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Thursday, January 13, 2011
All hail LeBron James, the villain

By Scoop Jackson
ESPN.com

Now I see how this works.

Get the planet to fall out of love with you and use it to your advantage. Use global hate to make you stronger. It's so ... so ... Kanye.

It took me a while to get it (probably took you a while, too), but now it's as obvious as the grease Jermaine Jackson puts in his hair. The LeBron James we are witnessing right now, the one who has taken this whole "villain" thing and is running with it like his team has been running through opponents, is the real LeBron James.

The one we need to get used to seeing.

LeBron James
LeBron wasn't shy about reminding the Portland crowd of his eight overtime points Sunday.

It isn't an act. I can see that now. It isn't him just reacting to the cards he dealt in this life of solitaire he's created. Nah. This dude is Gloria's true child, the one who publicly submitted to the "force" recently by saying, "I've grown accustomed to it. I enjoy it. ... I've kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me. I'm OK with it. I accept it. ... It's just when I go into an opposing building, there's nothing but venom being thrown at us. So you embrace that atmosphere that we always go into on the road. I definitely do." This is what a "global iconoclast" looks like. He just walked through Heaven first to get to Hell, and most everyone else does it the other way around.

Making road crowds wish he were road kill. Taunting them in ways only Gorgeous George or Barry Bonds could love. Doing talcum-powdered rituals in Cleveland knowing full well how disrespectful and unnecessary it was given the circumstances and surroundings. All him.

• The suspiciously coincidental and perfectly timed tweet he posted while the Cavs were embarrassing themselves (and the game of basketball) against the Lakers on Tuesday night. "Karma is a b----. Gets you every time. It's not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything." Ingenious. Including the way he tried to distance himself from it Wednesday night.

• The verbal stabs he gave Kobe, his supposed friend, in the fourth quarter -- after the Christmas Day game was decided, after Bryant committed an offensive foul -- for no apparent or obvious reason. Making the former "best and most hated player in the game" respond (I think; I'm making my best guess at a lip read) with "I'm a champ," the man the L.A. Times called "Cruella LeBron" now holds both mythical titles. Best. And most despised.

• The "DeSean Jackson" he pulled after sinking his 42nd, 43rd and 44th points in one shot in OT of the Portland game Sunday, when he cruised the opposite end of the court with arms raised, motioning his fingers to the crowd to elevate their hate, before he went to the bench.

• His "my own greatness" comment after the "Return to Cleveland" game; "Another great performance by our team" before the Bobcats game; the whole "Heatles" nickname that seemed to upset everyone who's ever heard "Abbey Road."

Kanye West
Kanye West, who calls himself "The LeBron of Rhyme," watched the Heat beat the Lakers on Christmas Day.

Roll through any Jason Jackson or Craig Sager interview with LeBron this season. Take your pick. He's been real quick to remind all of us what we just witnessed or what we are in store for. Humility, gone.

What's surprising? That this new look looks really good on him.

His behavior (maybe attitude, too), inclement like the East Coast's weather right now. His mood, surly (but never unpleasant). He's too smart to play it any different. LeBron knows that to become the villain he apparently was born to be, he has to mentally, physically and metaphysically enjoy moments like he's experienced the past six months of his life.

More importantly, he has to show us that he has more fun being who he is now than we are having watching him become that person we hate to love.

The Sports Brothers in Miami (790 AM the Ticket) see it. Every single day. They've watched it manifest.

Jeff Fox: "[LeBron] is now the guy in the black hat, Lee Van Cleef in the old Clint Eastwood movies. He looks like a new man with the weight of the world lifted off of his shoulders. And now he's making all the critics or haters pay! That's why his best games are on the road. He can shut up a hostile crowd. He's found his comfort zone."

Ed Freeman: "At first, I didn't believe that [being the villain] sat well with him. He wanted to be liked, loved and accepted. Like most athletes. But once the Heat hit the road and he felt the hate, AND they started winning, he accepted it wholeheartedly. Magic Johnson said it best back on Christmas Day: 'Stop booing him. It doesn't do anything to him but motivate [him].' LeBron should ride this villain role for the rest of the year."

I say ride it forever.


Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink. In E flat.

I think it's time for us to have a toast. Let's have a toast to the guy who went from the pulse of the League to the lightning rod. Let's have a toast to the guy whose scoring average is five points higher on the road than it is when he balls in Miami. Let's have a toast to the guy who had "silenced a crowd" 13 consecutive times until the Heat lost to the Clippers on Wednesday night.

Kobe Bryant & LeBron James
Late in the game, Christmas Day, on the road, outcome decided … and LeBron takes on Kobe in a verbal skirmish.

This is LeBron getting his inner Anakin on ... and doing more with it than anyone we've seen recently in all of sports. It took less than half a season to get to this place, to find his new comfort zone; and now that he's here, it is all beginning to make sense. We've all become so appalled.

The reason he was able to say that he "embraces" this villain role is because deep down, he realizes this is him. This is who he is; this is what he had no choice but to become.

LeBron James has found his calling.

He embraces this now because he's learned that the hate will not -- can not -- confine him. He knows he's bigger than the hate he's absorbing. In fact, he's getting better because of it. He's sacrificed what we would have thought is everything to get here -- his rep, his status, his legacy. But in truth, LeBron has lost nothing. He has morphed into this evildoer (George Bush slanguage) role without fading into obscurity. In fact, he has done the opposite. More people have watched games in which he's played this year than ever before. Opening night versus the Celtics, record numbers for TNT; Christmas Day versus the Lakers, record numbers for ABC. And he's about to find a whole new audience.

LBJ is going to make us love him, even if we have to despise him to do it.

What LeBron has never had is something to bring out the best in him. Well, here it is. No one is saying that he calculated it or planned to turn himself into this; but deep down, I believe, LeBron has discovered who he is and what he needs to push himself to a level of basketball we didn't know existed inside him. He knew, though. And now he's feeding off our discomfort in it.

The more it seems to him that everyone wants him to fail, the more he seems to relish it. The more he's going to laugh. The more he's going to rub "his talents" in our faces. The more he's going to continue to live out this fantasy.

Kanye West and LeBron James
LeBron and Kanye are close enough that West joined James for "The Decision" in Greenwich, Conn., last summer.

Beautiful. Dark. Twisted.

I've always "had love" for LeBron, but I can't say that I loved him. Not like that. There always seemed to be something not-so-perfect about him. Which is never a bad thing. It's just that to me, too often he has been trying to sell himself as someone without flaws (much like Tiger Woods). But now that he's stopped trying to be someone he thought we'd love and become sport's Kanye West (a beautiful mix of supreme talent, arrogance and a flair for drama mixed with maybe too much contempt), I have to concede: I like this LeBron better. Closing in on loving him. Like 'Ye -- his boyee who calls himself "The LeBron of Rhyme," who also thought "The Decision" was a good idea and was there with him for it -- I hope LeBron doesn't change. I hope he doesn't let public backlash and fan-driven self-righteousness make him change back. I hope this "scumbag" (Kanye's word) never goes away.

Maybe it's true that to be a legendary villain who loves being who he is and who he has become, a person has to embrace something he once either fought inside himself or never knew existed. There is a deep-rooted, almost obsessive want to prove people wrong. To laugh in their faces without laughing. It's far beyond Iago, or Brainiac 5.

With LeBron, there seems to be this dynamic taking place, one that far exceeds the love of hate that typical villains (factual or fictional) seem to embody. The way I see it, he no longer seems to care whether he ever wins another MVP or gets voted to another All-Star Game, or whether his jersey sales remain in the League's top five. His terms are no longer predicated on endearment.

Because even when the reality is not popular and the wait for him to fail has become the national pastime, the fantasy always wins. And in the mind of this new LeBron, every villain needs a soundtrack.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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