By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Four games into The NBA Finals, Player A has averaged 21.5 points, five rebounds, 4.8 assists and one steal per game. Player B has averaged 24.8 points, 11 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 2.3 steals. Player A is reigning MVP Stephen Curry. Player B is LeBron James. Since Curry’s Golden State Warriors are up 3-1, he’s so likeable and his daughter is so darn cute, his mediocrity is getting a pass. With the Cleveland Cavaliers on the brink of elimination, James is being eviscerated, again. See when James’s teams lose, The King gets blamed, fairness and objectivity be damned.
In her song “32 Flavors”, Ani DiFranco sings, “Everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.” James personifies this lyric, in part: He’s often the prettiest player on the court, but the hatred of him is no secret.
James is inarguably one of the greatest athletes of all time. He’s in the company of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Jim Brown and Jim Thorpe. At 6’8”, 250lbs of chiseled granite, James is a tank on the court. He jumps like Jordan, runs like Bo Jackson, dribbles like a point guard and has the quickness of an NFL cornerback.
This confluence of athletic gifts anointed James “The Chosen One” before he could legally drink. Twelve years into his NBA career, it would seem James has done little to disappoint. His accomplishments include 12 All-Star selections, four league MVP awards, two Finals MVP awards, 10 appearances on the All-NBA First Team, five appearances on the NBA All-Defensive Team, seven trips to The Finals and two NBA championships.
But that’s just James’s basketball resume; his personal resume is comparably impressive. Despite arriving in the NBA as a teenager with more expectations than any basketball player ever, James has navigated the fish bowl remarkably well. He is a gentleman on the court, respectful of the media and a willing criticism-absorber for un-King-like teammates. And unlike so many professional athletes, James’s name isn’t associated with late-night club incidents, DUIs, assaults on women, drug use or gun-related debauchery.
Still, the world loves to hate on LeBron James; admittedly, he has obliged critics with legitimate material to fuel the skewering. James’s game and persona have warts. Despite generational physical gifts, James is a reluctant bully (unlike some presidential candidates). When the spotlight is brightest, James often chooses to defer to teammates instead of dictating play. For many players, this would be called “unselfishness”; for James, it’s considered a chronic weakness. James also struggles in his own head. His talent is obvious to the viewer’s eye, but James’s confidence, on occasion, inexplicably wavers. Further, he’s failed to submit himself to an established coach (like Jordan, Magic Johnson). And he rarely does himself any favors on Twitter. Ultimately, though, there is this haunting statistic: The King’s a very un-regal 2-4 in The Finals. Down 3-1 to the Warriors, the sharks are circling again.
So he isn’t Jordan or Bill Russell. But we knew this five years ago – at least. The Decision – James’s ill-fated televised announcement of his signing with the Miami Heat - and disastrous pep rally that followed happened six years ago. Shouldn’t we have gotten our pound of The King’s flesh and accepted his place in NBA history as “one of the best”, not “the best”?
I can’t think of another athlete like James. He’s had missteps, but I’ve never seen an athlete whose accomplishments are so disrespected and one so disliked for no meaningful reason. Do his critics consider him a failure? Do they believe they would have done better if blessed with his skills? Both are laughable suggestions and disrespectful of elite competition and the great teams James has battled.
Here’s a worse thought: The tired trolling of James is indicative of a non-specific, destructive habit. Whether buoyed by social media, a pervasive inferiority complex or a decline in civility, fault-finders are a swelling mob. Damn the good in anyone if an ounce of fault can be found. Through that lens, the vitriol criticism of James says a lot more about his critics than it does about the constantly embattled player.
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