If anyone can empathize with the hatred Golden State Warriors fans felt toward LeBron James last weekend after he eviscerated their team in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, it’s Esquire writer Scott Raab. Four years ago, the lifelong Cleveland Cavaliers fan penned a book entitled “The Whore of Akron,” a hyperbolic account of the animosity he felt toward James after he left the team to sign with the Miami Heat.
Many of the same Cleveland fans who once gathered around trash cans to burn James’ jersey forgave him this year after his triumphant return to the Cavaliers culminated in a championship berth. But some NBA diehards remain critical of James’ personality and the path he has taken to basketball stardom, including some members of his own team’s fan base. On the eve of this year’s NBA Finals, one Cavaliers fan wrote a "tortured" letter to Raab -- once America’s pre-eminent LeBron hater -- in search of guidance.
“It was like, ‘Help, the Cavs are on the doorstep here and I can’t even feel any pleasure because I can’t root for LeBron.’ There are holdouts, just as there were Japanese soldiers on the islands 40, 50 years after World War II ended,” Raab said. “I do not feel that way, I do not feel conflicted, but there are fans who do. I don’t know what the percentages are, but there are Cleveland fans who, in general, still scorn LeBron.”
James’ accomplishments, both on and off the court, render the hatred he faces on Internet message boards and social media platforms all the more baffling. He’s a four-time NBA MVP who, through tremendous individual effort, has led an injury-riddled Cavaliers roster to a 1-1 tie with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Known for his unselfish style of play and willingness to facilitate his teammates, he’s arguably the NBA’s most deferential superstar since Magic Johnson.
James married his high school sweetheart, has three young children and frequently advocates for social justice. He has parlayed his brand-friendliness into untold millions of dollars in endorsement deals, and a 2014 Harris Poll named him America’s most popular male athlete among the coveted 18-36 demographic.
And that, for critics, is where the problem begins. Detractors argue every move James has made, from his ESPN-televised announcement in 2010 of his decision to sign with the Miami Heat to his July 2014 explanation in Sports Illustrated of why he re-signed with the Cavaliers, was a calculated action from a man obsessed with his legacy. In a sports culture that values cold-blooded, self-assured athletes like Michael Jordan above all others, James’ need to publicly explain his actions, to cultivate an image, comes across as disingenuous or, even worse, as weak.
“You look at more classic superstar athletes in any sport, they didn’t necessarily behave that way,” said Connor Walters, 24, a Cleveland resident who has attended Cavaliers games since he was very young, practically a toddler. “They just went about their business. They played the game. Maybe they were a jerk on or off the field, but it felt like they were being more genuine.”
Prior to “The Decision,” James’ reputation as one of the country’s top athletes was nearly unblemished. Born and raised by a single mother in northeast Ohio, James enjoyed a meteoric rise to national basketball stardom before he ever set foot on an NBA court. When he was just a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School, James covered Sports Illustrated, which anointed him “The Chosen One.” The Cavaliers made him the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. Within four years, he rewarded them with a trip to the NBA Finals.
For four consecutive years, James singlehandedly carried a weak Cleveland roster deep into the playoffs, only to lose to superior opponents. The losses only enhanced James’ reputation as a scrappy underdog, able to extract the absolute best from his teammates. But even then, James did things that rubbed Cleveland fans the wrong way.
“I would always, against maybe my better judgment, defend him to friends when he would do things you don’t do, like Week 1 [in 2008], Cowboys-Browns, he’s on the Cowboys’ sideline, or wearing a Yankees hat to an Indians-Yankees playoff game [in 2007],” said Brian Rosen, 28, a diehard Cleveland sports fan. “He would always make it clear that he was from Akron and he didn’t really like Cleveland very much when he was a kid.”
Still, it seemed inevitable that James would join the likes of Jordan, who suffered playoff losses to Isaiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons three straight years in the late 1980s before finally winning an NBA title, as basketball legends forged in adversity. Instead, James took his talents to South Beach.
Rather than pursue a title in Cleveland, James joined forces with top-10 scorers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, breaking the news on live television in a move that infuriated basketball fans across the country. For NBA purists, James had taken the easy way out. Cavaliers fans burned James’ jersey and called him a sellout. The Heat’s “Big Three” went on to win two titles in four years.
“It wasn’t that he left, it’s how he did it,” said Stephen Orbanek, 27, a Cleveland sports fan and Pennsylvania public relations professional. “It’d be like taking my wife ... in front of her family and telling them all, ‘I’m going to divorce you.’ ”
James left Miami after the 2014 NBA Finals, when the San Antonio Spurs trounced the Heat in five games. When he re-signed with the Cavaliers, James said he “always believed” he’d return to Cleveland to bring a championship to his hometown. But some critics pointed out James had left aging running mates in Wade and Bosh in favor of the Cavaliers’ rising star point guard Kyrie Irving and the team’s wealth of salary cap room and draft picks, which it later parlayed into a trade for All-Star forward Kevin Love. James upgraded to a younger “Big Three.”
“Last year, Chirs Bosh and Dwayne Wade were getting older and more injury-riddled and he jumped ship to Cleveland on this goodwill tour,” said Benjamin Holcomb, 23, an Ohio expat and author of a blog post entitled “Why We Hate LeBron,” which went viral in 2014. “To me, it seems like LeBron left Cleveland originally to go to a much sunnier situation in Miami and then he left Miami to go to a much sunnier situation back in Cleveland.”
'Just Seems More Theatrics Than Sports'
James’ return to Cleveland may have culminated in an NBA title berth, but the transition was far from smooth. Even in a historically weak Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers struggled through the first few months of the 2014-15 NBA season and had a record under .500 as late as January. Scattered reports hinted at discontent within the Cavaliers locker room and that James was unhappy with rookie head coach David Blatt. James admitted he made changes to the team’s game plan in December without consulting Blatt when he essentially took over as the team’s point guard.
“Nah, I can do it on my own. I’m past those days where I have to ask,” James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time.
He also publicly fired shots at Love, in a way that provoked scorn on social media. In a cryptic tweet last February, James urged an unnamed individual to “stop trying to find a way to fit out” and to “be a part of something special.” Later, he admitted the tweet was aimed at Love, who had struggled to integrate into the Cavaliers’ offense, ESPN reported. Again, James’ willingness to air his feelings in public did not sit well with his critics.
James’ flair for the dramatic has also extends to the court. Criticism of his perceived penchant for “flopping,” or exaggerating physical contact to draw a foul, reached its height in 2014, when fans posted videos of themselves randomly falling to the ground as part of a viral trend called “LeBroning.” The social media mockery continued after Game 1 of 2014 NBA Finals when James had to be carried off the court with severe cramps.
“It just seems more theatrics than sports sometimes,” Walters said.
More recently, fans poked fun at James when he collapsed to the ground at the end of regulation of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals with an apparent ankle injury, but finished the game without issue.
“Like any superstar athlete, I think he is susceptible to some diva tendencies. … I think he knows that scene is going to be played over on SportsCenter, that’s going to make the cover of newspapers,” Orbanek said.
And yet, despite his apparently inflated self-regard and perceived theatrics, it’s hard to discount that James’ play in this year’s NBA playoffs has been anything short of historic. The Cavaliers lost Love to injury for the rest of the year in first round while Irving suffered a season-ending injury in Game 1 of this year’s NBA Finals. Without both of his most talented teammates, James, through sheer force of will, has led the Cavaliers’ makeshift lineup to a tie against reigning MVP Stephen Curry and the rest of the Warriors’ 67-win roster.
The Cavaliers have utterly relied on James. Through two NBA Finals games, James has an unprecedented usage rate of 41.4 percent, meaning nearly half of the team’s possessions have ended with a direct contribution from James. Cleveland evened the series at one game apiece Sunday, stealing a victory on Golden State’s home court behind James’ 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists. As the 2015 NBA Finals swing back to Cleveland, James is performing at a level that even his staunchest detractors will find hard to ignore.
“If this kid wills himself to put his entire team on his back … you’re talking about an all-time apocalyptic moment in NBA history,” said Tom O’Grady, a sports branding expert at Gameplan Creative of Chicago. “This will be as big as anything you’ve ever seen.”