Commentary

LeBron James: No more Mr. Bad Guy

Updated: December 7, 2011, 10:48 AM ET
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- LeBron James' talents made it to Miami last season, but his personality did not.

For two weeks after the Finals ended this past summer, James said he stayed mostly in a room by himself and talked to almost no one. There were plenty of things to confront during that extended personal therapy session, both technical and spiritual.

It's going to take some time to determine whether James has been able to address those issues. But there's one aspect he feels he has control over and he intends to make it a priority when his unmerciful offseason finally comes to an end this week.

James is determined to be finished playing the villain.

Of course, he doesn't get to make that choice for others and there are constant reminders of that. He got roundly booed attending a high school basketball game in Cleveland last Friday night, for example. But as for the acceptance of it, James says that is over.

Plenty of players make preseason promises -- it's an annual rite in every sport. James has a pledge he's going to try to keep to himself.

"I got to this point by playing this game a certain way, (I'm) getting back to loving the game and having fun with the game," James said in an interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols.

"I play the game fun, joyful, and I let my game do all of the talking and I got away from that. That's what I lost last year. Going through my first seven years in the NBA I was always the "liked one" and to be on the other side -- they call it the dark side or the villain or whatever they call it -- it was definitely challenging for myself. It was a situation I had never been in before, and it took awhile ... it took a long time to adjust to it."

The truth is James never fully adjusted to it. He's just now starting to come to terms with it. From the start of training camp onward last fall, James clearly had lost some of the outward joy that was such a staple of his daily life. It wasn't just that James ceased so much of the on-court horseplay -- the dancing, the posing, the histrionics during introductions -- that was his standard when he was a Cleveland Cavalier. It was that it seemed like James would go days without even smiling.

The first six weeks or so he was in Miami, James was a shell of his normal self. The booing was part of it. The jabs his peers were taking at him were a part of it. The expectations were a part of it. Living in a different place for the first time in his life was part of it, too.

James had a new mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay and was driving to work under palm trees in the constant sunshine. But at a time in his life when he needed some comfort because of a new world of stresses he wasn't used to, it was not home. Plenty of people leave home and have to deal with it, but it's rarely smooth. James' choppy transition was on display for all to see and dissect. It was his choice, but also reality.

The resulting change in James' demeanor was unmistakable. He routinely avoided eye contact as he moved within arenas. He spent more time in the training room than in the locker room with his teammates.

It would be fair to say that James has a rather pronounced immature streak. Another way of saying it would be that he likes to act like a big kid. That means being loud when he probably shouldn't, laughing at moments that aren't always appropriate and rarely skipping the chance to pull a sophomoric prank when presented the chance.

If you'd heard that about James and then were around him during his first season with the Heat, you might have disputed it. By his standards, James was downright sullen for stretches.

As the months wore on -- and, not ironically, when the Heat starting winning -- James' personality emerged a little. But overall, he was simply not himself. Looking back on it during his lonely summer, James knows it too.

"It basically turned me into somebody I wasn't," James said. "You start to hear 'the villain,' now you have to be the villain, you know, and I started to buy into it. I started to play the game of basketball at a level, or at a mind state that I've never played at before ... meaning, angry. And that's mentally. That's not the way I play the game of basketball."

As his first year in Miami unfolded, James attempted to manage it. One night last January, he was getting a particularly heavy dose of dislike at a game in Portland. The Heat beat the Trail Blazers that night and James was at the top of his powers, scoring 44 points -- including 19 in the last three minutes and overtime -- to stun the Rose Garden crowd.

During the stretch, James reached out to the booing fans and asked them to be louder. Afterward he claimed that playing with that frown and inciting the negative energy like a bad guy wrestler following the script was part of his plan. He was happy to accept the villain role, he'd said.

It was a pure coping mechanism. He tried to stick with it for a while, tried to force himself into acceptance. It didn't last. James soon stopped answering questions about this newly declared role and within a few weeks had abandoned the position altogether.

This season, James says, there will be none of that covering. The smiles and the messing around and the bouts of immaturity are going to be back. It might be annoying -- it certainly annoyed opponents in Cleveland at times. The fans nationwide who mostly put up with it because they liked him or at least hoped he'd come play in their city won't have the same tolerance as before.

But worrying about playing a role the fans want has lost some importance for James. He'd still love to recapture the cheers that used to greet him at nearly every stop. He's been explaining and apologizing for "The Decision" show for months now.

Here's the latest: "The fact of having the whole TV special and people getting the opportunity to watch me make a decision on where I'm going to play, I would probably change that. Because I can see now if the shoe was on the other foot and I was a fan and I was very passionate about one player and he decided to leave, you know, I would be upset too by the way that he handled it."

What is important for James this season, he has decided, is to be back to himself. And he is letting it be known.

"I'm not here to ask for any sympathy or ask for any apologies, just letting people know what I am, and who I am," James said. "Win, lose, or draw, I'm playing because I'm grateful that I'm a kid from Akron, Ohio, that made it to the NBA, that made his dream come a reality. That's what I'm happy about, so I can't take it for granted."