Over the last week or so, we’ve been seeing a lot of the argument that there’s something inherently sinister about how hard we’re all rooting against LeBron James. That the fact that we revel in his loss says terrible things about our moral culture. That the larger trend goes way beyond basketball.
This argument has, on occasion, made me feel like a bad person for wanting him to fail as desperately as I do, which is very desperately indeed.
But I shouldn’t feel bad. And neither should you, as a Celtics fan or an NBA fan or a human being. Because honestly? It doesn’t really go beyond basketball. The whole discussion may manifest itself in other, crazier forms, and it definitely has a tendency to go too far, but in the end: it’s about basketball.
To clarify the original argument: I’ve specifically heard implications that, if you joyously celebrated LeBron’s failure in the Finals as I did, you are probably either:
A) a racist
B) a petty, spiteful jerk
C) jealous of him (but, for some reason, not jealous of Dirk Nowitzki)
Now, there are certainly people out there who root against LeBron for the wrong reasons, including the ones above (except C, which…come on).
But the idea that racism, jealousy, personality flaws, or some other non-basketball thing goes hand in hand with resenting LeBron is, at best, completely cuckoo bananas, and at worst, very insulting to the community of NBA fans. None of that has anything to do with why we want LeBron to lose. It’s not really The Decision, either. Would we feel as strongly as we do if he’d told Jim Gray he was headed for New York, or Chicago, or the Clippers, or the Mavericks?
No, like the majority of people who follow the game, I actually root against LeBron for basketball reasons alone. I want LeBron to fail because LeBron and the Heat represent the potential to absolutely torpedo the NBA’s already limited parity. Because they could have a ruinous effect on the NBA’s overall product. I root against them because I’m scared.
The NBA already has the least parity of any major professional sport: before Sunday, eight different frachises had won a championship in the previous 30 seasons, and only a handful of teams realistically have a title shot at the beginning of each year. Compared to any other sport, it’s extremely difficult to turn an also-ran into a champion. Over the last 30 years, it’s been nearly impossible.
The lack of parity, exemplified by another Laker championship, was easily my least favorite thing about the league when last season ended. Then the formation of the Big Three introduced the possibility of a single championship contender for years to come, and, as a result, the least fun NBA ever. Think about it: the best player in the league teamed up with another top-five player, joined by a top-five player at his position. There was a chance for them to break basically every record, the most terrifying of which was “consecutive championships.”
This was a new problem for us, as fans. The reason we’d never had to deal with this before is that no player has ever been both A) good enough to destroy professional basketball as we know it and B) actively interested in sharing responsibility as his team’s best player, thus creating an invincible hellspawn dynasty.
But LeBron was both. And, in defiance of all of our wishes, he deliberately constructed a world where he could win forever.
And you know what? He still could! Miami’s season, minus an injury to one of the stars, was almost, almost as bad as it could possibly have been. Consider this:
A) They filled out their roster with absolutely terrible players with zero upside, basing each signing almost entirely on the question “Is this guy one of our best friends?”
B) They lost their fourth-best player for almost the entire year.
C) Their best player (also the best player in the world) performed way, way below his potential in the Finals.
And they still got within two games of a championship. These factors are unlikely to conspire again. We should still be afraid of them.
We are, too. Pretty much every narrative that has developed about the Heat in the last week or so is at least partially the result of this fear. The idea that LeBron lacks the necessary “will to win” is really just a hope that he won’t run train on the league for years to come. The idea that this Miami team needs to be blown up is, to be kind, a pipe dream and, to be mean, stupid. We really just want them to go away.
Here’s the crazy thing: the strategy might actually be working! Casting LeBron as a villain and dumping on him all over television, print, and the Internet has very possibly had the following effects, in chronological order:
1) Decreased LeBron’s desire to play basketball
2) Caused him to perform below his potential in the Finals
3) Sustained NBA competitiveness for one merciful year
4) Made him consider getting rid of the Google Alert he set for himself
If this causality chain has actually occurred, there are big ethical questions to be considered. We (the media and the fans) are making a man’s life a little bit worse to serve our own interests. If nothing else, we should definitely be nicer about how we approach the discussion of LeBron James.
But that doesn’t mean we should feel bad about rooting against him. We want to see a competitive league, and LeBron, Wade, and Bosh conspired to stand in the way of that goal. So we wanted them to fail. We were really happy when they lost, because it meant another year when their potential to dominate the league was not realized.
I’m still scared of the Heat, so I’m going to root against them next year, too. Not because I think LeBron is a terrible person: I violently wanted LeBron to beat the Spurs in 2007. Not because I’m a terrible person: I own a chain of shelters for orphan baby turtles. And definitely not because I’m jealous of LeBron: the only person in the NBA I’m jealous of is Von Wafer, and only because he’s currently dating my ex-wife.
I’m rooting against the Heat because seeing ideal NBA competitiveness is more important to me than seeing the ideal NBA team. Because I don’t want to know who’s going to win every year.
Why does it have to be more than that?