“You wanna hate me then hate me; what can I do”—Nas, featuring Puff Daddy (now Diddy), “Hate Me Now” (1999)
America has thrived on the notion of heroes and villains since the so-called settlers came and killed off Native Americans, the real owners of this land that we call our land, centuries back. Since then we’ve had cowboys versus Indians, Americans versus Russians, cops versus robbers, Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman, and, suddenly, the goodness of Kevin Durant versus the evil that is LeBron James. But….
There is something profoundly wrong with any people, any society, where someone can possess the attributes of success, achievement, bottomless talent, and a squeaky clean personal life, yet be so routinely hated by so many. That is the dilemma of one LeBron Raymone James, the greatest basketball player on the planet Earth. I hear you Kevin Durant fans. Yes KD can rock with the best of them offensively but when he plays defense and makes the NBA All-Defensive First Team like Bron then we can talk. And when KD can literally will his team to victory, as LeBron did in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Heat’s season on the line, scoring 45 points in the process, including several very difficult shots, then we can talk. Until then, LeBron James remains the greatest hoop show on earth and, oh yeah, one of the most despised—
But such is the sad culture of disrespect and venom so many of us unwittingly inhale in these times. Because if we look, with basic honesty in our hearts, at LeBron James’ career, his statistical averages through his first nine seasons are exceptional: 27.6 points per game, 6.8 assists per game, and 7.2 rebounds per game. Compare that with NBA Hall of Famers like Magic Johnson (19.5 points per game, 11.2 assists per game, 7.2 rebounds per game), Larry Bird (24.3 points per game, 6.3 assists per game, and 10 rebounds per game), and Michael Jordan (30.1 points per game, 5.3 assists per game, and 6.2 rebounds per game) and you see, quite easily, that James matches up with some of the greatest basketball players ever. And the same goes for his playoff career stats, too.
And even if LBJ does not finally win his first championship this June against the Oklahoma City Thunder, or never wins one, he would still be ranked among the best NBA players to run a hardwood floor, joining ringless bball royalty like Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Dominique Wilkins, Patrick Ewing, and Steve Nash (still playing and still waiting).
Will it suck that a player of LeBron James’ otherworldly skill sets did not win at least one NBA championship? Of course it will. But will it diminish the magnitude of his being the most gifted and genius kind of athlete? No. Dan Marino, with zero Super Bowl rings, will always be in conversations about the top quarterbacks to play in the NFL. Ted Williams, arguably the best batter in baseball history and the last to bat .400 or better in a full season (1941), never won a World Series but is forever cited as the model for pure and effortless hitting.
So if we are going to call James a loser, among other choice names, we need to add the aforementioned athletes to that list, too. And many more besides them.
But I feel there is something much deeper at work here. It is the old intersection of sports, money and, yes, race, in America, and how those three things not only fuel our pop culture machine, but also how we think about these ballplayers. You think not? Let’s simply take a look at what happened to the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, and how he was treated. It wasn’t just because Jack Johnson was so brazen, in the age of lynchings no less, to parade White women around on his arm while showing off his fancy cars and clothing. It was also because Johnson was not the kind of Black man who was going to shuffle and jive enough to be accepted by White folks. Ditto was the case with Cassius Clay once he became Muhammad Ali. “The Greatest” may be revered now but people tend to forget there was an across-the-board national hatred for Ali because of that name change and his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War. And he paid a steep price with his bank account, popularity, and three years, in his prime, lost from boxing. Likewise with Curt Flood, a Black baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals whose refusal, in 1969 (at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement) to be traded to a team he did not want to play for, the Philadelphia Phillies, actually helped to spur the modern sports free agency system.
Flood said, matter of factly, when asked about his stance: “After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.”
And neither does LeBron James. Which is why he eased his Ohio player swag down the road pioneered by Curt Flood and opted, as a free agent, to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 for the Miami Heat. Now did I feel, as I watched it live, that James’ participation in ESPN’s “The Decision” was foolish and a poorly conceived spectacle? Absolutely. But to not mention that long-time sports journalist Jim Gray initiated the idea of “The Decision,” and to leave out, oh so methodically, all the charities that benefitted financially from that ESPN program, including the Boys and Girls Club, is downright dishonest, and was the beginning of James’ troubles with the media, with fans, and, heck, even with Black communities throughout America.
How could this happen, so swiftly, so absolutely? I started pondering this in a different way last week as I watched the Celtics-Heat series unfold. Jeff Van Gundy, former NBA coach and current commentator for ESPN and ABC, was blunt: “Two years is long enough for everyone to be mad at LeBron.” He is correct. Especially when all you folks pissed at LeBron ignore the basic facts of his life.
He was born in the middle of the crack cocaine era, in 1984, to an impoverished single mother who was but 16 at the time of his birth. He grew up, like so many of us ghetto youth, without his biological father (a formerly incarcerated person who abandoned the mother and son). He evolved into a teenage basketball prodigy by just his second year of high school, receiving national attention and coverage so intense that many were already mouthing “King James” and “The Chosen One” as he packed gyms wherever his high school team played. He would become the number one pick in the 2003 NBA draft, and as luck would have it, be drafted by his home state team, the Cavs. He would not only transform a horrific basketball wasteland into a winning one (with one trip to the NBA Finals where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs) but the spirit of an entire Midwestern city. Cleveland had never seen anything like LeBron James, not since the days of Jim Brown becoming a legendary and mythological running back for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and 1960s.
And people forget, because of our selective amnesia, that LBJ did in fact sign a contract extension with the Cavs after his first one expired before the start of the 2007-2008 season. So, in my opinion, he gave Cleveland all he could and what he got in return were mediocre coaches and players nowhere near the level of the role players Magic or Bird or Jordan or Kobe received as they pursued their hoop dreams.
And it seems like a long fortnight since LeBron James was so beloved by so many. It wasn’t just “The Decision” that angered mainstream media but also the rock star celebration the Heat orchestrated for him, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh (plain dumb). In a nano-second James had gone from the darling of the sports world to public enemy number one.
But that was two years ago.
Even as I rooted for the Dallas Mavericks to beat the Heat in last year’s NBA Finals, I never personally spewed the kind of contempt I see on my facebook and twitter pages, most of it directed toward LeBron James. “Arrogant,” “a punk,” “Hollywood,” “self-absorbed,” and many curse words I dare not repeat here.
What I find so amazing about this, and so incredibly twisted, is that James habitually gives back to communities in his native Ohio. In spite of the Cavs’ owner publicly attacking James and his decision to leave as if he somehow owned James and James somehow owed him more than the seven years of his life he had already given to the Cavs. And in spite of the fact that we never—never—hear of any personal indiscretions by LeBron James: no run-ins with the police, no rape or sexual assault charges, no allegations of domestic violence, no guns, no fights, no driving while drunk. Instead James is going to marry his high school sweetheart and mother of their two children. And James never fails to mention his unyielding love for his mother and what she did for him.
In an era of athletes gone mad James is really as clean-cut as Kevin Durant, and as positive, but because he chose to do things his way, to recognize the power he has as a superstar athlete in a way Magic, Bird, and Jordan never got to realize in their playing days, he is demonized for it. Add the fact that LeBron is not always smiling on the court, is a muscular Black man with lots of tattoos and a confidence that we are quick to describe as “scowling” and “disrespectful” (or “uppity” if we were living in another time in America), and little wonder that a multicultural army of haters hate on LeBron James so hard.
Yes, LeBron has made mistakes. Should have never said the Heat would win 5, 6, 7 NBA championships. Should have never posed on that Vogue cover playing King Kong to White-woman-in-distress Gisele. Racially backwards and ignorant. Should have never mocked Dirk Nowitzki being sick during the 2010 NBA Finals. Ditto for him and his teammates driving go carts around their arena after a Game 1 victory in that series.
But by the same token how many athletes, how many Black athletes, had the heart to don and pose in hoodies in support of slain Florida youth Trayvon Martin the way LeBron James, DWade, and their Heat teammates did, to show their solidarity? And how many so willingly give of their time and energy to so many causes as James does, including the supporting of various political candidates? Meanwhile Michael Jordan famously said, when asked to support a Democratic candidate years back, that Republicans buy shoes, too.
So, to me, the roots causes of the hate for LeBron James is not just due to basketball. They have everything to do with this celebrity-obsessed culture we did not create, yet are willing participants in. That means far too many of us, our lives so very inadequate and empty (and, yes, many of us are broke and living vicariously through the adventures and misadventures of these multi-million dollar ball players), have taken to seeing the modern professional athlete as a reality show that is interactive. We can cheer, scream, curse, and, yes, condemn, at will, right from our sofas. And then, of course, twitter and facebook make those actions so immediate, so urgent, that the scrutiny level on a LeBron James is amplified in ways that Magic, Bird, and Jordan could not have imagined a mere 20 years ago.
Moreover, it is not only White America that still, in spite of Barack Obama (or maybe because of Barack Obama), has a problem with Black males who do not go along to get along. Bron ain’t that kind of dude, and never will be. But, real talk, some of the most hateful, vile, and mean-spirited comments I’ve seen about LeBron James on the internet has, pathetically and very tragically, come from Black Americans. Indeed, some of us have internalized racism so much that we do not even realize how much we ape what the mainstream media tells us to think and say. So we hate LeBron, too. Think he is arrogant and Hollywood, too. Want him to fail, miserably, to lose to Kevin Durant and the Thunder, too. So that LeBron can be taught a lesson, taught some humility, so that he can be the boy he once was, the boy who we gloated over in what seemed like an eternity.
But LeBron James is not a boy, his name is not Toby as in the epic mini-series “Roots,” and neither you nor I nor them nor they own him. He owns himself. It is that freedom that allows LeBron to play any position on the court at any time. It is that freedom that gave him permission to go work where he pleased, whether you liked it or not. And it is that kind of freedom that Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, and countless others fought for all of us to have, in their own way, in the field of sport and play. Because they understood, as I believe LeBron is coming to understand, that there is a thin line between sport and play and real life.
And an even thinner line between love and hate—
Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 11 books, including his newest title “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” You can order the book at www.lulu.com, or on iTunes and Amazon/Amazon Kindle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell