In Defense of LeBron James

When it comes to the Big Four sports in America (sorry, soccer fans), basketball is by far my least favorite for a variety of reasons. If the hometown Celtics aren’t involved, I’m not likely to be watching, and if they themselves aren’t particularly good I’m also likely to tune out. I am, at best, a fair-weather fan. But as a sports fan I still follow the league and its players from a distance and I must say I’m astonished by the hatred that is constantly heaped upon LeBron James. It appears he is a man that can do no right even though, near as I can tell, he has never done anything particularly wrong.

LeBron Raymone James was born to a single mother in a lower income area of Akron, Ohio. He was also born a basketball prodigy which proved to be his ticket out of a tough situation. He was hailed as the second coming as early as his freshman year of high school and was drafted #1 overall in the NBA draft (without going to college) by his “hometown team”, the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team with the worst record in the entire league.

LeBron went on to play the next seven years for the Cavaliers, reaching (and possibly exceeding) every expert’s ridiculously high expectations of him. He won the Rookie Of The Year, two Most Valuable Player awards, two All-Star Game MVP awards, and was generally considered the best all-around player in the league by age 26. He also helped turn the perennially awful Cleveland franchise into a contender, leading them to the NBA Finals in 2007. He did all this despite the fact that it is generally agreed he never played with another All-Pro caliber teammate (and yet was never the highest paid player on his team).

Then in 2010 he became a free agent and decided to play somewhere else. Suddenly all hell broke loose and LeBron James was branded a disloyal, arrogant, money-grubbing jerk who was selfish and entitled. But why?

First let’s talk money. As previously stated, he was never the highest paid player on the Cavaliers. In his final season there he made almost $5 million less than an aging Shaquille O’Neal (who barely managed to stay healthy for half the season). Due to some weirdly complex NBA rules he was eligible to make the most possible money if he simply resigned with Cleveland. Instead he took LESS money to go play for the Miami Heat where he was paid the same as Chris Bosh, a very good player who quite frankly is not on his level. He has never been the highest paid player in the NBA despite being its best player for almost a decade. And yet people call him greedy.

So what about loyalty? When he left Cleveland for Miami, Cavs fans burned his jersey in effigy, his former boss wrote a scathing letter that was posted to the team’s website where he referred to James’s decision as a “selfish”, “heartless”, “callous”, and a “cowardly betrayal”. Mind you, James left as a free agent, an act which is completely within the rules of basketball and is done by hundreds of players every year across all sports. Let’s also keep in mind that LeBron James was not allowed to pick where he wanted to work once he graduated high school like most other American adults get to. He was drafted. The Cleveland Cavaliers were essentially awarded him as a result of being terrible. He had no say in it. While with the Cavs he played hard, he played well, and he did everything he could to make them better. The team responded by surrounding him with inferior teammates and basically wasted the first half of his prime years by making him try and carry the team on his back. So he left. And yet HE is disloyal? Why, because he grew up in Akron? What loyalty did he owe the city of Cleveland (or the state of Ohio for that matter)? He took a job in a different city for a variety of logical reasons (better weather, better team, and chance to play with guys he was friends with). Given the opportunity to do something similar in our own chosen profession, most of us would do the same.

That brings up another apparent “problem” that seems to irk a lot of NBA players and fans, particularly those who think of themselves as “traditionalists”. “Larry Bird would never have formed a super team just to win! Neither would Magic Johnson! They would have stayed with their teams!” You know why that is? THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO! Bird & Magic were placed in winning situations almost immediately, playing for competent organizations that surrounded them with fellow Hall Of Famers that allowed them to flourish. There was never a need for either of them to move somewhere else to be successful because they had other great players already around them. Ask poor Charles Barkley what it’s like to try and win without talent around you and then remind him that he asked out of Philly in an attempt to go somewhere where he had a fighting chance to win. LeBron was forever being compared to Michael Jordan and then being told he would never be on MJ’s level unless he started winning championships. Except LeBron never had Scottie Pippen at his side. Tired of waiting for complimentary playing pieces, he went to where the talent was. Lo and behold he won two titles in four years, although now all those who say he needed championships to be considered truly “great” want to put an asterix on it because he didn’t do it in Cleveland. Funny how none of them seem to have an issue with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaq ditching their original teams to go to the Lakers to win.

“But what about ‘The Decision’!”, you cry. What about it? Yes, in July of 2010 LeBron James, at the urging of a reporter, a TV network, and his management team (none of whom had his best interests in mind), he aired a one hour TV special to announce where he would be signing as a free agent, ultimately uttering the famous phrase, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach”. Yes, it was a moment – however brief – of spotlight hogging. It was arrogant of him to think that people cared about his future to that degree, unless you consider that he was being followed by cameras and reporters since age 14 who wanted to document his every move. Is it really blind arrogance to give people what they’re constantly asking you for? Access. If he was a nobody who suddenly tried to make a big deal of himself, you might have a point, but at no point in his career had LeBron been treated as anything other than “special”. Why is it now on him to act like he’s not?

As for the selfishness of “The Decision, let’s remember that he held the special in the Boys & Girls Club in Connecticut (a neutral site) and not some million dollar private mansion. Plus he raised $2.5 million for the Club just by having the event, then took the $3.5 earned from advertising (ESPN gave them the hour of airtime to do with as they pleased just to get the “scoop”, so all ad revenue went to James’ camp) and donated THAT to charity. It’s unclear to me how this is the behavior of a selfish man who has nothing but his own interests in mind.

Then there was the little welcoming party in Miami, where he, Bosh, Dwayne Wade were paraded out in front of an arena full of excited Heat fans prior to playing together and basically told to “fire them up”. So LeBron made another ill-advised move and promised to win, “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” championships. Was it over the top? Certainly. You know what else it was? Not intended to be seen by anybody other than Heat fans. It was a PEP RALLY, for crying out loud. What was he supposed to do, promise to do his best and play hard? Yeah, that would have whipped them into a frenzy. He looks foolish in retrospect, but it was hardly an act that deserves to have him vilified, especially in a profession littered with men who treat the laws of our country as guidelines which only occasionally apply to them.

Now here we are in 2014 and LeBron James is “going home”, returning to Cleveland (once again for less money than he could have made by staying in Miami), joining an inferior team in an effort to try and “right a previous wrong” and because as an older man (a whopping 30 years old) he’d like to raise his family in the place where he grew up. As you would expect, this has caused the LeBron haters to label him a phony and question his true motives. Once again, the man can’t win.

I don’t love LeBron James. I don’t care enough about basketball to have much feeling for him at all. He’s just another player that’s not on my local team. But I’ve started to feel bad for the guy because when I look at all the facts, I see a pretty decent guy who happens to be ridiculously good at something that lots of people want to know about. He comes across as genuinely fun in interviews and he seems to really want to be the best he can be while making as many people happy as he can. Yet somehow he’s a villain. I don’t get it.

Michael Jordan is regarded as the greatest player in NBA history. He was notoriously ornery and competitive during his playing days and played with a massive chip on his shoulder thanks to people telling him he wasn’t good enough when he was younger. While a high draft pick, he was not supposed to be the Greatest Of All Time when he entered the league. The expectations simply weren’t there. So he spent his entire career trying to prove people wrong. It also made him kind of a dick.

LeBron James was told from almost day one that he could be the G.O.A.T. and that anything short of that was going to be a disappointment. As a result, he has spent his entire career trying to prove people RIGHT. And he’s done so without ever really tarnishing his name or the NBA’s reputation, outside of a few isolated moments of weakness which, in fairness, were as much about him trying to be a good ambassador for the game than they were about him being a raging egomaniac.

Of course people don’t want to admit that, because it’s easier (and I presume more fun) to hate him. Which is a shame, because he deserves better. Unlike MJ, he doesn’t come across as a dick.

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