That LeBron James and Steph Curry should meet in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in the year 2016 is fitting. It is, after all, the year of “the lesser of two evils”. Although these two men each have impressive rosters surrounding them, all the focus of tonight’s game will lie on them. Cleveland cannot win if LeBron doesn’t keep up his otherworldly level of play, and the world is waiting for Steph Curry to return to the incredible feats he managed throughout the season, if for no reason other than to prove to ourselves that we weren’t dreaming. And yet, these two players are among the most hated among the league, their celebrity status and victories putting them under the constant, judging eye of the public. In seeing why the fans hate these two men, each so dominant in their play, we can learn more ourselves and our relationship to the game and those that play it.
It’s hard to point out an exact time the hate for LeBron started, but it is quite clear when that hatred went from a few NBA fans to the masses, when the desire to watch him fail came into the mainstream. It was “The Decision,” a gaudy, ridiculous 90 minute- long TV special in which LeBron James sat at a Boys and Girls Club on live TV to announce he would be leaving the only state he had ever called home to join the ranks of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. At 9:28 p.m. on July 8, 2010, the world decided it hated LeBron James.
Since then, Lebron has been called a traitor and a carpetbagger, and has been accused of chasing championships (as if this wasn’t the goal of professional athletes). It is easy to look at LeBron’s Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland switches with a scornful eye. In the eyes of the world, he took the cheap route, abandoning his home and teammates in the heart of the rust belt to go win multiple titles on the shores of South Beach. When the Prodigal Son returned to Cleveland, hardware in hand, NBA fans, as cynical as ever, pointed that he once again was just chasing glory, this time tagging along with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Whenever fans describe why they hate LeBron, this series of events is always the first thing they bring up, and it is telling of how we view professional athletes. It has often been said that if you were to go to a lab and try to create a perfect basketball player, your end result would be LeBron James. He possesses physical capabilities that no one else on the planet has, and his natural talents for the game make him seem like someone sent from another planet. This is why we hate that James so often moves to be surrounded by other great players. When a fan complains that King James only went to Miami to win with Wade, they’re upset that he even needed to; that someone with such physical ability would admit to the need for help brings them down to earth, making a superhero back into a man.
In many ways, we expect the heroes of our athletic events to be Gods, and when they show signs of humanity, it is as if this betrays the sense of “other” that we accept and shroud them with. This point is telling of the larger reasons why we hate James. In an excellent piece for ESPN, Pablo S. Torre writes about how the King’s friendship with Dwyane Wade angers those who want only an overwhelming desire to win from our athletes. How could two men who play in the same league, each obstacles in the other’s path to glory, possibly display anything but contempt for one another? When we see him smiling alongside Wade, we hate LeBron for not caring about basketball as much as we do. Their friendship, a simple sign that each player is, in fact, human, gives us a glimpse into the fact that each of these men is more than just a basketball player, a reality that we all too often are unwilling to accept. When LeBron complains about trash talking from his opponents, the idea that someone as big and strong as him could feel human emotions bothers us to no end, and is proof that somehow he doesn’t deserve his success.
At the bottom of all hatred of LeBron is the idea that he somehow doesn’t love basketball enough. Jordan was never friends with his own teammates, let alone those on other teams, and he sure as hell didn’t complain to the press about words said on the court. Jordan has more rings than LeBron. Maybe if James could finally get in the mindset of winning above all else, then he could finally be great. Until then his haters say, he is undeserving of victories; his admission of his own humanity a waste of talents and strength we all desire so strongly.
Curry, too, is hated for his humanity. He isn’t the fastest point guard in the league, nor is he the tallest. Instead, he has spent hours upon hours in the gym, perfecting that beautiful shot of his, and working to get better. His story should be one accepted with open arms in this country, in which the narrative that anything can be achieved through hard work has long defined what it means to be American. Instead, he is mocked. Whenever an old- timer claims that Steph couldn’t make it in the league they played in, and this happens often, what they are really saying is, “Cut the crap, kid. You can hide behind your shooting now, but we know you’re not a real NBA player.”
This take has been made over and over again by countless former players and writers. They claim that Steph is turning the game into something that can be mastered solely through practice, otherworldly strength and talent be damned. Nowhere else is this sentiment this demonstrated as well as in a Men’s Journal article by Andrew Cotto. He writes,
And that’s the problem. Kids once wanted to emulate another role model. They wanted to “Be Like Mike.” The truth with that was that nobody — amateur or professional – could actually be like Mike. Not even close. The baggy shorts and all the requisite Bulls gear was about as close to Mike as we could get, because on the court, his legendary moves — aerial assaults; triple-clutch reverse layups; facials on 7-footers; one-handed rebounds or ball fakes; opposing shots stolen from the sky; big game buzzer beaters at any time – couldn’t be replicated. So no one even tried.
But Steph’s game is a different story, at least from the perception of my kids. It’s rooted on the ground, and in two of the game’s core tenets — shooting and dribbling — that are available to all. Maybe you can’t dunk, but everyone can shoot. That doesn’t mean they should.
To Cotto, Steph is ruining the game because he is making it available to everyone. With each three point shot he makes, Curry chips away at the idea that athletes are more than just human beings. Like James, he has consistently proved to be the antithesis of what we traditionally think a superstar to be. Americans, for all their love of hard work, are a cynical people, and every time we hear a story of how hard work can lead to success, we sort of sneer to ourselves, looking at our own failures, and justifying them by saying that hard work can only get so far. Curry knocks this assertion down over and over again, and we hate him for doing this, for being a mortal that has snuck into a group of Gods.
No matter who loses tonight’s game, a significant amount of the population will be happy to see the men be defeated. If it is LeBron, the world will lean back and think to itself that it was right, that if he just cared a little bit more, then he would certainly be a champion. If Steph Curry loses, it will vindicate our belief that he was a fraud, an imposter whose practice could only get him so far. No matter how the series ends, it will probably prove Shakespeare’s Cassius correct. The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.