“Everybody loved him,” Ilgauskas said.
That was 2003, the year LeBron James was drafted straight out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron to play for the nearby Cleveland Cavaliers. That was when James was the NBA’s freshest face, his limitless potential and positive image — even after some controversy in high school — inspiring Nike to sign him to a $90 million endorsement contract before he had even participated in an NBA training camp. That was before James emerged as a legitimate superstar, took the Cavaliers to the NBA finals, won two MVP awards … and then announced during a one-hour national television special that he was taking his talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat.
That before James became a pariah to many in his home state and the most polarizing active athlete in the nation, his villain status cemented for many when the Heat hailed his arrival with a garish, raucous signing ceremony and he responded by flexing and promising “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven titles.”
Now James is closer to a title than he has ever been, making his first trip to the NBA finals since 2007, and with a much stronger supporting cast — including a sidekick (Dwyane Wade) who has already won an NBA finals MVP.
So what if he wins?
Will he start winning in the court of public opinion again?
“Everywhere else but Northeast Ohio, yes,” said Ilgauskas, the 15-year veteran who joined James in Miami. “Because the move, it makes sense. He said it was hard to leave home, he didn’t want to leave, but it was all about the winning. He wanted to win, and this presented the best opportunity. So if that comes true, then there’s not much you can say. Because he got the job done, it puts a stamp on it.”
Steve Kerr, a five-time NBA champion who covered the Eastern Conference finals for TNT, agreed that, for many, the ends will justify the means.
“Then he breaks into the all-time great list,” Kerr said. “You can’t get there until you win a title. I think it changes everything for him.”
“I think a lot of that stuff will go away,” Kerr said. “It will never go away completely. But if he goes on and wins a title, any self-respecting basketball fan has to acknowledge his greatness, because the guy is a phenomenal player. The way he went about it was what got him into trouble. The decision itself was fine, he was a free agent, how can you blame him? He goes and plays with (Chris) Bosh and (Dwyane) Wade. They’re proving why they did it. They just didn’t handle it the right way at the time, and that started the avalanche.”
That is the line of demarcation many draw.
The decision, lower case.
The Decision, upper case.
The decision, as in choice, to leave Cleveland for Miami isn’t what bothered many as much as “The Decision,” the self-aggrandizing way he went about revealing it.
It hasn’t mattered to many that the ESPN event raised more than $2 million for charity, much of it used for computers at Boys and Girls Clubs around the country. Nor has it mattered that it reportedly wasn’t James’ idea; in his book, interviewer Jim Gray revealed that it was a collaborative creation between himself and the network. Nor has it mattered that James, over the course of the season, has repeatedly conceded that he could have handled the situation differently, and gone to even greater pains of late to explain.
Late on May 12, after the Heat eliminated the Boston Celtics in the second round, James emoted:
“I knew I had to go through Boston at some point. I went through a lot signing to be here. The way it panned out with all the friends and family and fans back home, I apologize for the way it happened. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. As much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland, as much as I loved home, I knew I couldn’t do it by myself against that team.”
And, then, late on May 26, after James advanced to the NBA finals for the first time since 2007, he elaborated further:
“I understand a lot of the backlash that came with me going to Miami, but I understand also that I did what was best for me, what was best for my family and what was best for me being a professional athlete. I understand what this league is all about. I wanted to team up with some guys that I understood that would never die down in the moment. … You know, I'm happy. In anyone's job, they always try to find some way they can do their job and be happy doing it. And that's where I am right now in my life, as far as on the court and off the court.”
Where is the country, though?
Happy that he’s happy?
Happy that the team he fronts, the Heat, is on the verge of making good on its preseason promise, and promises?
Jack Ramsay, a Hall of Fame coach and current ESPN Radio analyst, believes that many are, at the least, a bit happier.
“I think the rest of the country is growing to appreciate, and in some quarters root for, this team,” Ramsay said. “They started off on the wrong foot and just aroused derision everywhere they went in the league. But they are so good. They are so dedicated. When you see, as (ESPN play-by-play man) Mike Breen said, their key players, LeBron James and D-Wade, diving on the floor for loose balls, coming from the weak side and making incredible shot blocks, you have to acknowledge that. I think it’s happened for the Heat. They have not become America’s team, but they’re likable, and everybody loves a winner. And this team has proved that it can be a winner.”
Its players, at this point, need the national media and public to prove that to them.
They’re too used to wearing the black hats by now — stuck on them not just by opposing fans, players and executives, but by analysts including Charles Barkley.
Wade, a former Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year,” moaned earlier this season that the “world is better now that the Miami Heat is losing.”
Bosh, a former Magic Johnson award winner for his media cooperation, was asked this week whether the hatred would subside if the Heat wins titles: “Absolutely not. It will probably increase a little bit. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. But we know Miami loves it, our families love it, and we love it, too, so that’s all that matters now.”
James, after eliminating the Chicago Bulls, said he didn’t believe his time as a heel was up.
“No,” James said. “What’s today’s date? We have about a month left. We have about a month left of the continuing of hate. We’ll see what happens for next year. No, no, we know. We know we’re the bad guys, that everyone perceives us to be. But we just try to do our jobs.”
It has been a strange, and seemingly uncomfortable role, for James. He said early in the season that he was fine with the change of the perception of him, with the boos and taunts in every road arena — even those in cities, like Memphis, that didn’t pursue his free agent services. He promised to use it as fuel, taping an inspirational Theodore Roosevelt quote to the side of his locker — starting with “it is not the critic who counts” — and tweeting a line from a Batman movie (and Jay-Z song) that includes the lyrics “dark knight feeling, die and be a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
Yet he admitted, after a dominant performance in Portland in January, during which he had encouraged the crowd to shower him with hostility, that his image destruction had been unnerving, especially since he wasn’t comfortable with the way he was playing for his new team.
It had taken time to accept and enjoy being the villain.
Kevin Adler, president of the sports consulting firm Engage Marketing Inc., doesn’t expect James to deal with it much longer.
Especially if James wins his first championship.
“With all apologies to Charlie Sheen, winning makes the difference,” Adler said. “People are willing to forgive a lot of things if they perform on the court. I look at the world in terms of brands, and athletes are brands. Brands have DNA to them, and words associated with them. The word will be winner.”
And, Adler believes that some brand repair has been in progress for a while.
“His jersey is the No. 1 seller in the NBA, and that is as good an indicator of consumer affinity for a brand as anything. I am quite certain if every person in the Miami metro area bought one, he wouldn’t be that high on the list,” Adler said. “So it is happening.”
His Q score, which rates his likability and marketability, has also recovered somewhat since shortly after “The Decision.”
“Clevelanders were most burned, but his first couple immediately thereafter, like the Nike ad, broadened the blast radius,” Adler said, referring to the “Rise” spot in which James strikes back at public opinion of him. “As the Heat has done what it’s done, and become what it’s become, the blast radius has shrunk significantly. The LeBron James brand, in the big picture, in the grand scheme of things, is a healthy one.”
Adler believes it needs to be, for James to continue to increase his endorsement profile.
“You can get famous getting hated,” Adler said. “But it’s hard to get money. Being a villain, I don’t think that’s a hat he wants to wear at all. When you look at brands a lot less edgy than Nike, like Kraft and Proctor and Gamble, they’re not looking for polarizing figures.”
Mike Paul, a "reputation doctor" for MGP and Associates PR, isn’t as convinced that James has put polarization behind him.
Winning cures all?
“I think it’s not that simple an analysis,” Paul said. “Most wins does not translate to the best reputation. Because you win a lot of games, that doesn’t mean that you are liked, that doesn’t mean you are respected, that must be earned other ways.”
Paul argues that it is as much about the way you win.
“Your attitude dictates your altitude, what people think of you, what your reputation is,” Paul said.
He believes that James suffers because too many see him as arrogant. If he were representing James, he would tell him to cut down on the chest-pounding, and to hike up the humility, to understand that what might help him with his South Florida supporters might alienate outsiders — who are all part of his core audience. Paul sees someone who loses his cool too quickly, and who sometimes says more than he should. James, the most scrutinized athlete in his sport, has spoken and typed plenty of things that have gotten him in trouble this season, some of which (like tweeting that it was “Karma” for the Cavaliers to lose by 55, or appearing to advocate contraction of other NBA teams) has led to back-pedaling or retractions.
“The root of this is deciding you are going to leave, people feeling that you owe them more, your attitude when leaving was 'I don’t owe anybody a thing, I’m going to take it a different direction' — the first person to have one-hour special — and then the entire organization is going to agree to decision to party like it’s 1999, when you haven’t won anything,” Paul said. “The cockiness puts you on a pedestal where everyone wants to take a shot at you.”
Paul said last weekend that it would be wise for James to lead with humility from here forward, to say that if the Heat don’t win a title, it will be his fault — and whenever asked about the game’s history, to speak glowingly about its greats.
Even after Scottie Pippen compared him favorably to Michael Jordan.
“If I saw that article, and he is my client, the last thing you should do is start beating my chest about that quote,” Paul said. “Say, 'Wow, I’m humbled by it. What I’ve told you before, I’ve studied Michael, and to be compared to him is an amazing thing. Look at all championships he’s won. I hope I get my first this year. I put it on my back, let’s hope I perform as well, that’s my goal.'”
And that is almost exactly what James did.
“Michael’s an unbelievable player,” James said Saturday. “You know, I’ve got a long way, a long way, to be mentioned as far as one of the all-time greats. Not even just Jordan. There’s a lot of great players who have played in this league, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and all these guys floating around with multiple rings. Bill Russell. All these guys who have pioneered this game for myself and D-Wade.”
James said he was “humbled” by Pippen’s perspective.
“Especially with him being a teammate of his and seeing him on a day-to-day basis,” James said. “But as far as me, I don’t know, I’m not going to sit here and say I’m better than Jordan or I’m not better than Jordan. It’s not about that.”
It’s hard for even the haters to criticize him for that comment.
So, maybe, eventually, even Cleveland will come around.
“That will never be better,” Ilgauskas said, smiling. “He can forget about that. Not Northeast Ohio.”