The WWE, Hollywood, soap operas and the NBA front office have something in common: they all understand that a compelling narrative requires what the pro wrestling biz calls a “heel.” A bad guy. An anti-hero. A villain. A black hat. The only thing different about the NBA is that they won’t admit they’re in the compelling narrative business.
But trust me, they are. And ever since last summer you have been very good for them. You’ve been Godzilla, Hannibal Lecter, Stefano DiMera, Freddy Krueger, Snidely Whiplash and Andre the Giant all rolled into one, the looming über-evil thug who rigged the game, casting a long, dark shadow over any hope of prosperity and fair play for years to come. For a league that’s built on marketing individual storylines, The Decision was a gift from the gods. At the end of the season, there was going to be one more reason to flip on the TV. Some people love the Lakers. Some love the Celtics. Everybody loves the home team. But even if all those teams were at home on the couch, the Miami Hate Heat was something we could all agree on. And when it comes to ratings dollars, hate spends just the same as love.
I’m not sure it’s been so good for you, though. Yeah, you got out of a going-nowhere situation and became the center of the sports talk universe, but right now you look just as lost as you ever did in Cleveland and you still have zero rings to show for all your remarkable talent.
Part of the problem has to do with the makeup of the Heat, of course. It’s a team built around you and Dwyane Wade, two guys who need the ball in their hands a lot, and once they got through paying you and Wade and Chris Bosh there wasn’t a lot of money left for a top-tier supporting cast (although some of the role players did perform fairly well). ESPN hoop stats guru Dean Oliver points out that the team ranked next-to-last in the league in the points per assist metric – only Oklahoma City was worse about hogging the ball – and for a coach who gets defense as well as the Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle, it really helps knowing that you don’t have to worry about the other team doing a lot of insightful passing into scoring opportunities.
So you went from a team without a lot of talent to one with plenty of talent, but some flaws of nigh-Shakespearean magnitude. Still, this can be overcome. Once Miami turfs Erik Spoelstra and replaces him with a coach who has a track record and some street cred (Pat Riley, maybe, or even Phil Jackson, who says he’s done but I’m not sure I believe him) the on-court issues can be addressed. Besides, these days over-expansion, the AAU system and the one-and-done rule have conspired to assure that every team has flaws. Huge ones. This was never more evident than during these playoffs.
The more immediate problem has to do with LeBron the Human Being. See, some guys are good at being the heel. Some people are born to be bad and they thrive on being booed. Think about Bill Laimbeer, one of the biggest assholes in NBA history. Even Pistons fans had to feel conflicted cheering for him, and you got the sense that being loathed was his only reason for living.
You, though, you strike me as a very different guy emotionally. You have a quick, infectious smile. You seem like a fun-loving guy who enjoys people. Maybe I’m wrong – I don’t know you and maybe what you project through the media isn’t at all like the real you – but I’m betting that underneath it all, the real LeBron James is a more sensitive guy than he lets on. If so, there’s no fault in that at all. Truth be told, I’m the same way, albeit without all the fame and financial solvency. A guy like you might have good reason to want to keep parts of his personality to himself, because we live in a world where too many people treat sensitivity like it’s a disease, and yes, they will take advantage of it.
My guess is that, public bravado notwithstanding, the searing wave of raw hatred that has been aimed at you over the past year has hurt. It’s probably hurt a great deal. If so, that’s natural – I’d wonder about you if it didn’t, honestly.
There’s a lot of haters out there, LeBron, and I have been one of them. I thought you were right to leave Cleveland – as I wrote last year, I’d have criticized you for staying, because I think we all know that the Cavs aren’t going to win any titles, not unless the NBA implements some drastic changes to its free agency rules. You need to be in a situation where you can compete for titles.
But in that same article I inducted you into the Punk Hall of Fame – not for leaving, but for how you left. I’m not going to mince words, Bron: The Decision was one of the most gutless, classless things I have ever seen a public figure of your magnitude pull. If I had been your PR agent I’d have done all I could to talk you out of it, and if I had failed (which I suspect I would have) I’d have resigned.
So I have been a devoted LeBron hater for the past year, but here’s a confession: as I watched you in the Finals, it just felt wrong. I’m happy Dirk got his ring finally, but the look on your face, lost and bewildered and seemingly all alone in the world…I don’t know, I guess I’m sucker for prodigal narratives or something and I feel like we’re about halfway into a great one.
In sum, I don’t think you make a very good heel. I don’t think you’re emotionally cut out for being hated, and I think the basketball public – a lot of it, anyway – wants to like you. Finally, I think that getting positive with the world again will be a big boost for you as you tackle the challenges on the court. Happy people tend to be better at what they do, no matter what that is, and I think you feed on love better than you do hate.
Here’s how it starts. Call your friends at ESPN. Call Jim Gray, too, because after the way he sold his soul last summer he needs some redemption as bad as you do. Tell them you want to do another special. This one is going to be called The Apology. No excuses, no waffling. You’ll man up, face the camera, and say “Cleveland, I’m sorry.” You won’t apologize for leaving: you’ll say that you love Northern Ohio with all your heart. It’s home. But you wouldn’t be true to the gifts you have been given if you didn’t try to win a title, and you’ll say that the way the NBA’s rules are constructed that wasn’t going to happen in Cleveland. You tried to recruit other talent to join you there and nobody was biting.
But you are sorry for how you did it. The Decision was a mistake, it hurt people who had never done anything but believe in you, and if you had it to do over again you’d have gone about things in a more professional, adult manner.
Then you’ll announce a new foundation which will be devoted to helping Cleveland continue its transformation into one of America’s great cities. You may need a little help figuring out how to word this part, and I’ll be happy to chip in. Give me a call.
This is how it ought to go, LeBron. You and me and America, let’s get back together.