The bitterness, if it ever was really bitterness, has subsided for me now. I know it hasn't for everyone. I know that my friend Scott Raab still regularly unleashes "Careful ... hot plate" Tweets against the man he calls "The Whore of Akron." The book will be coming out soon. I know a few friends back home in Cleveland who still refuse to say his name, who will refer to him only (and rarely) as "traitor." I have one friend, a lifelong NBA fan, who in the last couple of weeks says he has simply given up on professional basketball; he says it's no fun if the players can simply demand trades and choose friends to play with like it's a high-priced pickup basketball game.
"I'm not saying that I'm right," he says (he's a lawyer). "The players have every right within the rules to do what they're doing. I'm just saying that it's no fun for me as a fan anymore."
Well, obviously everybody had their own take on the LeBron James saga -- his bizarre final playoff series in Cleveland*, his 2010 Lebron James Recruitment Tour, his fateful Decision (powered by ESPN) to take his talents to South Beach, the Cleveland backlash led by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and his Comic Sans font rant and so on -- and I wouldn't tell anyone how they should feel about it. Some thought LeBron was a traitor. Some thought he was smart to leave Cleveland. Some will never forgive him. Some will never forgive his accusers. Most people are in the hazier middle ground.
*I asked one NBA deep insider about that final series between the Cavaliers and Celtics, the one where it certainly appeared like LeBron James and the Cavaliers quit. He shrugged and said something curious. He said: "It will make one hell of a 30-for-30 series someday."
As a born and raised Clevelander, I was taken aback that LeBron James didn't feel the same connection to the city that that the city felt for him. I thought the whole Decision Show -- though it supposedly did earn some much-deserved recognition and money for the Boys & Girls Club -- was a farce, and a slap at my hometown, and just a poor public relations choice by a 25-year-old man who I suspect has been told of his own infallibility too many times. I don't know if the reaction would have been different had he handled things a different way. But I think it's at least possible. And, I think LeBron's self-image is too far gone for him to even understand that there was a classier way to take his talents to South Beach.
But all that is in the past, and I mean it when I say I no longer feel any resentment toward LeBron James -- if I ever really felt any resentment. In fact, I have come to a whole different place. I love watching LeBron James play basketball again. My feelings surrounding him have turned back to joy. I LOVE rooting against LeBron James.
I don't mean this in a mean way. I mean it quite literally. I truly love watching Miami Heat games and rooting for them to lose. Thursday night, I passed the kids off to my wife, got a Diet Coke, and settled in front of the TV to watch an NBA game. I cannot TELL you the last year I did that for a regular season game. Sure, I watch plenty of pro basketball games, but only to keep up or to pass the time. Regular season NBA games are not events for me, not ever. But this was an event, a Thursday night game between Orlando and Miami. LeBron has done this for me. In the weirdest way, he has made me care.
I think rooting against players and teams is a big and underrated part of being a sports fan. Growing up, I Clemenated* the Pittsburgh Steelers ... the Dallas Cowboys ... the Oakland Raiders ... the Boston Celtics ... the New York Yankees ... the Montreal Canadiens ... the Edmonton Oilers (I know, how can you Clemenate Gretzky? But I was a New York Islanders fan).
I Clemenated Kevin McHale ... Terry Bradshaw ... Robert Parish ... Mickey Rivers (Mickey Rivers? Hard to explain) ... Roberto Duran ... Drew Pearson ... Jim Palmer ... Ken Anderson ... Sixto Lezcano (but only because I would get his baseball card in EVERY pack) ... John Elway, of course ...
*Clemenate: (KLEM-a-nayt), verb, to hate an athlete (or a team) in an entirely healthy, fun sports way (rather than hating them in a crazed, stalking, loaded gun, insane sort of way).
Somewhere along the way, I think that overpowering emotion of despising certain teams and certain players has faded somewhat for all of us. Oh, sure, people still Clemenate the Yankees or the Cowboys or the Lakers or certain players. But it's just different, especially for players. I will never forget that for a long time I really, really, really, really, really disliked the pitcher Jack McDowell. For one, I thought he was tragically overrated -- his Cy Young win in 1993 was an all-time joke. In my view, there were at least five pitchers in the American League better than him, starting with Kansas City's Kevin Appier, whose ERA was three-quarters of a run better, and continuing with Seattle's Randy Johnson who became the first American Leaguer not named Nolan Ryan to strike out 300 in more than 20 years. There were others. McDowell won the Cy Young because he won 22 games. And he won 22 games because the White Sox scored a boatload of runs for him. In eight of his wins he gave up four or more earned runs in non-complete games.
So, I didn't like him because I thought he was overrated and because of other stuff too -- I couldn't stand that "Black Jack" nickname, and I didn't like the way he carried himself, and there was just something about him set me off as a fan. As a reporter, later, I actually enjoyed him and a friend who knew him well speaks highly of him and so on. But I never disliked him PERSONALLY. It never had anything to do with that. I disliked him as a fan, and when you are a fan, I think you are allowed to dislike anybody you want. I know I've had many fans ask me about a certain player, and when I say, "Oh, he's a good guy," they recoil and say, "No, I can't stand that guy I don't want to hear anything good about him." That's part of being the joy of fanhood. I Clemenated Jack McDowell.
And then ... McDowell signed with my childhood team, the Cleveland Indians. Well NOW what? This is more and more likely all the time, with all the player movement in sports, you can Clemenate a player and he can end up on your team, you can Clemenate a team and your favorite three players might end up there next week, it's all so fluid, and it's all so temporary. My buddy Chardon Jimmy cannot stand Ben Roethlisberger -- it's not even the personal stuff, he despised Roethlisberger long before anyone knew any of that. He cannot tolerate the way he plays.
"But if he was playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, you'd love him wouldn't you?" I asked.
"Yes," Chardon Jimmy said because he's Bengals fan and an honest man.
LeBron James's decision freed me from all of these shackles. I can root against him without hesitation, without restriction, without concern. And it's WONDERFUL. It has made this NBA season so much more interesting for me than any season in years. LeBron James is absolutely one of the best players I have ever watched, he's extraordinary, he's like a shape-shifter -- one minute he's Magic Johnson, the next he's Karl Malone, the next he's a runaway train like Shaq on the fast break. It's thrilling to root against someone that great.
And that Orlando-Miami game was as fun for me as any game in years. You know Miami built up a 24-point lead and I thought -- "Ah well, you win tonight LeBron." Only then, Orlando started coming back. I'm a college basketball fan first, and as a college basketball fan it's difficult to remember that enormous deficits in the NBA are not insurmountable. I was working out on the treadmill with the sound down as Orlando slowly began to chip away at the lead. It seemed pointless at first. Only then they cut it to under 20, and soon it was 15 or 16 and after a way it was 13 or 11, and that's when I thought: "Hey, NBA teams come back from 11 down all the time."
The fourth quarter was magical. Orlando went on an 18-0 run. Miami looked completely lost and disorganized and discouraged. All year, the best teams have beat up on the Heat. All year, Miami has lost close games. I don't know if there's any real trend here or if this is just one of those statistical flukes that don't mean much -- but their record against great teams and in close games fits my image of LeBron's Heat as classic bully. The Heat can (and do) crush and humiliate terrible teams, but when a good team actually stands up to them, suddenly their flaws -- no point guard, shaky inside defense, on-again-off-again chemistry between James and Dwyane Wade -- pop out like junior high school acne, and they do not know quite what to do.
That's certainly oversimplifying things, but the numbers are hard to overlook:
Record against teams with:
0-.200 win pct: 3-0 (20.3 margin of victory).
.201-300: 11-0 (14.7 margin of victory)
.301-400: 7-1 (10 margin of victory)
.401-.500: 8-1 (7.2 margin of victory)
.501-.600: 11-6 (4.35 margin of victory)
.601-.700: 4-2 (6.5 margin of victory)
.700-better: 0-8 (-8.25 point margin of victory)
There are four teams with a .700 winning percentage right now -- Boston, San Antonio, Dallas and Chicago.
Then there's this:
Record in games decided by 5-points or less: 5-12
Record in games decided by 15 points or more: 14-3
There was always something that felt to me ... well, I guess the word is "unsubstantial" about LeBron's Superfriends vision. The way he talked, the things he said, it seemed to me he did't just want to "win a championship." He wanted to do it easy. He wanted an instant championship, just add water, and then maybe win another two or three or five more. That attitude just rubbed me wrong. It's not easy. It's NEVER easy. It took the Oscar Robertson 11 years and a young teammate named Alcindor to get his title. Is LeBron James a more dominant in his time than Oscar Robertson was in his? Jerry West and Elgin Baylor -- two of the all-time greats -- played together for 12 years without winning a championship, and they didn't win one until Wilt Chamberlain joined in not to mention Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. And that was in a different NBA, an NBA that wasn't as deep, wasn't as spread out, wasn't as important on the American sports scene ... point is it's plain HARD to win a championship, I think LeBron James believed he had outsmarted the system.
Miami has two of the best players on planet earth and a third in Chris Bosh who is pretty darned good and it would be absurd to overlook them. Then again, let's not kid anybody, the Heat are in no danger of being overlooked. Everybody's watching. LeBron James went there in the most public free agent move ever to build a Superteam, the sort of team that would leave everyone standing in pure awe. And Superteams do not to go 5-12 in games decided by five points or less.
The last few minutes of that Orlando game were pure bliss for me. Orlando plays a high-risk, high-reward game that would drive me a bit nuts if I was a Magic fan, but when Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson are making three-points, whew, they are not beatable. Everybody was making three pointers in the second half. And absurdly, after being down 24 just minutes earlier, Orlando built up a seven-point lead. At that point, I figured James or Wade would take over. But ... no. Wade made two free throws in the fourth quarter. James didn't score at all.
With eight seconds left, Miami needed a three-pointer to tie. Chris Bosh ended up taking that three, which might tell you something right there. After a flurry and a rebound by Mike Miller, the ball was kicked out to LeBron James who was wide open for a three. He missed. And Orlando beat the Heat, who at that moment had lost three times in four games. This led to much speculation about how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are getting along on the court. This has led to much speculation about the coaching situation. Ah, the joys of South Beach talents.
Friday night, Miami played San Antonio, and I watched excitedly again. This game offered a different kind of fun. San Antonio outclassed Miami. It was mind boggling and wonderful. The Spurs embarrassed the Heat in the first quarter and led 36-12. The Heat made a reasonable second half comeback and trailed by only 12 at the break leading the announcers to suggest that Miami was still in the game. Miami was not in the game. The Heat's halftime adjustment appeared to be: "Stop guarding them." By the middle of the fourth quarter, San Antonio led by 31, and the camera kept cutting to Miami coach Erik Spoelstra because, let's be blunt, he's going to get fired really soon unless things get better pretty fast. The old line has never been more true: You can't fire the players.
In the end, I don't know what's going to happen to the Heat come playoff time. I think Boston, Chicago or Orlando in the East is pretty capable of taking them out, and I like that Atlanta team a lot, and the Knicks sent a message the other day if that matchup somehow happens. But I also think that with James and Wade, the Heat could rise up and play a much higher level of basketball. You can't discount the possibility. Announcer Mark Jackson kept saying of the Heat "They'll be fine," whatever that means.
And they might be fine. I don't think so ... but I don't know. Some people say, "They might not win this year but they'll definitely win next year or the year after that or the year after that." We'll see. That's the beauty of this. That's the beauty of competition. In the end, LeBron James gave me a surprising and great gift, something I never expected after The Decision. I don't feel any ill feelings about him at all. I think he's a wonderful player. I treasure his years in Cleveland, when he singlehandedly made the Cavaliers matter again. And I love watching him play again. True, I love watching him play so I can root wildly for him and his team to lose. But, you know, love is love.