Four years ago, LeBron James made the biggest mistake of his professional career: He went on TV to announce that he was going to go play basketball with his friends.
Okay, so it was a bit more complicated than that. James made the announcement in the most inane way possible, with the nationally televised and eminently cringe-worthy "The Decision." He ditched his home state for Florida. He teamed up with two other superstars to form a tripartite basketball Megazord.
Most egregiously, he looked downright giddy while doing it.
With nine simple words — "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach" — not to mention the subsequent braggadocio-soaked prediction of the Miami Heat winning "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" NBA championships, James suddenly became the most villainous human being in the NBA. And so began the biggest bandwagon in the league — bigger than even the Heat's own bandwagon — of hating on LeBron James.
In the years since James skipped south to Florida, the simmering hatred has continued unabated. Fans giddily jeered his failures, taunted his fourth quarter disappearing acts, and mocked him with memes. When their "choke" joke reserves ran dry and James went Super Saiyan to win two titles, the haters turned to James' hairline for new fodder.
With James on the verge of a dynastic three-peat, haters are once again poised over their keyboards, canned jokes at the ready, prepared to fire off trite, lazy snark with every missed shot and turnover to sate their schadenfreude. But why? Why is James still the NBA's heel despite all his success and newfound humility?
The anti-James bandwagon was borne of a few general sentiments. First, fans feigned outrage that he picked a new suitor in free agency (the horror!) and created a super-team. Second, they groused, if not as loud, that he had the audacity to select a basketball team besides their own. And third, even if his choices weren't flawed, his pomposity and attitude were mind-blowingly tone-deaf, and thus grounds for hatred.
These gripes are absolute bunk.
It's willfully ignorant to believe that "unfair" free agency moves like James' have never, ever, ever happened in basketball before. Ever. James even took a smaller contract to play in Miami, so you can't pull the old "It was about the money" card either.
And though The Decision TV special was one giant facepalm, let's remember, James was 25 years old at the time and already being heralded as potentially the greatest of all time. Though we may wish our stars were infallible, James should be forgiven for having a little (okay, a lot of) youthful pride. This transgression was hardly worthy of a lifetime branding as an egotistical pariah.
Are fans really so selfish that they'd loathe a star player simply because he's a video game character come to life who keeps hogging all the championships? "My team didn't sign the best player in the game so nuts to that guy" is a petulant argument that is less of a demerit against James than it is against those myopic enough to hold the opinion.
Moreover, James seems like a genuinely decent guy. He's married to his high school sweetheart, isn't a bad karaoke singer, and encourages kids to exercise. What a jerk, right?
James is the greatest player of his generation, but people can't stop hating on him because it was the cool thing to do four years ago. It was a gross overreaction that has only grown vindictive, clueless, and stale. And in blindly loathing James, critics are failing to appreciate his awe-inspiring talent. Shouting "Hallelujah!" at every missed free throw elides every thunderous dunk, and turns watching basketball into a petty, shallow business.
You don't need to cheer for James and the Heat in the Finals. The Spurs are a compelling team that, despite what you've heard, are not boring.
But please, enough with the schadenfreude. This year, root for something — not against someone.
Note: The author is a Celtics fan who, despite ample reasons to hate James, cannot bring himself to do so.