Sports Nut

NBA Jerk Watch: LeBron James

He probably got his coach fired. Does that make LeBron a jerk?

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and then–head coach David Blatt, late in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on May 26, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Name: LeBron James

Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers.

Known for: Poorly presented decisions, megastardom, treachery, being the greatest basketball player of this (or possibly any) generation.

Why he might be a jerk: He probably got his incredibly successful coach fired. Also, he was once very mean to Cleveland.

On Friday morning, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Peter Krouse published a masterfully trolling or insanely stupid column titled “Trade LeBron James,” arguing the Cavaliers should get rid of the NBA’s best player of the past decade because he had difficulty taking orders from a successful but totally replaceable coach. A few hours later, the Cavs fired David Blatt. NBA watchers quickly pointed the finger at “coach killer” LeBron. Why else would Blatt—who had brought his team within two wins of a title last season and had guided the Cavs to the best record in the Eastern Conference this season—get the axe?

While the Cavs denied that James was even aware of the firing beforehand, never mind involved in it, that’s a cover. James—who controls the franchise like a general manager—has been humiliating Blatt ever since the two got together. He’s described how he changed a dumb end-of-game play call in last year’s playoffs, replacing it with a game-winner; forced Blatt to redraw a play on his whiteboard mid-timeout; and physically restrained the coach in the middle of a game. The only patronizing thing LeBron hadn’t done was pat Blatt on the head and tell his coach “good job, good effort.” LeBron’s role in the firing is clear: Yahoo Sports NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski laid out how James’ “camp” had been pushing for a move since before Blatt started in Cleveland, and specifically encouraged this change in recent days and weeks.

All this talk of coachicide reintroduces a question that James has faced since he first entered the league: Is LeBron an enormous jerk?

LeBron haters’ most persuasive piece of evidence is his infamous “Decision” to leave Cleveland in 2010 and take his talents to South Beach. The Decision was, in brief, an hourlong, ESPN–produced spectacle of self-congratulation, culminating in a highly public spurning of Cleveland by the city’s hometown savior. It didn’t look good.

The backlash against James was swift. In 2009, he was the third-most-popular male athlete in the country according to a Harris Poll survey. By 2011, he had fallen completely out of the top 10 of the Harris Poll, and was rated the sixth-most-hated athlete in America according to a different survey.

At its peak, LeBron hate was fevered and ubiquitous. As part of Deadspin’s considered, lengthy debate of James’ relative merits as a human being, Drew Magary summed up prevailing thought on James after the 2011 NBA Finals, which ended in glorious schadenfreude for many when the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games: “Everything that made him a complete cocksucker last summer is still there: the arrogance, the dismissiveness, the incredible lack of self-awareness.” After that loss, James said his haters disliked him because of their own shitty lives. It didn’t sound great.

An argument I had in 2011 will demonstrate the intensity of LeBron hate during this period. I was rooting for the Heat in those Finals because I really like how James plays; a close relative of mine was very much anti-LeBron. James had averaged 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7 assists per game on 51 percent shooting that season. “He had just had one of the greatest years of all time,” I contended to my relative. “So did Stalin in 1929,” he responded.

Scott Raab, the author of The Whore of Akron, acknowledged that LeBron—the titular whore—was “no mass murderer.” But his hatred ran deep and long. When commemorating LeBron James “Hater Day” for Deadspin in 2010, Raab described even pre-Decision James as “essentially a self-centered jerk who cared nothing about the fans who adored him; in short, that he [is] just another pro athlete whose stunted adolescence would last his lifetime.” Raab cited James’ decision to wear a Yankees cap to Indians games and the team’s poor play at the end of the 2009-10 Eastern Conference Finals, neither of which are definitive indicators of jerkitude.

Which brings us to the myriad problems with LeBron hate.

Why he might not be a jerk: He really only made one big mistake, and he’s more than made up for it.

So much of the anger towards LeBron for the past six years has focused on the optics of the uppercase Decision—his arrogance in leaving Cleveland via TV special—more than the lowercase decision itself—going to Miami to win a couple of titles. Coming back to Cleveland in 2014—and the way in which he did it, via a heartfelt essay that served as an ode to the town—pretty much healed that wound, for Cleveland fans at least. Even Raab, the King of the LeBron haters, responded to the news by re-embracing James, with a quote from Woody Allen: “ ‘Acceptance, forgiveness, and love.’ ” Even before that, the sports populace had forgiven James: He had returned to No. 2 in the Harris Poll of popular male sports figures by 2013 after winning back-to-back championships with the Heat. Everybody loves a winner!

Hipster LeBron haters, like creator Bernard Watkins, would surely cite plenty of their original reasons for LeBron hatred as still being valid: his cloying commercial ubiquity, favorable treatment by referees, flopping, and whining to said refs when calls don’t go his way. And they might even cite James’ various battles with coaches over the years, including the one that resulted in the ouster of David Blatt.

But there are reasonable defenses for all of those things. The ref stuff is pretty run-of-the-mill gamesmanship for NBA superstars, and doesn’t happen all the time. (See the uncalled muggings the Golden State Warriors committed against James in his extraordinary performance in Game 2 of last year’s NBA Finals for an example of James not getting deserved calls.) While LeBron’s commercials can veer toward over-the-top, self-serious melodrama (which I find kind of entertaining!), his ads can be fun and playful.

And there’s a strong case to be made that LeBron James—the sharpest basketball mind to come along at least since Michael Jordan—knows more about the game and how to win it than almost any human on Earth, including every coach he’s ever played for. If he has to butt heads—and even replace coaches—to win, then isn’t that the point? If that’s not enough to convince you, consider that Magic Johnson got his coach fired once, and everybody (except people who watch late-night TV) loves that guy.

You could also balance LeBron’s supposed unfavorable traits against his many apparent good qualities. Unlike the man he’s most often compared to, who famously eschewed getting involved in politics because “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” James has stood up loudly and proudly for causes he felt were important, including early support for the Black Lives Matter movement. (He did not say much of anything about the Tamir Rice shooting, but he didn’t have to.) His public persona is generally light and silly, with highlights including trips with friends on a banana boat and a high-quality karaoke performance of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” Even his flopping inspires fun memes.

He’s also put his money and fame behind legitimately great charity endeavors, like offering 1,100 kids scholarships to the University of Akron at a possible cost upward of $41.8 million. And for all the talk of him not giving a crap about fans, the evidence points to the opposite: He gets genuinely excited when his fans succeed (intensely, violently so), he offers small kindnesses to ones he feels connected to (like this Special Olympian), and he loves all mom fans (especially his own).

Jerk Score: 1 out of 3 for style, for his friendship with and similarity to Drake. 1 out of 3 for technique, for successfully using teammates to troll his team’s owner. 0 out of 3 for consistency, because of sending cupcakes to neighbors to apologize for a media circus. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Inspiring Comparisons to Osama Bin Laden and Stalin for His Public Betrayal of a Small-Market Sports Franchise.” 3 out of 10 for LeBron James.

Previously on Jerk Watch: