By Dave Wischnowsky–
Not every athlete is cut out to wear the black hat. Not all jocks are comfy behind Darth Vader’s mask. And very – very – few sports superstars can continue to thrive as one after they’ve also assumed the role of sports villain.
Barry Bonds could.
LeBron James, on the other hand, cannot.
At least that’s my guess. And it has been ever since last summer when “The Chosen One” inexplicably chose to trash his own image by callously dumping the Cleveland Cavaliers in favor of Miami on national television.
By donning a black Heat jersey, LeBron joined the Dark Side. And what fascinated me the most about his ill-advised, ill-executed and ill-fated “Decision” was that James, an athlete with an almost untarnished approval rating, willingly decided to transform himself into Public Enemy No. 1.
Now, either James was so naïve that he didn’t understand the impact “The Decision” would have on his reputation (entirely possible), or he was so arrogant that he didn’t think anything could diminish his popularity (entirely likely). But, either way, by turning “heel” and joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach, LeBron ended up kicking himself in the gut.
And I think he – and the Heat – are now starting to feel the pain.
After Sunday’s teary-eyed loss to the Bulls, Miami (43-20 overall) fell to a meager 2-5 since the All-Star break and has blown double-figure leads in three of its last four losses. The only game that wasn’t a close one was instead a 30-point blowout in San Antonio, the Heat’s worst loss of the season.
Miami’s celebrated – and vilified – “Big Three” now appear to be crumbling under the overwhelming weight of the hype and hatred generated eight months ago by “The Summer of LeBron.” And I’m not sure that James – or Wade and Bosh, for that matter – have the personalities to handle it.
As a general rule, star athletes are raised on adoration. LeBron James took that rule to the extreme. By the time the guy was a junior in high school, he already was a national phenomenon. And when James entered the NBA, he landed in the cozy cradle of Cleveland where he was showered by unconditional love from his fellow Ohioans 41 games a year.
The other 41 games on the road, meanwhile, weren’t that much different, as it didn’t appear that anyone in America really disliked LeBron James, or had any good reason to. All James had ever known is affection, applause and cheers.
But then came “The Summer of LeBron,” which James will never confuse with “The Summer of Love.” And during it, everything for LeBron changed in an instant when he announced on ESPN to a fed-up public that he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”
Suddenly, LeBron James was the most hated man in America and, right away, I wondered how he was going to handle it. Because, playing the role of a professional sports villain cannot be easy. Especially when you’ve always been the darling.
Unlike Barry Bonds – who was notorious for being a jerk dating back to at least his days at Arizona State University (and surely long before that) – LeBron had no time to prepare for his new black-hearted role. Neither did Wade or Bosh, who until this point in their careers had been popular, well-liked players.
Also, unlike Bonds – who just doesn’t seem to care at all what anyone thinks about him – I don’t believe that James, Wade or Bosh are truly bad guys. They care. Nevertheless, they’ve awkwardly cast themselves in that role, and it’s no one’s fault but their own if they don’t like the critics’ reviews.
In some ways, what James is currently going through is not unlike what Tiger Woods has experienced in the 17 months since he crashed his SUV into a tree and spilled his dirty laundry all over the place.
Woods, of course, is legendary for his focus on the golf course. But I don’t care how mentally strong you are as an athlete. When a previously adoring public completely switches its opinion about you, that’s going to wear on you and ultimately wear you down. Unless you’re cut from Bonds’ unique cloth, it has to. After all, just look at what’s happened to Woods.
And I think the same might be happening to LeBron & Co. now that the Heat has battled through 63 draining games along with countless taunts and criticisms coupled with enormous expectations.
Now, the Heat are still very talented – heck, Tiger Woods is, too – so I would never count out a comeback. But, my take is that this current slide we’re seeing Miami suffer though is more of a sign of disappointments to come than it is a brief detour from the road to impending championship glory.
Thanks to your decision, LeBron, the heat is on.
But you’re going to have to be Barry, Barry good to weather it.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.