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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
When LeBron Hate becomes unhealthy

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

LeBron James
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty Images
Hating LeBron James has unified basketball fans to an unsettling degree.

"At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail … at the end of the day, tomorrow they have to wake up and have the same life that [they had] before they woke up today. They got the same personal problems they had today.” --LeBron James

To a public primed for scorn, the statement provides more evidence that LeBron James is a jerk. And he might be scum -- I don’t claim to know either way.

Who LeBron is doesn’t matter all that much to me. What concerns me is how eagerly we revel in the collective hatred of a person -- not a mass murderer or a war criminal but a small forward.

Basketball fans typically root for and celebrate greatness. Michael Jordan once captivated America en route to six titles and widespread cooing. Today, James commands the same massive attention MJ once did for a wholly negative reason:

People want to see him lose, see him shamed, see him crumble under the weight of his own expectations. This is what animates sports fans; this is what helps lift Game 6 to a 15.0 rating.

We have embraced a culture that is so fixed on holding up an athlete as a Great Satan to shake our fists at. Into the stocks, LeBron. You are what’s wrong with sports. You are what’s unforgivable, guy who throws a sphere through a ring. We, as a country, will celebrate your failure, your pain, possibly for another year.

The shift seems unhealthy and indicative of something more malicious. We all have our least favorite players and teams, but a grand spite revival at LeBron’s expense is off-kilter and creepy.

I can’t know whether it’s born from misplaced economic rage, reality TV or the unique manner with which LeBron upset people. Although this hate is unifying, it lacks the sanguine tone of, “Don’t sports just bring us together?” It sounds more like an angry mob screaming for blood, something far more vicious than the playful gamesmanship that filled Madison Square Garden when Reggie Miller came to New York.

Certain readers claim that this is “harmless hate,” but I rarely hear the trope from writers. That is perhaps because writers tend to get inundated with Twitter and email bile on a regular basis. Most of it can be dismissed or forgotten, but some of the raw, anonymous acid makes it past defense mechanisms and gnaws into your brain.

Does any of this get to LeBron himself? It probably does, but his personal pain is frankly less important than whatever might be inflicting it. The acid rain dance that people wish upon him is more ominous for us, the fans. I’m reminded of film reviewer Mick LaSalle’s thoughts on angry anonymous Internet comments: “Is this how unhappy people truly are, how unhealthy they are, how miserable and uninteresting and insular they are?”

Christian Boone of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution expertly broached the topic of public’s LeBrondenfreude, quoting Emory psychiatry professor Nadine Kaslow: "[LeBron’s failure] may make them feel better about themselves but it reflects their insecurities. When we are children we learn to have empathy. Unfortunately, some people don't learn those lessons."

So this is us, insecure and childish, basking in our smallness. We’re cheering on Ohio’s governor when he issues a resolution that makes the Dallas Mavericks “honorary Ohioans” at LeBron’s expense -- as though this accomplishes something positive. We can blame these actions on the sportsmanship affront that was "The Decision," but loudly mocking the loser is the epitome of poor sportsmanship. And although fans tend to act irrationally, this characterization applies to more than just a few addled jersey burners. It’s everybody, it’s our misplaced anger in the age of social-media connection.

Perhaps all this counts toward my being a LeBron “apologist,” but what am I really apologizing for? He played lethargically in the Finals, and it’s the main reason Miami lost. That much is acknowledged as a dry basketball assessment.

I just can’t fathom why anyone would look at LeBron’s talent, his skill set, and wish that he squanders it all. It is one thing to criticize LeBron for coming up short; it is another to hope he never gets it together as a player or progresses as a person. There isn’t much humanity in that, and the inclination is worse than any James has publicly expressed.

I view the LeBron story as a tragedy at this juncture. He’s reviled, ringless and possibly eroding as an athlete. Today, a promising career suddenly descends toward a precarious place. It’s a tale as sad as Dirk’s is happy. I love basketball and would rather see it elevated by potential-realizing players who find fulfillment in the game. Other people get their motivation elsewhere.

When you wake up to LeBron’s demise, why are you filled with joy? Why is that joy derived from hating a stranger?