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On Jordan, LeBron, and Being Hated

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I'll get back to the two depressing stories hovering over UNC in a moment, but I'd like to take a brief detour. Hua Hsu has an interesting piece over on Ta-Nehisi Coates' site about, well, a lot of things that don't necessarily mesh together. But among those things are Michael Jordan's comments about LeBron James, which spins off into this:

Or maybe, in the case of LeBron James and his decision to join his friends on the Miami Heat, the rules of friendship and the logic of business have become interchangeable. James' decision has earned him a torrent of abuse, and yesterday, no less than Michael Jordan dismissed these "kids" by offering that he was more interested in beating his rivals than joining with them. "But that's ... things are different," Jordan remarked. "I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys." Things are, indeed, different nowadays. Players rarely try and strangle each other, most of them become friends years before entering the professional ranks, and many of them studied Jordan not only for his on-court success but the acumen of his marketing team, as well.


LeBron's entire persona rests on being merely likable: the entire reason for his television special was to have his decision be understood, to come across as someone who had struggled through all of this as any of us might have. What he has done is become unlikeable. To be hated? It takes a certain temperament—a certain luxury, too—to court hatred, to not give a fuck what anyone thinks. And LeBron doesn't have it.

This struck me as odd at first, as one of the big criticisms attached to Jordan in his prime was his corporate-ness. It most famously came to the front in his possibly apocryphal quote about not supporting Harvey Gantt in his election against Jesse Helms, saying "Republicans buy sneakers too." The rap was, he was always too concerned with being liked to take a public stand for anything.

Of course, there's also the grief Jordan got at his most recent high-profile appearance – his Hall of Fame acceptance speech last fall. There, he was the competitive, vindictive, unlikeable player everyone is now saying LeBron James should be... and Jordan was pilloried for it. Basketball fandom wants, apparently, their heroes to walk a fine line. They have to ant to go it alone like Jordan, with a competitive fire that produces greatness, but to leave that same fire in the 94' by 50' rectangle. Or the political arena. Or wherever it suits the fan.

I'm sorry, but I can't begrudge LeBron for wanting teammates he enjoys playing with, or a change of scenery, or whatever motivated him to pack his bags. I think psychoanalyzing him based on this decision, or the stupid dog-and-pony show that announced it, and projecting it onto his chances of bringing home a champion and his place in history is a mug's game. The popular opinion of James will have changed within a season, depending on his performance (outside of Cleveland, at least) and any failure to win a title will not be from a lack of competitive spirit. And if he succeeds, there will still be no shortage of perceived flaws to focus on when summer comes.