Although James has his supporters, for most NBA fans, James is a villain. By extension, so are the Miami Heat. Good villains create good drama.
Think of the Flyers’ playoff run this season. One reason there was more emotion in their first-round series than second-round series was the presence of Sidney Crosby.
Crosby has developed into one of the all-time best sports villains in the City of Brotherly Love. Not even his inspiring comeback from post-concussion symptoms can temper the boos. All it takes is one dive, one whine to a referee or one sourpuss expression to spark a “Crosby Sucks!” chant.
The Penguins series was more fun than the Devils series, and not simply because the Flyers won. The dislike between the teams, stemming, in part, from a late-game brawl late in the regular season, made the series more fun. Fan weren’t simply rooting for the Flyers. They were vociferously rooting against the Penguins.
The villain phenomenon is even more pronounced when your hometown team isn’t involved. A Thunder-Celtics series may have produced entertaining basketball. A Heat-Thunder series produces entertaining basketball and gets the viewer emotionally invested in the outcome.
The lightning rod for the emotion associated with the NBA Finals is James. Yes, it would be nice to see the Thunder win an NBA championship. They are coached by former Sixers guard Scott Brooks, with former Sixers guard and head coach Maurice Cheeks by his side. Thunder superstar Kevin Durant seems like a sincere and earnest person who is deserving of a championship.
But, as our wrestling columnist, Achilles Heel, could tell you, the best way to make the fans passionate for their fan favorites is to match them against despicable bad guys. It’s fun to root for your favorites. But what really gets the blood boiling is yearning to see the “bad guy” lose. As Mick Foley said during his WWE Hall of Fame induction speech for Don Muraco, when he attended the steel cage match in Madison Square Garden that cemented his desire to be a professional wrestler, he didn’t fully appreciate that one reason he rooted so strongly for Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka was because of how terrific the Magnificent Muraco was at making people want to see him lose.
Pro wrestling isn’t the only entity that has figured out this formula. Muhammad Ali, who credits former pro wrestler Freddie Blassie as his model for promotion, decided there was nothing wrong with getting people angry at you if it sells tickets. Ali would brag and taunt his opponent, gaining media and fan attention for their fight and selling tickets.
Philly’s own Bernard Hopkins once caused a riot by taking a Puerto Rican flag away from Felix Trinidad and throwing it to the ground – in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fans rushed the stage and threw bottles and chairs. And Hopkins sold a whole bunch of tickets for his 2001 fight with Trinidad.
Unlike Ali and Hopkins, James’ evolution into a villain wasn’t a conscious decision. But it was caused largely by “The Decision.”
The Decision was an ill-advised television extravaganza built around James’ decision concerning which team he would sign with as a free agent. The program, featuring “yes man” Jim Gray interviewing James, was a ratings hit and a public relations disaster.
James compounded that mistake with the over-the-top introductory celebration of the signing of James and Chris Bosh, joining Dwyane Wade in what was supposed to be some sort of super team. The glitz and glamour was a turnoff, as was James speaking of winning four, five, six or seven championships.
Non-Cleveland residents didn’t begrudge James the right to switch teams. The way he strung along the Cavaliers, however, only to reveal his decision on national television, made James a villain. The Decision and the welcoming party in Miami also reinforced the belief that James has a huge ego.
That’s why fans delight in the Heat’s failure, thus far, to win a championship. Many feel glee when James misses a late jump shot or free throw that costs his team the game. (To be fair, James played well in the final minutes of the Heat’s 100-96 Game 2 victory, including making a pair of free throws with 7 seconds left.)
Fans enjoy calling him “LeBust” or “LeChoke.” Fans gain satisfaction from seeing the Heat lose. They enjoy it even more when the loss can be traced to James making poor plays or fading during the fourth quarter.
LeBron James and the Heat have become the Yankees, only without the championships. They attract fans – even casual fans – who want to see if their opponents can beat them.
The better the villain, the better the drama. James and the Heat are perfect villains. That’s why so many of us are tuned into the NBA Finals.
Let’s face it. You may be rooting for the Thunder, but you’re really rooting against the Heat.
And that’s OK. Every drama needs a good villain.
So, thank you, LeBron. Thank you, Sidney. Thank you for making sports so much fun.