The People’s Villain
A vindictive LeBron James returns to Cleveland.
by Jay King / @CelticsTown
The public address announcer called LeBron James‘ name first, and a city’s fury poured from every seat in Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron slapped his new teammates five, like he does every game night. But this time was different, as a preternaturally focused LeBron began his quest to stand up to a new level of hatred, to combat 20,562 seething fans. He was the villain last night, he knew, and he finally embraced that. No longer would LeBron James ask what he should do. He was ready to do whatever he wanted.
Cleveland now loathes the former hometown hero, the Benedict Arnold who abandoned the city he was supposed to redeem, who stabbed an entire city in the back with an overdose of public humiliation. The chants were vicious. Sounds of “Ass-hole,” “Del-lon-te,” and “Ak-ron hates you” shook the stadium. Every person at the game, it seemed, waved a white flag in solidarity against a man the city once adored. Posters, too, were designed to cut straight to LeBron’s heart. “Like father, like son,” read one, referencing how LeBron’s father left him at a young age.
Amid all the animosity, LeBron James laughed and smiled his way through pre-game warmups, even tossing chalk into the air like he always has. Hostility, he’s now used to. The posters, the chants, the boos, the hatred; those are things he has encountered ever since The Decision — ever since Game 5 against the Boston Celtics, really. Once the country’s sweetheart, LeBron is now the most hated man in professional basketball. He’s never been in serious legal trouble, never assaulted anyone or driven drunk or murdered anybody. It’s sad, but in the public eye, what LeBron did was worse. He built a city’s trust and then he left, left in the most demeaning way possible, left without an apology, left like leaving was what he meant to do all along, like leaving was the only way he could chase his elusive championship.
A short time ago, LeBron was Cleveland’s king, the chosen one. He was Cleveland’s next hope, maybe the only hope for a city in despair. And then he was gone, leaving behind a wake of unkept promises and a legacy blemished by hindsight. For that, the Cleveland crowd was out for blood, out to make a man feel the same pain they felt, not just to hurt LeBron James but to alert him to the depth of their own hurt. So the booers insulted LeBron with all the passion they could muster, and the chanters and the poster-makers did, too.
The only problem was, LeBron James didn’t stop tormenting Clevelanders in July. He came back at their throats last night, like he, not they, had been wronged. There was a different bounce in his step, a bounce Cleveland had seen on occasion. No taunts were going to distract LeBron James in this game. He was a man with a singular mission, to take the crowd’s hatred and silence it. All season long, we have wondered how the public’s disdain would change LeBron James. Would he use it as fuel, or would it affect him more negatively? On this night, clearly galvanized by his role as enemy, LeBron played the villain perfectly. By the end of the third quarter, when LeBron had already set a season high with 38 points, the crowd’s jeers — so damning and violent at the game’s start — had become nothing more than a form of entertainment to make a blowout more exciting.
By the fourth quarter, roles had entirely reversed. Cavaliers fans were defeated, and Miami fans twirling LeBron James jerseys became the taunters. Fights broke out, the crowd attempting to save any pride from a night that once held so much promise. While the crowd threw punches to save dignity and protect its house from LeBron supporters, the Cavaliers did nothing of the sort. As LeBron scored bucket after bucket, the Cleveland bench laughed with him, joked with him. He drove to the hoop on fast breaks, and nobody knocked him down.
The Cavaliers had more right than anyone else in the building to feel anger toward LeBron. When he left Cleveland, LeBron essentially said his supporting cast hadn’t been good enough, that his Cleveland teammates weren’t talented enough to help him win a title. “I feel like it’s going to give me the best opportunity to win,” LeBron said when he took his talents to South Beach. He added, “I want to be able to win championships. And I feel like I can compete down there.” What went unsaid, of course, was that LeBron didn’t feel he could win in Cleveland. He slapped his former teammates in the face that day in July, calling them unworthy of joining him in the winner’s circle, yet they showed no competitive spirit when given the opportunity to prove him wrong. The Cavaliers sent nothing but smiles and laughter LeBron’s way, when what they needed were elbows and forearm shivers.
But the story wasn’t the soft and cuddly Cavaliers, it was LeBron and his new teammates. These Miami Heat have been a frustrating, underachieving bunch all season, but last night offered hope. Maybe LeBron James can embrace being the villain once and for all. Maybe he can use an entire nation’s abhorrence constructively. Maybe he can still laugh and smile through the hatred, and find fun in silencing all his loudest critics. Maybe James and Dwyane Wade can learn to peacefully co-exist.
These Miami Heat have all too often played uneven, uninspired basketball. But if LeBron James can be such a vindictive S.O.B. each night, the toughest, most determined man in the gym will also be its most devastating talent. He will continue to quiet crowds and leave haters defeated, and he will accomplish all that with a knowing smile on his face.