crowned and anointed before they had accomplished anything. Bandwagon fans appeared in all corners of the nation. ESPN created a special “Heat Index” page to track the team around the clock. The spectacle was insufferable.
My hate had also reached critical mass. Every flop brought wrath, every missed shot brought joy. Monster dunks weren’t met with shock or anger, only pure indifference and a snide comment about never being in a dunk contest. I was addicted to the emotional rush related to everything around LeBron. There was nothing greater than Dirk winning his first championship after being mocked for having the flu by LeBron and Wade. The choke job that setup that Finals' loss made evident that LeBron could never achieve greatness. Yet we all had to wake up the next day and go back to our same life.
The winning streak? All I remember is LeBron loafing through a bunch of games and turning it on the in the fourth quarter only to have it all dashed away by the Bulls. The first title? Shorten season and didn’t have to go up against the best team in the East. Second title? Bailout by Ray Allen; injured and weak East. The fact that the Spurs ended the "not one, not three, but two" titles with the most devastating Finals beat down of all time was just icing on the cake. The Return? That was a marketing ploy dreamed up by publicists to swing public favor back to LeBron. Somehow this orchestrated con-job convinced people to take their LeBron jerseys back out of the burn barrel and recommit to being a Witness. How could anyone be so blind?
Blind hatred was addicting.
There was one moment*, though, in that Heat run that knocked the blinders off my hatred. 2012; Game 6; Boston; Eastern Conference Finals. This should have been the nail in the LeBron legacy coffin. Unable to close again against the Celtics. LeBron came out that night to not just do damage but to destroy. There it was again, the greatness that had been promised. The unrelenting dominance that was always lurking but never unleashed. LeBron pulling his legacy out of the grave should have been my darkest moment as a hater. Yet, I sat there transfixed on the game. Amazed by what I was seeing, respecting what I was witnessing. What was wrong with me?
*(I will also give props to LeBron for forcing sub-prime mortgage scum Dan Gilbert to pay Tristan Thompson an ungodly amount of money.)*
Fast forward to the 2016 Playoffs. Another weak Eastern Conference cakewalk for LeBron, and three legit contenders in the West. Not much to worry about. At least Golden State and Oklahoma City put on a good series. The first two games of the Finals were blow outs. But LeBron was lurking everywhere on the court, looking deadly focused. Then it happened in Game 5. The greatness was unleashed, and it never stopped. All those one-off King James performances from the past were overshadowed by the full potential of LeBron James. We were finally witnessing peak LeBron, the promise of greatness throughout all these years was materializing before us. The hate lifted. On paper, on sight, and by results, LeBron achieved everything he was promised to do from the beginning of his career. His performance broke through spectacle and stood on its own. I was no longer judging LeBron based on his public persona or the latest media hot take. I was just watching basketball, watching history, watching greatness.
I went back to view the end of that first High School game. LeBron finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists beating the number one team in the country by 20 points. I don’t remember him being so impressive on that cold Midwestern night, the spectacle around him stood out so much more. It was something to put in perspective thirteen years later. Cameramen, media personnel, and other random grown men with good or not so good intentions crowded around the young James, hounding him for attention and following his every move. Trying to create hype around the "next greatest" instead of the performance of LeBron.
After this historic finals performance, his game has finally matched what was once an unreachable hype. Will I be pulling for LeBron in next year’s playoffs? Absolutely not! Instead, this recovering hater will be able to put aside the spectacle of LeBron James and finally appreciate the greatness of his game.