There is a strange breed of NBA fans, some casual and some hardcore, that derive great pleasure from criticizing NBA MVP LeBron James. Many call them "haters." As a Boston Celtics fan, I included myself among them. I had seen my Celtics oust LeBron twice in his Cleveland years, then watched all the Decision coverage wondering what in the world was going through James' head. Then he defeated the Celtics last year as a member of the Heat, and my status as a LeBron "hater" was cemented.
In this year's NBA playoffs, I once again rooted for Miami's opponents, even New York. I was overjoyed that the Pacers were on track to beat them. Then LeBron and Dwyane Wade went on a historic tear together, with Chris Bosh injured, setting up a showdown with the aging Celtics.
Miami won the first two games at home, with some questionable officiating. LeBron played well in both games, and Miami appeared destined for the Finals. But the Celtics won the next three, the last in Miami in overtime, and the media machine churned. LeBron continued to play well, but Wade struggled and the supporting cast couldn't do much, though Bosh returned briefly and played well in Game 5. Frankly, I found the amount of criticism James got amazingly unfair, considering he had played well throughout the series.
I expected James to fold at some point in Game 6 in Boston, just as he had done in 2008 and 2010 against the Celtics. He blatantly quit on the Cavaliers in 2010. He then proceeded to prove me wrong by putting up 30 points in the first half, and stopping every Celtics attempt at a comeback with a clutch jumper. He went 19-for-26 from the field for 45 points, with 15 rebounds and 5 assists. It was one of the best individual games I've ever seen.
But somehow, it wasn't enough. The staunchest haters argued that LeBron had ignored his teammates and become a ballhog. Wasn't that what they had wanted all along? For LeBron to accept responsibility as the main man? I honestly felt bad for the man.
He helped finish off the Celtics in Game 7, and even though it was a highly emotional game, I couldn't bring up that same hatred for him. His performance earned my respect.
His legacy, as the media will say endlessly now, will be determined only by Finals, and the Heat are actually underdogs against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He needs to win a ring to finally get the haters off his back. But on Monday, a day before the Finals start, he said,"Whatever the results, I'm going to be satisfied with that. I'm going to be happy with it because I know I'm going to give it my all."
I sincerely hope he does not believe this. I've been impressed with the stories of his seriousness in these playoffs, how he has become totally focused on winning a championship. I won't go so far as to say I want the Heat to win, because I still don't like the way the team was constructed or the arrogance their Big Three came into being with. But LeBron James earned my respect in the Eastern Conference Finals, and I hope for his sake that he will not lose it in the Finals.