What's good for the ratings isn't always good for the game
Yesterday in these (web) pages, Allen Barra asked why we—obviously not all of us, but a substantial number—hate the Miami Heat's LeBron James, who last night led his team to victory in the first game of the NBA Finals. Barra offered several unpersuasive rationales for this hatred and proceeded to debunk them.
Do we hate—you know, let's keep things civil and say "dislike" instead—LeBron because he didn't go to the Knicks during last year's free agency? Barra is (I think) a New Yorker and (famously) a New York sports fan, so I suppose it's not completely unreasonable that he'd think this. But the vast majority of LeBron dislikers, myself included, are neither New Yorkers nor New York fans, so that's probably not it. (And no, neither are we mostly Chicago or Cleveland fans, bitter that he passed us over too. Sorry.)
Do we dislike him for The Decision, the overhyped primetime special in which he announced he would be taking his talents to South Beach? This is getting closer, though on its own I don't think it would be sufficient for most of us. But we'll come back to it.
Do we dislike LeBron because he's not Michael Jordan? Well, no, given that taking that position would entail disliking every other active NBA player as well. Still, the comparison can be illustrative. But despite Barra's contention, bolstered by a clip from Bad Teacher, that the primary difference between Jordan and LeBron is the number of championship rings on their respective fingers (six for Jordan, none yet for James), that's really not it either. Again, more on this topic in a moment.
After a brief detour back into his we-must-hate-him-for-not-going-to-the-Knicks case, Barra argues that LeBron is the best player in basketball, and certainly better than reigning MVP Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls. I agree absolutely, as must pretty much anyone who had access to a television during the Heat's dismantling of the Bulls in the previous round of the playoffs. But why Barra thinks it should be impossible to dislike the best player in the league is beyond me.
Maybe we dislike him because, now that he's teamed with fellow All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat will win a ton of championships? Now we're getting somewhere. Barra answers this concern by saying that dominant NBA dynasties are good for ratings and therefore good for the sport. But it's hard to imagine that any genuine fan, at least upon reflection, would believe that whatever is good for ratings—full contact? legalized taunting? strippers at halftime?—is inevitably good for the sport.
In any case, there are better reasons to dislike LeBron James that evidently eluded Barra. Some are highly debatable: for instance, the perception that he is whiny and entitled (crab dribble, anyone?). Others are somewhat debatable: say, the contention that he shockingly quit on his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in last year's playoffs.
What is not debatable is this: Last year, LeBron, by Barra's own reckoning the best player in basketball, decided it would be easier to join 'em than beat 'em. Wade, with whom he colluded to team up during free agency, was the closest thing LeBron had to genuine competition, at least in the Eastern Conference: same draft class, similar skills and position, and (unlike James) already an NBA champion and Finals MVP. As Bill Simmons put it, "it's a cop-out. Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don't you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you?" Not LeBron, evidently. For good measure, he and Wade even brought along the third-most-coveted free agent on the market, fellow All-Star Bosh.