It’s 9 p.m. on July 8th, 2010. As the hour turns, ESPN suddenly cuts to the basketball court in the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut. In the center of the court are two men: Jim Gray and Lebron James. After 28 minutes, James, who is wearing a shirt that looks like the table cloth, utters the now infamous line, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”
At that moment, he became one of the most hated figures in contemporary sports. By announcing he was leaving his hometown team in such a self-absorbed way, he became a heel of pro-wrestling proportions. His jersey was burned in the streets, his fathead cost $17.41 in honor of Benedict Arnold, and fans would watch the Heat just to hate.
Recently, though, James has become to become, dare we say, likeable. Let’s take a look at how he’s pulled it off.
Step 1: Win Something
Despite being called King James, Lebron hadn’t won anything before last year. He skipped college, missing a chance to lift a trophy. In the NBA, he was the only good player on the Cavs for the start of his career. Despite being a perennial all-star, James did not reach the playoffs until his third professional season. In 2006-07, he put up a “Jordan-esque” performance during the Eastern Conference Finals. He took over game 5, scoring 48 points, including 29 of his team’s last 30. They made it to the finals, but the Cavs fell off in the finals.
Hi continuous playoff failures peaked in the 2009-10 playoffs, when he struggled in the second round against the Celtics. When his Cavs were bounced following their worst playoff loss in team history, James walked off the court to boos. He would never play as a Cavalier again.
Even after the decision, he still could not close the deal. Losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the finals, James took a large share of the blame. He was branded as ‘un-clutch,’ only averaging 3 points in the fourth quarter of games. His playoff scoring average dropped almost 9 points lower than the regular season. That all changed in 2012 though: James finally got a ring. Averaging almost a triple double per game in the finals (28 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists), he was unanimously voted finals MVP. He had finally answered the biggest doubt of his career: could the supposed King win the big game?
Step 2: Do spontaneous, likable things
Largely thanks to the decision, James was seen as kind of a jerk. Everything was about him, whether it was his TV special or commercial or billboards but, when the spotlight was on him, he shrunk. He branded himself as a King, a Savior, but skipped town when it became too hard. James was all business, but failed at his business.
Lately though, he has been acting like a normal, likable person. When a fan made a half court shot at a Heat game, James appeared out of nowhere to hug the man, which turned into more of a tackle. He looked like a kid, but in a good way:
On another occasion, the ball went into the stands and a fan lobbed it back to James. No big deal, right? While that ordinarily happens dozens of times a game, this moment was different. Jokingly demanding an NBA quality pass, the superstar threw the ball back to the fan, who in turn passed it back. When ESPN caught up with the man, he said the pass was “the most exciting thing [he] ever lived in [his] life.”
Fans invest huge amounts of time and money into a sports team. Generally all they ask for is effort; the players should care as much as the guy who paid $75 to sit in the upper deck. By doing these stupid little things, James is showing the enthusiasm fans want to see.
When asked about passing to the fan, he told ESPN, “I just wanted to show my appreciation to the fans that we have here. They’ve been great all night.” That’s all we ask for, Lebron
Step 3: Continue to literally grow up
While he’s been around forever (and looks like he’s about 40), it’s also important to remember that James is finally growing up. Normal people get high school and college to develop their personalities and learn to be functioning adults. Talent cost James those things. He became a national figure in his junior year of high school. He was given a Hummer for his 18th birthday, which his mother paid for with a loan which she was granted based on her son’s future earning potential. He was in the NBA and making millions at age 19.
Keeping that in mind, it’s a bit easier to understand some of his mistakes. In 2007, DeShawn Stephenson made news by calling James overrated. He when asked for a comment, he declined saying that it would be comparable to Jay-z responding to trash talking from Soulja Boy. Remember he was 23. How do you think you would respond if a hoard of reporters were pressuring you for a response?
Also, keep in mind that, for most of his NBA career, he was the man. There weren’t really veterans to teach him the ropes; after all, what can you teach “King James” (the answer was actually a lot of things). But now, at 28, he’s finally learning: he’s even shown remorse for The Decision.
“If I could look back on it I would probably change a lot of it. The fact of having a whole TV special, and people getting the opportunity to watch me make a decision on where I wanted to play, I probably would change that,” he told ESPN’s Erin Andrews in 2011. “Because I can now look and see 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, I would be upset too about the way he handled it.”
Great players will always be divisive players and Lebron James is no exception. While some will definitely still hate him, his maturity is making him less of a villain. And who knows: maybe one day he really can reach Michael Jordan levels, where everyone can’t help but respect him.