Next week on Christmas Day, the NBA will roll out its marquee matchup. Much in the same way that the NFL has made Thanksgiving it’s regular season signature day, December 25th functions in the same regard for the League.
The Miami Heat will play just like they did last year. Other than that, the NBA climate is markedly different. For one, the NBA was just opening up shop after an extended standoff between players and owners, resulting in the first seven weeks of the season getting sent down the drain. The Christmas Day contests were actually the first games of the season and fiending fans rejoiced that the league was back in business.
But then there’s this second, very conspicuous difference from last year: the energy around the Heat has changed significantly. It’s night and day from where it was last year. The Heat are no longer derided for their style, head coach Eric Spoelstra is no longer second guessed for everything he does and of course, LeBron James is no longer public enemy number one.
The vitriol, that was on bubbling cauldron levels, last Christmas, is gone now. Replaced by a “welcome back” bear hug from the fans and the media. After winning last year’s MVP award in both the regular season and the Finals, James topped it off by leading Team USA to gold in the Olympics. People were forced to change. It was embarrassing to keep hating on the dude.
It was only last year that much of the free world was against him. Things went from people hating LeBron to wondering why people hate LeBron to really wondering why people hate LeBron. We all remember – it went beyond normal fan disdain and pro athlete jealousy. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s crazy letter set it off and the flames spread. It became a national event. It dominated sports news cycles like nothing any of us had ever seen. People, who didn’t know anything about basketball, knew enough not to like LeBron. Even as recent as last February he was rated #6 on a list of most-hated athletes compiled by the Nielsen’s ratings people. It was unintelligible and, to boot, had an absurd shelf life. The dislike for him crossed over and went mainstream. It was the Gangnam Style of ‘10, ’11 and half of ’12.
It wasn’t just that he left Cleveland, but how he left that pissed people off. He went to another team to try and win a ring, as if this is the first time any player has ever changed teams before. People went on and on with “back in the day stories” about how things were done a certain way in years past. It was like the water supply was tainted with whatever was making people sick in Contagion. One minute you are a full-functioning level headed human, he next, you’re afflicted with a sickness that causes you to criticize someone you don’t know, and that person’s decision to move to different city for a better job.
Then on June 21st it went away. Gone the next morning like a crescent moon. After the Heat won the championship it immediately went back to hey “LeBron’s great isn’t he?” and “ maybe he is better than Jordan” and other similar sentiments on how awesome he is. Sports Illustrated named him their Sportsman of the Year. That’s not a performance only award, that’s given to the athlete they feel had the biggest positive impact period. It’s a popularity content, just elevated to the pro ranks. It’s essentially being named prom king of the sports world.
LeBron could have went full jerk-mode on people, but he kept it civil and only hinted at it in a interview with ESPN
“It’s a challenge when everything you do or say can be used against you,” James said. “The thing that’s helped me is that I’ve been watched and followed since I was 16 years old. They praise you and you make one mistake and they bring you down. They praise you again and then bring you down again so I’ve had a lot of hardships, but it all makes it sweeter in the end.”
Granted, this turn of events isn’t startling. Winning a ring has a certain halo-effect on things – people even stopped saying Chris Bosh is soft – and it’s to be expected that perception changes when people succeed at the level James has in recent months. It’s just hard for people to stay angry with a guy who, by all accounts, seems like a stand-up dude. No off court drama, no allegations of any sort, no police blotter recognition, no nothing. All he does is drop next-level stat lines and make dope commercials. But a full embrace without an explanation seems shady and unworthy. People should have to wear t-shirts that say, “I hated on LeBron, too. Forgive my stupidity.”
For those people who never got down with the foolishness, the fact that scores of people are just gonna plop down on their seat on the bandwagon is outrageous. What, you think people don’t see you there, on your smartphone, sending out desperate texts to distract you from having to lift your head up and make eye contact with the common sense folk? You think you just sit there with the rest of the popular bandwagoners like it’s all good, and take up a seat, while the too school for cool set has to stand up? No way.
I’m all for people getting called out on their beef bowel movements. This notion that you can do and say anything without anyone remembering must be a social media thing. People say crazy things online and, then, if the pushback is sufficiently ugly, they just erase it. A mea culpa, as it were. In real life though, those pushbacks are fortified and unless you do a full “my bad” type of apology, you have problems. The narrative changed so solidly as to make you wonder if people were really upset to begin with or just following the crowd. Either way, it shouldn’t be easily forgotten. Fingers need to get pointed and names should be named. Otherwise the frauds get over and a precedent is set. At any point you can agree or disagree with any sentiment at your leisure. No responsibility period. That can’t stand.
When LBJ comes out next Tuesday in his all red Christmas jersey, he’ll come out to a standing ovation. The game is in Miami, so he’d be getting cheers regardless, but he’s back to getting them on the road as well. He doesn’t need cheers from a road crowd, but it’s better – and more deserving – than what it had been and, hopefully, that idiotic chapter is fully closed.