From the moment he announced "the Decision" to take his talents to South Beach on July 8, 2010, LeBron James became a target of virulent condemnation in the sports world. Miami's stunning six-game loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals only solidified the 26-year-old's status as the most hated player in basketball, and he faces an uphill battle to regain any measure of redemption.
On a stage as dramatic as sports and in a game that is such a part of the American social fabric, James was transformed from golden boy to traitor overnight, an anti-hero of the worst kind. If this was an epic play scripted for a heroic finish, "King James" was relegated to playing the villain.
What a change in the story line! The tale of LeBron James began so beautifully. The story was filled with nostalgic expectations of Jordan-like greatness and Magic Johnson congeniality. But now the script seems fated for an ugly ending.
For James, the decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat didn't just rub people the wrong way; it gave birth to a public backlash fueled by the kind of venom and hatred usually reserved for the worst of the worst. Resentment was shrill and immediate, especially in Cleveland, where fans took to the streets and burned his No. 23 Cavs jersey in protest. The images — stark and disturbing — painted James as some sort of national desperado or, worse, a brutal dictator who had fled a Third World country in turmoil.
In the days that followed, it was reported that members of James' family had received violent threats and that his Ohio residence had to be guarded by police for fear of vandalism or attack. Yet this hateful reaction, while more vehement in Cleveland, didn't just end there. It spread throughout the country and continued through the year. In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey — all cited as possible destinations for James during the free-agency period — fans and the national media joined in on the LeBron James denunciations, taking their shots on social media, in newspapers and wherever a camera was present.
In nearly every city James traveled to, he was met with the utmost contempt. On Feb. 11 a Detroit Pistons fan verbally assaulted James during the game by shouting obscene comments about his mother in front of his two young sons, who were seated at courtside.
The sense of disappointment in James' hometown of Cleveland is somewhat understandable, but why has there been such enduring public hatred of James across America? On Oct. 20, 2010, ESPN ran a national poll to gauge the popularity of the basketball mega-star, and the results revealed an astounding polarization of black and white voters: 65 percent of black sports fans viewed James favorably, compared with only 32 percent of white fans. On the night Dallas won the NBA title, CNBC Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell reported a Twitter poll that ranked James as the "most disliked athlete ever" just behind Barry Bonds, and ahead of O.J. Simpson and Alex Rodriguez.
Making Rovell's list along with two convicted felons and an admitted steroid user may come as a surprise to some, but the national bitterness toward James speaks to a critical social issue that has plagued sports for centuries: the uneasy relationship between black athletes and white fans.
Throughout American history, the black male athlete has often been either the greatest story ever told or the quintessential tragedy. Constantly built up by the public and media for his ability to entertain and fulfill our wildest dreams, he is torn down and ostracized when he fails to deliver the goods. He is forced to exist between two extremes: love and hate.
James isn't the first professional athlete to leave the city that drafted him and play for another. NFL quarterbacks John Elway and Eli Manning famously refused to play for the franchises that drafted them — acts arguably more insolent than James' opting to play elsewhere after fulfilling the seven years of his contract. Brett Favre, another former NFL quarterback, kept several teams hostage for a 2½-year period over whether or not he was going to play or retire, a divalike performance that was probably the most blatant act of selfishness by a known athlete in quite some time.
Yet for Elway, Manning and Favre — all of whom are white — the rules seem to have been different. There was little impact on their popularity, at least in comparison with James. In fact, Elway's and Manning's actions were viewed as shrewd "business moves" or "personal decisions," while James' (as a "free agent") were depicted as an act of betrayal.
As a result, James is now viewed as the ultimate megalomaniac, ungrateful for the adoration of his fans — a notion adamantly illustrated during CNN's coverage of the reaction to the decision, when a white male fan declared, "He is dead to me," moments after the burning of James' jersey.
This sort of vindictive criticism of James, echoed in large part by Cleveland Cavalier owner Dan Gilbert, was what the Rev. Jesse Jackson confronted in a press release on July 11, 2010, when he claimed that James was being treated like a "runaway slave." Jackson was alluding to the double standard and long-standing paternalistic relationship that white fans have had with black male athletes since competitive sports came into existence.
Much of the hatred that James has suffered, while self-inflicted at times, doesn't have as much to do with his recent lackluster performance as with the audacity he displayed by making such an important decision on his own terms. When he rewrote the script that had been prescribed for him by signing with the Heat, he almost certainly sealed his fate as the hated scoundrel of a sports world obsessed with constructing an acquiescent black male athlete.
Like so many others in history — notably Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, and a man once regarded as "the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth" because of his unyielding confidence in the presence of whites; and boxing legend Muhammad Ali, reviled for most of his career — James now represents the uncontrollable black male.
He has become what Tom Burrell describes in his book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, as the "Badass Negro," one who refuses to follow the rules and who fights back against criticism. James is quickly becoming this kind of black American tragedy: unwilling and, perhaps, unable to fit into the structured vernacular of the white American sports imagination.
There are stories of athletes who have fallen from grace, only to find redemption in their final act on the sports stage. But for LeBron James, the negative public perception that he has endured is part of a greater historical inheritance. He is more likely to overcome it by showing his willingness to play the docile and grateful black athlete than by finally winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the NBA's best team.
Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who writes about race, sports and politics.