Why I Feel Bad for LeBron James


Keith Allison/flickr

Depression can strike anyone, especially during the holidays. Cold weather and shorter days don't help. Pile on the stresses of the season—travel, family drama, the extra demands on money and time—and getting a bad haircut can feel like the end of the world. But if you look online for tips to tackle the holiday blues, you won't find much beyond Stuart Smalley-esque slogans--things like "Have an attitude of gratitude" or "Holidays are holy days. Let God fill them." Apparently, the surest sign of a really profound piece of psychological insight is that it's based on a pun so bad even a Batman super-villain wouldn't make it.

If you want to feel better about yourself, tune in to TNT tonight, and be glad you aren't LeBron James. The former Chosen One returns to Cleveland to play his former team—his first visit since The Decision this summer, so far an ill-fated one, to "take his talents to South Beach." All of Cleveland has worked itself into a vengeful frenzy in anticipation of the game, preparing to unleash a torrent of hatred on James the ferocity of which few athletes have ever had the misfortune to experience—or few people, for that matter, beyond dictators just before being deposed by an angry mob.

You've got to feel bad for James. Seriously. Here's a guy who has lived in a bubble of adoration his whole life. Absurdly graceful and powerful, handsome and funny, James has been singled out for special treatment, met everywhere by smiles and cheers, since he was old enough to walk or dunk, whichever came first. In a few hours, this giant hothouse flower of an ego will experience the psychological concept of transference on an unimaginable scale. In the midst of tightened security, James will jog on to the court at Q Arena, and an entire city will dump the frustrations and heartaches of decades without a major sports championship on his tattooed shoulders. It doesn't matter how much money you have, that can't feel too good.

Michael Vick is probably the most hated man in sports—second most hated in Ohio—and his sole experience of that hatred is a few protesters holding signs and a scattering of boos from opposing crowds. Most people who really hate Vick, though, will stay home rather than spend money to watch him play. Not so in Cleveland, where hating on LeBron is a civic duty and fans are paying top dollar to do it in person. This is in contrast, by the way, to Miami fans. Blessed to have titles in living memory from the Heat, Hurricanes, Dolphins, and Marlins—1997 much, Cleveland?—South Florida fans have to be begged by the Heat front office to show up and cheer. Generally speaking, if a venue in which you are appearing for one night has to change its rules and only sell beer in cups so fans won't pelt you with bottles, it's a sign that something has gone wrong in the PR department.

LeBron brought it all on himself, of course. He spent months jerking around Cavs' ownership and fans, then made the marvelously bad decision of The Decision, an hour-long infomercial celebrating his own awesomeness and how awesome it was that he won't have to spend the winter in Ohio. Then came the off-key Nike ad, with James posing a series of rhetorical questions to the public about the next phase of his career.

Like Charles Barkley's famed "I am not a role model," the idea of "What Should I Do" was to shift focus from an athlete to the fans by poking gentle fun at how seriously we take sports. FAIL. The tone came off as condescending—like James was amused by Cleveland's pain—and the ad was subsequently spoofed to fine effect by Cavs fans, South Park, and a bunch of others.

On the court, it's been worse. The Heat have been spectacularly mediocre, especially since losing Udonis Haslem to a torn ligament on November 20. Playing without passion, the Heat are 1-7 against teams above .500. They look particularly lost on the road, averaging just 93.7 points a game outside Dade County. That number might even drop tonight. As my friend and legal counsel Chris pointed out, the Heat have played an utterly brutal schedule the last week or so, with back-to-back games last weekend, then playing Monday and again last night against Detroit, ensuring the club showed up today in Cleveland as travel weary and footsore as possible.

Even NBA commissioner David Stern, it seems, wants Cleveland to have its revenge.