June 12, 2023
“In the valley of the blind…the one eyed man is king.” – Unknown
Saying LeBron James is one of greatest basketball players of all time is like saying Einstein was good at math. It’s a severe, and almost disrespectful understatement. He is by far one of the most influential athletes to ever live, and even one of the most popular figures in American history. Those who have never watched a basketball game in their lives know the name “LeBron James”. From collecting most of the major accolades in the sport to recently involving himself in several media projects, he’s one of the athletes that truly are above the sport of basketball. He’s never been involved in criminal activity, had a crazy scandal, and tends to avoid negative press altogether. So why is he so hated while other people who rival his talent in the sport aren’t? I find that the (albeit unwarranted) reason that he is disliked by many ultimately boils down to: high expectations and insecurity of the public.
A high school phenom, hailed as “the next Michael Jordan”, James has had pressure put on him from a very young age. He came from an impoverished background and ultimately brought him and his friends around him out of poverty just by being good at the sport of basketball. The sports world marveled at his talent, and of course he still had haters. Those who believed that he wouldn’t succeed in the NBA. Those who didn’t “believe the hype”. If you’re good at something, people will ultimately doubt you out of jealousy. Brutus had his own uncle Julius Caeser brutally murdered. Judas sold out Jesus for like a couple thousand dollars in today money. People will hate on you even if you’ve done nothing to them. However, he truly became the villain of the NBA when, after 7 years playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, left for the Miami Heat.
“This is the worst thing that could ever happen to Cleveland. For him to go on there and drag us in the mud for seven years and stab us in the heart, he deserves everything he gets.”
These words from a fan would have you think that he was a cocky, selfish person that never brought the dilapidated city and their basketball team any success. When LeBron came to Cleveland, the team’s win percentage had been on a steady decline for 6 years. Their record the season before he was drafted was 17-65. He didn’t exactly enter a successful dynasty when he entered the league. They hadn’t won a playoff series since Clinton was in office. However, in his first season, they went 35-47. In his second, they broke .500 for the first time in years, winning 42 out of 82 games. In his third season, they beat the Wizards in the first round and lost to the powerful Pistons in 7 games the following round. The next season, he brought them to the NBA Finals. Let me reiterate: in his fourth season in the NBA, he brought a team with zero all-stars to the NBA Finals. They ultimately got swept by the Spurs led by Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, but Cleveland fans had not even tasted the playoffs in over a decade. Their record continued to improve each year that he was there. In his final season, he’d led them to five straight playoff berths and their regular season record was 61-21, the best in the Eastern Conference. All because of one man. The man who won two straight MVPs. The NBA’s leading scorer in 2008. The man with the second most playoff triple doubles of all time. He took great pride in his city, hoping to bring them as much success as he could, which he did. But no one can succeed alone. Wilt couldn’t, Magic couldn’t, Michael couldn’t, Kobe couldn’t, and LeBron couldn’t. And the fact that would soon be made even clearer to him would be that he was alone in Cleveland.
The same man that brought millions of television views to Cleveland in high school just by making jump shots and dunks was soon to be hated by the same people that seemed to love him. In 2018, Daniel Shoag, a Harvard economics professor told ESPN that LeBron’s presence in Cleveland increased restaurant and bar business by 13% and employment by 24%. His impact is truly bigger extends past basketball and seeps into becoming an economic boost for the city. Not just that, but when he leaves, the Cavs go back to sucking. After he made his decision to leave the decrepit excuse for a franchise that was the Cleveland Cavaliers, their record was 19-63. There are more cents in a quarter held to a dollar than wins versus losses in a season when he left. The Cavaliers went from being 1st in the East to 15th. Not just that, they were the second worst team in the NBA. It’s immensely sad. Not to mention, the infamous LeBron hate including verbal abuse and jersey burning happened before he’d even played a game in a Heat jersey. Ultimately, his criticism from Cleveland fans is unwarranted. Notably, he went on to return and brought Cleveland their first championship along with 4 straight Finals appearances, so everyone loved him again. However, the hate he received was deep rooted in sports. There were several LeBron hate pages from his time in Miami. Kids and adults alike would share memes making fun of his flopping, his “crying” faces, and random irrelevant things.
He’d still go on to reach even greater success, but that damage was already done, and he already had more scrutiny waiting for him when he entered the political world.
LeBron James has rarely, if not never, been silent on how he feels about the mistreatment of African Americans. After the brutal murder of Eric Garner at the hands of police in 2014, he was one of a group of NBA players to wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, quoting his final words, to bring awareness and demand justice to the issue. He’d spoken on the similar murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. He’d rightfully criticized former NBA owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments. Notably he has spoken out against conservative figures like Donald Trump who claimed that James is unintelligent. He helped fund an elementary school in 2018 along with housing complexes and medical centers with the same name, “I Promise”. He’s a big part of the media company Uninterrupted who also promote similar types of activism including but not limited to racial equity, women’s rights, and LGBTQIA+ rights. So a lot of his criticisms nowadays are from people that oppose his politics, mostly conservatives but also liberals sometimes as a result of his comments regarding Hong Kong’s pro-democratic protests in 2020. Either despite his political views or because of them, he’s still probably the most scrutinized player in the NBA.
A large part of his recent criticism is petty debate and comparison to Michael Jordan and other NBA legends. In the late 2010s, after overcoming a powerful Golden State Warriors team in three straight games to win the NBA Finals, more and more people started debating whether he should be considered the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T) or not. It’s a purely subjective and pointless debate, but it’s one of many in the sports world. This, though, happened to strike a nerve with thousands if not millions of basketball fans as Michael Jordan has been considered unquestionably, undeniably, the greatest basketball player of all time for at least decades at that point. So much so, that he’s been compared to Jesus Christ on several occasions. Former NBA player John Salley said in an interview last year that “Jordan was designed the same way that Jesus was designed”. Even LeBron himself said that meeting Michael Jordan when he was 16 was “like [meeting] Black Jesus to me”. So every accomplishment he reaches and every failure he meets is compared to the career of Michael Jordan, most notably Jordans 6-0 Finals record versus LeBron’s 4-6 record.
The criticism of LeBron James goes to show that no matter what angle you take, what opinions you have, or what you do, you can’t please everybody.
About the author:
Akili Raphael is a third-year student at DePaul University. He’s also an author and published his first book when he was only 10 years old. He is well versed in media topics such as animation, filmmaking, and is active in the online video game and sports communities. In his free time, he keeps his overflowing creativity in check by writing, creating art in various mediums, making short films, and practicing martial arts. Always interested in learning new things and sharing ideas, he considers himself a student of life above all else.