"I know I'm the easiest target that we have in sports, I'm aware of it. I really am. I believe it."
-- LeBron James in an interview with ESPN's Michael Wilbon on Friday
The minute he couldn't move, the second he stood on that baseline unable to take another step, the instant they began to carry him off the court, you knew it was about to happen. Twitter. FB. Instagram. Google Plus. Sports bars. Sports radio. "First Take." "SportsCenter." Another universal and public annihilation of LeBron James.
"#cramps. #lebron. So this is why LeBron isn't in Space Jam 2." Picture of him in full body cast with #cramplife underscored. Gatorade tweeting: "The person cramping wasn't our client." The Atlanta Daily World calling it a "total bloodbath on social media." Memes of people " LeBroning."
If there was ever a wrong time for the wrong thing to happen to the wrong person, this was it.
But there is more to this than a public opportunity for millions to take shots at LeBron. This recent incident is possibly final proof for us (and LeBron) that, as much as he might be respected and honored as a basketball player/iconic athlete and as much work as he's put in to become the "global icon" he told us from the beginning he was striving to be, he will never be loved or beloved.
The hate for LeBron began way before "The Decision." It happened the second he became the youngest player to be the subject of Slam's High School Diary and has continued with every "youngest player to ? " milestone that has followed. It happened when ESPN aired his high school games. It happened when his mother purchased him a Hummer for his 18th birthday. It happened when he didn't openly apologize for being so good so young and for living up to a degree of hype that was almost purposely set up for him to fail. It happened when he gave himself the name King James.
The belovedness that should have been unconditionally associated with someone of LeBron's stature, worth, value and appeal didn't happen for him. Instead of understanding, empathy, sympathy, benefit of doubt or any other human form of fair judgment, LeBron got scrutiny as his frenemy. And the sometimes lack of humility that comes across in his responses to criticisms of his play or behavior remains one of the primary reasons the world has never accepted him with open arms (and never will, as witnessed with Crampgate).
He'll never get the love of a Lionel Messi, but he catches twice the hell and hate of Cristiano Ronaldo. He's much closer to understanding A-Rod's public pain than Derek Jeter's public adoration. Wayne Gretzky, Cal Ripken Jr., Roberto Clemente, Tom Brady and California Chrome -- that type of love will never happen for LeBron. He will never get the chance or understand what that kind of acceptance feels like.
And here's the sad thing: LeBron James might one day become greater than Magic Johnson, but history will never know it because the people who write history simply aren't going to feel about James the way they did (and still do) about Johnson.
LeBron finds himself in that weird and unusual space of being a fascinating player but not someone we are fascinated by. His Nike sales are through the roof, but his TV ratings always tend to be low in comparison to other global superstars. And as subjective as that might be, that has almost as much to do with why he'll never be ultimately loved as anything else.
Tiger Woods fascinated us. Ali fascinated us. Ruth, Pele, Mays fascinated us. And Jordan?
Which is probably why this continues as the one LeBron comparison with Michael Jordan that goes undiscussed. It is important to the overall LeBron dialogue because this "unlove" LeBron can't escape is so much a part of his existence that it eventually will affect his legacy. If it hasn't already.
Reputation can be a gift and a curse. In LeBron's case, in times like this, it has become what he has to compete against. The bad Boston games are revisited. Previous losses in the Finals to San Antonio and Dallas are brought up. When he walked off the court at the end of the Orlando series and refused to shake Dwight Howard & Co.'s hands. Every time he either missed the shot or didn't take it to win a game (which translated into "ran from it" in most people's minds) gets rehashed, and the whole "no clutch gene" criticism, it all comes back into play.
And gets held against him.
There's a great graph in an Ethan Sherwood Strauss piece that reads: "It's easy to believe that winning a ring just makes all the ill will go away, that the hoisting of a trophy is a magic spell that turns your haters into fans. The truth is a little more complicated. LeBron doesn't win hearts and minds overnight because winning people back is different from winning them over in the first place."
Damn. I so wish LeBron could do something to change the course of this, but it's too late. If him catching cramps causes this much venom, what is going to happen once he doesn't win another championship? Hell, what's going to happen if the Heat happen to lose this series in seven and all the blame comes back to the last 3:59 of Game 1?
So when LeBron says, as he did Friday at the post-practice media junket, "you guys should know me by now (pause) ? I don't care. I really don't. I don't care what people say about me," he is telling the truth. His truth.
But what they feel about him is something that is going the haunt him for the rest of his natural life.