There was a time when the NBA needed LeBron to take over as its greatest star, as the league was fizzling post-Jordan, and Kobe Bryant’s image was impugned in Colorado. LeBron’s stock soared like the rosin he routinely tossed into the air. And just like that very chalk, LeBron’s likeability disappeared after it reached its apex.
I had a close-up view of LeBron when I covered the NBA for two seasons from 2007-09, the era that signified the tail end of his epic popularity before it turned for the worse. Obviously, some will say they always hated him, and there was no hardened turning point with his approval rating, but that comes with the territory of being grossly oversaturated as a high-school prospect three years before he made his first million.
On the court, LeBron was ready to reel in his first ring. In 2008, he was a season removed from taking a lousy Cavs team to the NBA Finals, a series in which no one could blame him for getting swept by a far superior group of Spurs.
But LeBron nearly pulled off an even greater feat. He was a much better player in 2007-08, when he averaged career highs of 30.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game to go along with 7.2 assists (tied for his second-best mark). Those Cavs were better, too, and if not for Paul Pierce‘s signature postseason performance, they would have eliminated the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. From there, it’s not a stretch to say they would have knocked out the Pistons, and they should have made it tough for the Lakers, who weren’t quite championship-ready yet.
James scored 45 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter, and he went shot for shot with Pierce, whose 41 points were enough in one of the great duels of the generation. James was great on both ends of the floor, ripping the ball from Pierce in the final three minutes before soaring across the court and throwing down a loud dunk that silenced the 17,565 in attendance.
After, LeBron was well-versed on the historical impact, referencing the Larry Bird–Dominique Wilkins duel in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern semis. LeBron admired the moment and his counterpart, gushing over Pierce as one of his favorite players in the NBA. In defeat, LeBron was candid and graceful. His attitude throughout that series — noting his flaws from 2007, his work ethic in the offseason and his willingness to learn and improve those areas in 2008 — was wildly impressive. He had taken those steps to grow into a likeable superstar, and it would be a matter of time before he won a title.
But would it happen in Cleveland? At that point, the seeds of doubt had been planted, and it was surprising that he watered them. While LeBron’s arrogance was transparent in 2008, it wasn’t yet a flaw, and he was an easy person to be around. He spoke before and after nearly every game, and I thought we had a good understanding of one another, for as far as an out-of-town beat reporter could have with a player who showed up about a half-dozen times a year. In fact, there were few players, particularly franchise faces, in the league who were more engaging.
It was a time when LeBron didn’t wilt under pressure — he actually thrived in it, as evidenced by his performance against the Celtics in the series’ penultimate game. He also knocked down a pair of huge shots in the final 10 seconds of Game 5 of the 2007 conference finals against the Pistons (when he scored the Cavs’ last 25 points), and he hit a near-miraculous game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer in Game 2 of the 2009 conference finals against the Magic.
In the last two seasons, though, LeBron has turtled in unrivaled fashion, walking off the court against the Celtics in 2010 and drooling in admiration of J.J. Barea as the Mavericks guard coasted by him for a lay-up in Sunday’s fourth quarter. Amid the turnovers and missed shots, LeBron has looked disinterested in pressure situations. He didn’t score a single point in the Finals during the last five minutes of the game when the teams were separated by five or fewer points.
It’s as if he believes it’s better to lose while looking lazy than to feel inferior while trying his hardest, for he must convince himself that no one can beat LeBron when LeBron is LeBron.
The character transformation paralleled his rumors of relocation. Of course, he turned his back on Cleveland and Akron, and he did so in the most disgusting display of self-righteousness in sports history. He insulted his home state, and he turned off sports fans across the world, but he hardly made it personal with neutral basketball fans until Sunday night’s postgame news conference.
LeBron lifted his smug chin and verbally slapped his haters. While he’s got every right to defend himself, it’s childish to insult the ticket holders who have “personal problems” and “have to get back to the real world,” something in which he is so far removed from that he wouldn’t recognize it if it asked him for an autograph.
It didn’t have to be this way, but LeBron has chosen his path, and it led him worlds away from his roots. LeBron James wasn’t always this guy, and he didn’t have to turn into the villain he’s become. At this point, it’s too late for him to change his shattered image, and his own decisions have sealed that fate.
That’s because people in the real world can’t — and don’t want to — relate to a conceited multimillionaire who sold out for cheap success. And he can’t relate to those in the real world who have worked hard to achieve an honest lifestyle. That’s something LeBron will never understand.
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