King James and Miami don’t feel the heat of public affection
LeBron and his team are loathed as they face the ‘boring’ San Antonio Spurs
LeBron James looks downcast in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during game one of the NBA finals at AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami. Photorgaph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Will America ever come to adore LeBron James?
On Thursday night, the NBA finals began with “King James” intent on leading the loathed Miami Heat to a second consecutive title and taking another step towards the growing contention that he might be the greatest player that the game of basketball has seen.
The Heats’ opponents in these finals have been a surprise and find themselves as national darlings by default. Someone I overheard on the street here in New York put it like this: “Nobody likes San Antonio. But everyone hates the Heat.”
And it is undeniable that LeBron James has conspired to make himself the brand leader of one of the most disliked sports teams in contemporary sports.
It is not difficult to pinpoint when and how Miami came to occupy such an extreme position in the minds of sports fans. No matter what James does in his career he is never going to fully erase the excruciating smugness and self-regard which informed “The Decision”.
After feverish speculation and solemn contemplation of which team he would sign for after becoming a free agent from the Cleveland Cavaliers James made the mistake of uttering, in a nationally televised hour-long programme, one of the most notoriously vain sentences in the history of sport: “I’ve decided to take my talents to South Beach.”
Of course, it was a decision with staggering fiscal impact. Studies have demonstrated how James’s decision to leave Cleveland – he is Ohioan and when he joined his local team he promised to light the city up “like Vegas”– has cost the city millions of dollars.
The New York Knicks was one of the clubs James had been in negotiations with: Had James elected to go to New York, he would not only have placed himself in the city whose scale and chutzpah would belong, his gesture would have seemed almost noble – trying to restore one of the NBA’s oldest clubs to its former grandeur. The Manhattan club’s on-going quest for a first NBA title in four decades has become tragic-comic.
Instead, he joined the ever-sulky and brilliant Dwayne Wade in Miami and along with Chris Bosh formed a trio of superstars who made brash proclamations that they would be unstoppable.
Most of the time, Miami are precisely that. After two faltering seasons, they won the title last year and embarked on a 27-game winning streak earlier this season. Nobody can question that James is an extraordinary creature and plays basketball in a way that hasn’t been seen before, his phenomenal size and strength combined with the skill and speed associated with a small, quick shooting guard.
When he wants, James can do anything. But there is something in his demeanour that rubs people up the wrong way. It is partly to do with his size: he uses elusiveness rather than brute force but there are still times when he tosses 6’7” opponents aside like makeweights. But when he is fouled and on the rare occasions when he is actually floored, he preens and whines and acts outraged and always, always appears shocked and offended whenever the referees deign to call a foul on him.
Michael Jordan did much the same thing in the years when was the biggest sports star in the world. But appeal is a strange thing and Jordan’s glowering presence and his panther’s quickness was held in global reverence. In addition, he was the image behind one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns ever conceived, for the Nike Air Jordan shoes, the simple, direct aspirational catchphrase: Be Like Mike.
Jordan was the last word in hipness, grace and power and fans loved the fact that he didn’t enjoy just beating his opponents; he got off on playing with them and breaking them down in front of millions of people.
LeBron James has rarely been less than respectful to opponents. Friends and team-mates have testified to his extreme likability. But it doesn’t matter. In sport, projection is everything and across America, James is the comic-strip villain: the have-everything ball player it is fun to hate.
Next week, he will go head to head against Tiger Woods on the television sports shows which dominate the networks. Woods is, of course, seeking to nail down his first Major title since 2008 and to offer the most vivid response to Scott Fitzgerald’s much quoted and utterly wrong observation that there are no second acts in American life.
In his years as an unassailable winner and one of the remote figures in sport, Woods earned a fan base based on an aura of power and stony concentration and the deathless nerve he showed on championship Sundays. When it turned out that his private life was like a bad Hugh Hefner dream, there was an unmistakable glee and adolescent gossip about the general response. Woods’s humbling, his subsequent lost years and fascinating return to form has probably earned him an entirely new fanbase . . . it won’t be long before the major brands come seeking his endorsement again. If Woods wins Major number 15, he will eclipse King James in popular response and as the big story of the year.
But James has more immediate concerns with his on-court opponents. The Spurs are the perfect match-up for the Heat as they represent everything Miami is not. As a city, San Antonio would barely register was it not for the stunning consistency of its basketball team and mainly because of its superstar.
Tim Duncan has won four NBA titles, is habitually described as one of the most underrated players of all time, a 14 time All-Star and three times NBA finals MVP. He has negligible interest in commercial endorsements, preferring to concentrate on various philanthropic projects and when he speaks, it is with a dry and reserved sense of humour. If James and Miami are all glitz and brashness, then the complaint against the Spurs and Duncan is that they are boring. But at least they are not Miami.
So there was general delight on Thursday when the Spurs Tony Parker made one of the most outrageous baskets of the year, falling onto his knee with the shot clock running down, somehow recovering and evading James’s massive outstretched palm to score a basket off the backboard. He got his shot away with 0.1 of a second left on the clock to silence Miami’s nouveau crowd. Just like that, the Heat were down 1-0 in the best of seven series and yet against James finds himself in a series in which millions of neutrals will watch to see if he will fail rather than to see if he can win.
“That was the longest 24 seconds that I’ve been a part of,” James sighed afterwards. “The Spurs are the Spurs, man.”
Meaning they are not the Miami Heat. For millions of neutrals, that is enough.