Whenever an athlete becomes one of the greats of his sport, it’s not unusual for him to suddenly become the subject of a lot of ridicule. Peyton Manning, for example, despite being arguably the greatest quarterback of his era and a guy who has a likable, “aw shucks” persona, has people pile on him every time he fails to perform in a big game.
Success breeds contempt, and people love to see successful people fail. We know this. And yet somehow, that isn’t enough to explain the strange case of LeBron James, who for some unknown reason remains one of the most hated athletes in America even after leaving the Miami Heat to return to Cleveland.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at any social media platform and do a search for “LeBron.” You’ll find people talking about LeBron’s propensity for flopping, his inability to win the big one by himself (we’ll talk about that later) and even his receding hairline.
But most of all, you’ll get comparisons to Michael Jordan, and vicious rants about how LeBron will simply never measure up to His Airness.
It’s a strange obsession that NBA fans and sports media have. Every time a player ascends to the height of “best in the world,” everyone rushes to discredit that player by comparing him to Jordan. It happened with Kobe Bryant. It’s happening with LeBron. And you can be sure it’s going to happen to whoever follows in LeBron’s footsteps, whether it’s Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis or someone who has yet to set foot in the league.
Basically, Michael Jordan ascended to such impossible heights in the pantheon of sports god-dom that he made it impossible for anyone who came after him to be judged fairly. And because he was so universally beloved in a way we’ve quite possibly never seen with any other athlete, people who covered him or watched him play will always be quick to unnecessarily rush to his defense whenever someone like Kobe or LeBron begins to put together a resume that gives them an argument to be listed among the greatest of all time.
The result? Kobe was one of America’s most hated athletes. LeBron is currently one of America’s most hated athletes. And now, more than a decade after he officially retired from playing for good, Michael Jordan still consistently ranks among America’s most beloved athletes in all sorts of polls.
So why do people hate LeBron?
With Kobe, the hate was understandable. The rape allegations levied against him during the 2003-2004 NBA season were enough to permanently tarnish his public image.
Even before those allegations arose, however, he had a reputation for being a diva. He regularly publicly clashed with fan favorite Shaquille O’Neal and zen master Phil Jackson, with the latter taking plenty of opportunities to air his grievances with Bryant in a book he wrote during his time away from the game in the 2004-2005 season.
Kobe was never a particularly likable figure, so it’s not surprising that he never had the fans on his side like Jordan did, even when he was in his prime and playing the best basketball on the planet.
With LeBron, though, the story is a lot stranger. He’s never had any criminal allegations of any kind issued against him. He’s never had public diva moments anywhere near the level of what Kobe had.
His biggest crime was the way he left the Cavs for the Heat, and his The Decision special on ESPN. But even calling it “his” special is disingenuous—it was actually the brainchild of journalist Jim Gray. LeBron agreed because ESPN was willing to donate all of the advertising revenue to charity, a total which would then be matched by Nike.
Sure, The Decision stung for NBA fans, especially for Cleveland fans who still hoped to see LeBron return to their team. But the real kicker was the fact that LeBron was teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a superpower. In the eyes of fans and critics, LeBron was admitting he couldn’t win the big one by himself. He was a fraud, unworthy to be compared to the undisputed greatest of all time, Michael Jordan.
The Great Jordan Double Standard
Michael Jordan has earned the reputation as the greatest player to ever play the game. His stats are absurd, especially in the postseason, when he would elevate his game even beyond his already-superhuman status. He hit clutch shot after clutch shot. He’s got the Flu Game, “the shot,” the storyline (retiring, going to baseball, unretiring and coming back to win three more titles). There’s never going to be another player like him, ever. He really was one of a kind.
But long before Michael Jordan was the greatest of all time, he was widely considered one of the game’s biggest chokers. A regular season phenom, a postseason dud. He was the Tracy McGrady of the mid to late 80s, a guy with undeniable talent but a propensity for failure when the playoffs hit.
It’s easy to forget this now, given everything we know about the way Jordan’s career ended up going. But in Jordan’s first three trips to the playoffs, the Bulls had three first round exits and two sweeps. In fact, before Scottie Pippen was drafted, Jordan had a 1-9 record in the postseason.
I bring this up not to discredit Jordan as a player, or to try to show he wasn’t “clutch” (a term that I absolutely despise in sports, by the way). Instead, this record is important for context when we consider that the number one biggest criticism of LeBron has been his inability to win a championship without other great players around him.
Now, this is a criticism that’s extremely easy to discredit, and it’d be easy to ignore it if it were just stupid social media trolls who were the only ones peddling it. But any time the issue of LeBron’s legacy comes up (basically every day if you watch ESPN), even experts and former players seem to think the biggest factor detracting from his legacy is his inability to drag his team to championships by himself. As if that’s even a thing that happens in professional sports.
Jordan had guys like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman helping him earn his titles. Tim Duncan has had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, among others. Kobe and Shaq had an outstanding supporting cast. Magic had Kareem and plenty of other solid players. Titles are won by teams, not individual players, and if you think otherwise then you might as well stop reading this right now.
But the “can’t win by himself” double standard is only one of the head scratchers when it comes to trying to figure out what it is people have against LeBron. Character is another big issue.
LeBron James isn’t a saint. In the earlier days of his career, he had plenty of moments of immaturity and selfishness. There’s no question that he was tactless in his exit from Cleveland, though the decision to move to Miami was completely understandable. But that’s about the extent of what we can say to criticize LeBron’s character.
Michael Jordan, meanwhile, is by all accounts a pretty shady person at best. He’s well known for being a gambling addict and a womanizer, and bristly when it comes to interacting with fans and media members. His Hall of Fame speech could go in the sports dictionary right next to “sore winner.” There are plenty of known instances of him bullying teammates (look up Bill Cartwright, for one) or getting into over-the-top physical confrontations at practice with teammates like Steve Kerr and Will Perdue.
It’s a sign of how much sports media has changed in the past 20 years. Imagine if LeBron James had done any of these things. People might actually have a legitimate reason to hate the guy.
But because Jordan was fortunate to live in an era without an emphasis on 24/7 coverage, and because he became by far the greatest to ever play the game, his character issues are more easily glossed over. So in a way, because we’ve sort of become accustomed to looking past the flaws of the man himself, he’s become closer to myth than man, an untouchable figure.
You can see, then, why it seems blasphemous for some people to even put LeBron and Jordan in the same sentence.
Comparing the incomparable
The crazy thing, and perhaps something that really strikes a nerve with LeBron haters, is that by some major metrics, these guys are having really comparable careers.
Look past the fact that they play different positions and have become great players for different reasons. If we’re going by postseason success, the one metric that LeBron’s haters say he’ll never match Jordan in, then here are some interesting numbers:
|Age during season||LeBron||Jordan|
|21||Conf semis||1st round|
|23||Conf semis||1st round|
|24||Conf finals||Conf semis|
|25||Conf semis||Conf finals|
|Stat||LeBron (to date)||Jordan (entire career)|
|Total playoff games||172||179|
Stats collected by /u/SharksFanAbroad on Reddit. Note that Jordan’s entire career was played before the first round added the Best of 7 format.
One thing that stands out right away is that LeBron has never had a first round exit in the playoffs. Say what you will about the state of the east right now, but that alone is an impressive feat.
At the age of 30, Jordan’s teams had one more championship than LeBron’s, but three fewer appearances in the finals. Meanwhile, LeBron has already accomplished something Jordan never did, and that’s appear in five consecutive NBA Finals.
If LeBron’s career continues along the same trajectory, there’s no reason to believe he’s anywhere near done winning rings yet. In fact, at 30 one could argue that we’d really yet to see Jordan cement his legacy. Who knows what LeBron is capable of in the coming years?
But basketball fans and journalists are natural cynics, and it’s because Michael Jordan was so incredible that everyone has already made up their mind that no one else will ever come close to matching his greatness.
And sure, maybe LeBron isn’t Jordan. Maybe he never will be. But those people are failing to appreciate a truly special, once-in-a-generation type of talent in LeBron, and when he’s gone it may be years before we ever see another player of his caliber come into the league.
And then people will probably hate him, too.
Tim Backes is an editor and founder of NovaCritic.