Once the most beloved player in the league, LeBron James tarnished his reputation with a drawn out free agency period, an ESPN special, and one sentence:  “I’ma take my talents to Souf (sic) Beach”

While a few hundred people in Miami jumped for joy, legions of Cavs fans cried.  Some burned jerseys, others shipped their unwanted LBJ gear to South Florida to clothe the homeless.  Once the King of Cleveland, James was now a bum in their eyes.  They were no longer witnesses.  They were sour, angry people blindsided by their former hero.  Fans took to YouTube to voice their distaste while Cavs owner Dan Gilbert used comic sans.

(Really, Dan? Comic Sans? You run an NBA franchise, not a lemonade stand)

Had LeBron announced his decision to join the Heat early in the free agency process without delay, without the ESPN special, the hatred may have remained localized to Cleveland.  Instead, it spread like wildfire.  Knicks fans (myself included) let out a collective “Fuck!” the moment the words “Souf Beach” came out of James’ mouth and not “Madison Sqaure Garden”.  Bulls fans were dumbfounded that LeBron would choose a state with no income tax over an up and coming Chicago team with a superstar point guard and newly acquired cult hero Brian Scalabrine.  Once you piss off 2 of the biggest markets in the country it’s inevitable the rest of the nation follows suit.

LeBron’s first season in Miami was a tumultuous one.  With 3 superstars and a bunch of role players, the Heat were the immediate favorite to win the NBA Championship.  There were talks of the Bulls 72-10 record being in jeopardy.  Heat games were selling out in every arena as basketball fans couldn’t wait to see them play.  Only it wasn’t like the 1990’s when people flocked to NBA games to see Jordan play (when every Bulls game felt like a home game).  People were there to boo LeBron and the Heat.  To see them fail.  To hold up “Human Heat-Ipede” signs.

Every single loss was magnified.  The team that was supposed to be unbeatable wasn’t.  When the Heat lost their 11th game of the season by January the fans and the media were all over them.  No one got the brunt of it worse than LeBron.  The reigning MVP with no rings was being out-shined by a gummy bear eating kid from Chicago.

The disdain for LeBron was so bad during the regular season that NBA television crews couldn’t get a shot of the crowd at Heat away games without showing multiple signs and t-shirts spewing LBJ hatred.  It didn’t matter that he was the most talented and athletically gifted player in the league.  No one outside of the state of Florida was a fan of LeBron James.

When the regular season was said and done, new MVP Derrick Rose and the Bulls finished with an NBA best 62-20 record, LeBron and the Heat were 2nd in the East at 58-24.  While the records told a different story and the Maurice Podoloff Trophy had a new home, the Heat were still Vegas’ favorite to win it all (although no longer overwhelmingly).  Sure enough, the Bulls and the Heat would meet in the Eastern Conference Finals where James would show Rose who the best player in the NBA was.

As the Heat marched on to the NBA Finals, LeBron haters were furious.  The man who turned his back on Cleveland was going to win his first championship.  Dirk Nowitzki had a different idea.  The Human Volkswagen played out of his mind the entire playoffs and managed to upset Miami in the Championship.  LeBron was heartbroken.  The haters rejoiced.

Humiliated, upset, and downright sad, LeBron did the worst thing he could ever do at the press conference following the game when he said:

“All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,”

Up until this point the only thing he had done wrong was “The Decision”.  LeBron had every right to exercise his options as a free agent.  The way he did it, however, was wrong.  Later, LeBron would admit he wished he handled things differently, and I respect that.  People make mistakes.  LeBron’s team of advisers is primarily made up of his childhood friends with no prior PR experience.  They’re bound to make some bad moves, and this was one of them.  But a public denouncement of his haters?  C’mon, man!  You just threw a bucket of kerosene into a dwindling fire.

You see, after the NBA Finals loss, the haters were bound to ease up on LeBron.  This just made them more angry.  Had the NBA gone about its regular business and started the season on time, the hate for LBJ would have been just as strong as it was at the beginning of the 2010-11 season.  Then the lockout came and NBA fans had something new to hate- the NBA itself.

The owners were greedy.  The players were greedy.  The entire season was in jeopardy.  While it was a nightmare for the average NBA fan, this was the best thing that could happen to LeBron.  With David Stern and the league itself the central focus of hate, James was no longer the #1 target.  The lockout wouldn’t last forever, though.  Once the shortened NBA season schedule was announced you could hear the “LeBron sucks!” chants in the distance.

Then there was Kris Humphries.

If there’s one player NBA fans could hate more than LeBron James, it’s Kris Humphries.  It’s bad enough to date someone famous for making a sex tape with a D list celebrity and her humongous ass, but to go on her reality TV show, marry the woman, and then make yourself look like a complete d-bag in the process?  It seemed like LBJ was saved.

Even with a new poster boy of douche-baggery, for some reason people still have hatred for LeBron James.  Cleveland, we get it.  You can hate the man for eternity.  But casual NBA fans?  It’s time to lighten up.  Other than “The Decision” and the post-finals press conference, LeBron really hasn’t done anything wrong.  In fact, the pros far outweigh the cons over the history of his NBA career.

LeBron James was the most hyped player in the history of basketball.  His grainy high school mix-tapes were so ridiculous that every prospect since has had professional highlight reels made, none of which come close.  He came into the NBA with the weight of the world on his shoulders and delivered immediately.  With Jordan’s career winding down in Washington, interest in the NBA was waning.  James brought it back.

Cavs fans forget that before LeBron James, they had the 3rd worst season in NBA history in 2002-2003 with a 17-65 record.  With the addition of James, they won more than double that amount of  games the following season.  After his 3rd season in the league he signed a contract extension for less than max money.  By his 4th year in the league (with no stars around him)  he brought them to the NBA Finals.  Bird had McHale.  Jordan had Pippen.  Shaq had Kobe.  James had Larry Hughes.

LeBron gave 7 seasons to a team that never gave him an adequate supporting cast.  I’m sorry, but you’ll never win an NBA championship with  Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison as your #2 and #3 options.  He gave a city a basketball team to be excited about for 7 years that never really had anything else to cheer for.  It was logical for LeBron to leave Cleveland.  He just should have been upfront about it from the get-go.

LeBron has always been active in the community.  He’s highly involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (who, by the way, received over $2 million as a result of “The Decision”) and can be seen in PSA’s telling kids to stay in school.  Just a few weeks ago he posed for pictures with members of the US Military when initially Heat security told the soldiers “no”.

Some of them wanted pictures with the players, but when the crew members approached the team’s security detail, they were told no.

Maybe LeBron could overhear the conversation, or perhaps he could just tell by their body language what was going on. Either way, he piped up.

“Hey, hey,” he said, “any of these military guys can take a picture with us.”

He turned to his teammates.

“You guys get up,” he told them.

In addition to this gesture, when recent players (including teammate Dwyane Wade) said they should be compensated for playing Team USA basketball, LeBron took the patriotic route.  He said: “I love representing my country, man, I’ve done it since 2004 and I’m looking forward to doing it in London. As far as [pay], I don’t know, man. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a part of the team, to be selected again.”

Those are 2 class moves in my book.

So with all the Linsanity this season, have you noticed what a monster LeBron has been?  He’s not scoring 30+ points per game, but he’s having his most efficient season by far.  He’s making better decisions on (and off) the court and has Miami right where they were last year when they got to the NBA Finals (in 2nd place behind the Bulls).  With Rose nursing injuries and the playoffs right around the corner, something tells me the Heat will jump over the Bulls on their way to the Finals once again this year.

How can you still hate a guy who gives you a highlight like that?  The guy has been humble, apologetic, patriotic, and downright awesome.  I’m not saying we should all jump on the LeBron bandwagon and start buying Heat jerseys, but it’s time to cut the guy some slack.  We all know he’s trying to hide his receding hairline with that giant headband and his 4th quarter performances have been less than legendary, but let’s go back to admiring his skill and athleticism and let the hate out.  It’s much more enjoyable to objectively watch somebody try to succeed than to wish for their failure.

If for some reason you still need a player to hate, there’s always Kris Humphries.

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