Hate is such a strong word, but it’s something that will forever remain a partner with sports. Fans love their team, and hate whoever isn’t with them. In sports, it’s okay to hate. Deep down, you can’t entirely hate an athlete if you don’t know them, having never met them. So fans get a pass. It comes with the territory. It’s part of what makes sports entertaining. You can hate someone in this context; Athletes are like the cartoon characters we grew up with. But sometimes, the public’s detest of a player can take on a life of its own. Normally, it’s the very best who are dealt the hand, as we once showed with Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James. It’s always the greatest who get the most love and the most criticism.
So on this slow, lockout-driven day, answer this question: Who was more hated – Kobe Bryant from around 2003-08 or LeBron James from around 2009 to now? We argue. You decide.
LeBron James has never won an NBA championship.
Do you know what else he’s never done? He’s never had many off-court troubles. He doesn’t struggle with a gambling addiction. He didn’t withdraw his name or refuse to sign with the Cavaliers on draft day in 2003. He’s never been known for chastising teammates over poor play. He doesn’t force his image. And he damn sure has never undergone a Jay Z-esque retirement (or two).
So, why the hate? And I don’t mean “hate” in the way that is leisurely tossed around nowadays by disgruntled fans. I mean hate. The burn-jerseys-and-make-fake-tombstones kind of hate. The kind of hate that would make Silky Johnson step down from his role as President of the Playa Hater’s Ball. The Dan Gilbert kind of hate.
James has unquestionably developed into the most polarizing figure in the NBA today, and when it’s all said and done, NBA history. Sure, he has his legions of loyal fans; awestruck by his above-the-rim ability, unmatched on-court swagger and knack for running the court better than any player since Magic Johnson. His jersey is always a bestseller and his kicks are hard to keep in stores. But for every fan James has, there are two haters waiting in the shadows, ready to call him “Queen James” or “LeChoke.” In all honesty, the game has never seen anyone like James. It’s easy to love him on the court but almost impossible to approve of his off-court decisions. People love him for his skills and hate him for, well, everything else.
But it wasn’t always like this. Let’s go back to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, when James all but disappeared and then stormed off the court in a televised display of poor sportsmanship. Prior to this, James had already garnered his fair share of criticism but he was still widely lauded as The Chosen One. Sure, naysayers said he wasn’t clutch and couldn’t properly lead a team following his loss to Boston in the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals. But this was different. This was the beginning of the end for LeBron “the small-town sports hero” James.
Following four long summer months, James was gone. You guys know the situation. Rather than humbly bowing out of Cleveland, James made a spectacle of it. Nevermind the fact that he raised $2 million for charity, James became public enemy number one. And understandably so. He knew how much sports meant to Ohio. He knew he was the best thing to happen to Cleveland sports since Jim Brown. He knew the entire state would always stand by his side â€“ even if that meant never capturing the elusive O’Brien trophy. Nevertheless, James made the move and solidified his tenure as NBA’s most hated megastar.
Every move he made was watched, commented upon and scrutinized. And he certainly didn’t make it easier on himself by promising Miami fans not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven but eight rings! But how much of the hate is truly warranted? His role as a basketball star shouldn’t force him to choose between his own happiness and the general public’s adulation. But it has and most probably, will continue too.
James may have made his own bed, but only after people had been messing with his sheets. His reason for leaving was selfish, but that’s exactly what people love about Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant! They don’t care about their faults or mishaps, because they just wanted to win. Why was James casted as a villain for wanting to do the same? And when will this madness stop? James can’t step on a court without hearing whispers of being a traitor who can’t win. He can’t make business decisions without hearing rumblings of Jordan’s bitter disapproval. Hell â€“ he can’t even bring his friends around without hearing Tinker Hatfield badmouth his clique.
You may say LeBron James did this to himself, if you drink from the fountain of Skip Bayless. But that’s certainly not entirely true. No matter who’s to blame â€“ James, media, Gilbert, or fickle fans â€“ the fact is, King James’ throne has been besmirched. Never again will he stroll the palaces with the swagger of a Young Simba. He has a chip on his shoulder and a wrench in his heart. Still, all of that can go away â€“ if only he wins.
Just ask Kobe Bryant.
In 2003-04, Kobe came to us in pieces. This went deeper than the game. Forget a fourth quarter meltdown. You can get that back. You can’t get back what Kobe lost. Hate. Hate. A strong enough word that even the strongest of us, Kobe Bryant, could feel it. You could see it in his face, see it in the way he spoke, see it in his actions. The haters were waiting for something to jump on, had enough of Showboat, this wealthy kid coming up, rocking the shades at 17, thinking he was the next Mike… nah, thinking he was better than Mike. In the NBA, where each plateau is met with more criticism, you can’t jump from high school to the gates of legend. That’s what Kobe tried to do. And the country despised him for it. From 2003-2008, he wasn’t winning, he had off-court troubles and he had more hate than we could possibly give LeBron.
“Jerry Buss let his future son-in-law hit the bricks for this smug brat.” – Boston.com, 2008
Snake. Interesting that Bryant came and turned around the moniker. What it once represented morphed into something entirely different. The Black Mamba. But Bryant wasn’t always the old bloodhound. He didn’t always earn respect. Look at yourself in the mirror, grinning back. You didn’t always love Kobe did you? You hated him. Said he sold Shaq out. Said he was arrogant. Said he was completely, utterly, 100 percent fake. The cockiest son-of-a-bitch that ever put on a jersey.
“I hate Kobe Bryant’s rotten and derivative soul.” – Slate.com, 2006
Unlike LeBron, who seems at once aloof and at once completely in tune with his perception, Bryant shrugs off the criticism. But that only makes it worse, like a fly that just… won’t… die. It makes the hate bubble, puddle at your feet until it gets large enough to swallow you up. LeBron is a rookie at this. Call me when he’s still being hated on in 2020.
You think basketball criticism is going to kill Kobe? You think Skip Bayless is going to take the edge off? You think Shaq rapping on stage is going to send #24 slipping out the backdoor? You think Phil Jax airing KB out to the world will get him to slow down? No. He faced it as he always has. He was built to destroy. So criticize his game. Say he shoots too much. Say he threw games. Say his teammates don’t like him. It only drove him harder (as we can see looking back). He relished it.
LeBron might think he has it tough now. The Golden Child since he was 15 years old, The Chosen One since even before he tatted it on his back, James doesn’t know doubt. He’s not a neighbor with hate. So when it hit him, he showed it. We could feel it. That’s why it seems so extreme right now. Kobe was used to it. He wiped his ass with it.
Kobe won a championship six years after his off-court troubles. He had his on-court redemption. LeBron James is still searching for his, but trust, when that does happen, we’ll rewrite his player card. He’ll go back to being the wonder of the NBA. Kobe? He may never fully rid his haters. He may never fully prove himself to those who hate him. They have their ammo.
Basketball is a game. But life is different. From ’03 to ’08, Kobe’s hate went much deeper than the hardwood. Fans hate LeBron for what he isn’t, for what he cannot do on a basketball court. Fans hated Kobe for who he was. And that knife dug a little deeper.
Who do you think had more haters? Kobe back in the day or LeBron right now?
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