Wisch: What Barry Bonds Was, LeBron James Is Not

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.

davewisch Wisch: What Barry Bonds Was, LeBron James Is Not

Dave Wischnowsky

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.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Wow, superb analysis Dave.

    The two black-hat stories that come to mind both involve fans of the Bahsten Red Sawx. They booed The Rocket unmercifully after he left to go Free Agent to Toronto. And Johnny Damon? When he went as a Free Agent to the Yankees the joke was that Damon looks like Jesus, throws like Mary, and acts like Judas.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Thanks, Arse. It takes a rare talent to excel as a superstar. But I think it takes an even rarer psyche to excel as a hated superstar athlete. As much as I disliked Barry Bonds, I was always impressed with how well he could perform under the weight of such intense scrutiny and fan disgust — although he had his support in San Fran,

      I just don’t think LeBron is cut out to play the villain. And he doesn’t want to play that role. I really do believe he was caught off guard with the national backlash following “The Decision.” I think he thought people would view him as a guy devoted to winning titles — and he probably could have been viewed as such if he’d handled his free agency differently. Instead, he was viewed as heartless and egomaniacal.

      It’s interesting, but I really think the only way that LeBron could ever truly rehab his image is if he ultimately went back to Clevedland, asked for forgiveness and won a title there. Even if he does win championships in Miami — and he certainly cold — he’s always going to be viewed as a Black Hat. But I don’t think that’s the rep LeBron ever wanted. And I think it’s weighing heavily on him, as well as Wade and Bosh. Like most athletes, all of them are dying to be loved.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        Again, really excellent analysis.

        Barry Bonds’ entire persona was “eff you”.
        It’s interesting because McGuire and Sosa tried to be “available” and tried to be fan favorites. Bonds going back to his days with the Pirates was always eff-you. The only guys in my lifetime like that in baseball were Albert Belle and Kong Kingman.

        LBJ has Batman talent but plays like a Robin.

  • http://spungos.wordpress.com kevinjfisher

    unlike Bonds, he’s also not a cheat. almost, almost feel bad for those guys. being the villains certainly isn’t something they relish.


  • Jake from da Burbs


    Here’s my take.

    LeBron is not a bad guy but he and his “braintrust” made a horrible miscalculation as to the level and depth of scorn/reaction his decision would spur. I’m sure they knew that the decision would be unpopular and especially in Cleveland, but I dont think they expected the amount and length of ferocious “heat” he would be under nationally. No way he thought this decision would affect how people viewed him for the rest of his playing days in Miami like it will now.

    One point of difference to consider is how Jordan or Kobe, natural basketball killers, would have fared in the pressure and position LeBron is in now and I think they would love and relish it. You read so many stories of how Jordan and Kobe would take even the smallest of slights or criticism and make it their driving force for success and determination. LeBron isn’t that kind of killer. He plays off the fan support and performs better on that stage. That’s why he is struggling now. His natural and physical gifts keep him performing statistically but when it comes to the real moments in a game, LeBron has not been able to step up and meet that challenge. He defers and deflects and fortunately for him, he now has Wade to share the spotlight of blame with.

    • Jake from da Burbs

      I also dont see a comparison between Tiger and LeBron. True, both made choices that they are “paying for” but Tiger’s situation is different because not only does the effects of his choices challenge him professionally, but also personally and in his private life.

      I dont think LeBron’s choice of choosing Miami has created turmoil in his private or personal life. Tiger’s life became a public spectacle and his entire support system has dissolved. It required him to figure himself out as a person before he could try and regain his professional game.

      The other thing with LeBron is I just dont think he understand how to communicate his thoughts/feelings. LeBron’s decision to join twitter and tweet out his thougts have only added to the scorn and disdain people have for him. I dont think he understand how people will receive some of the things he says. I’m suprised none of his entourage has said anything to him but then again they’re all probably too scared. What LeBron has failed to understand is how all of his thoughts and quotes now is going to be taken in a negative light and he has lost any benefit of doubt. I guess this is what happens when you have grown up with people loving and adoring and kissing your butt everytime.

      • Dave Wischnowsky

        I’m not saying that Tiger and LeBron are apples to apples. I’m just saying that, in regards to trying to perform under scrutiny and the weight of having all your fans now think badly about you, there are similarities.

  • Larry Horse's Arse


    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Thank you, sir. Haha.

  • Mike Murphy

    You can’t even enjoy hating LeBron. It wasn’t like Steve Spurrier, who in his Florida heyday who not one but two awe-inspiring nicknames — Darth Visor and Steve Superior. Despising him was much more fun.

    • Larry Horse's Arse

      That’s true…..LBJ seems bland, uninteresting, meh.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      It’s true. LeBron really isn’t an unlikable guy overall (hence his previous appeal as a pitchman). I more just think he’s foolish and naive for thinking that “The Decision” and all the other drama from last summer would be wise moves for his career, image and legacy. They weren’t.

  • Tim Yonke

    Excellent column. I enjoyed it immensely.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Much appreciated, Tim. Thank you.

  • Jake from da Burbs

    I’m not sure a lot of Bulls fans will admit this but I also think that when LeBron came into the league that with his age, with all his talents and gifts, many basketball fans, Bulls fans, and Jordan fans felt that James would the one who could not only reach Jordan’s glory and status but exceed it. Even with Kobe, if he were to win more championships that Jordan would always be a step below or at least equal/comparable to Jordan’s status. But LeBron could be the one that becomes that sole basketball icon.

    I know that one of the reason why I rooted against LeBron even when he was in Cleveland was that because he was such a basketball marvel and freak, I thought he would put Jordan’s legacy and title as the “greatest to ever play the game” in the rear view mirror. The fact that he would also take the horrible Cavs and win titles for the next 10 years, destroying all scoring records and putting numbers in basketball in every statistical category that could not and would not ever be matched again, brought a real sense of respect but also fear.

    The fact that LeBron has failed to live up to expectations in Cleveland and then following it up with a horribly miscalculated and misexcuted decision to go to Miami, made hating LeBron all the more easier. Nationally, the tide turned when some of his flaws which were glossed over by the media were now so apparent for everyone to see and hammer him on.

    Despite their struggles now, the Heat are still going to be a force in the playoffs and if they can figure out how to play with each other, they will be tough to beat.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      The Heat likely aren’t going to just completely fade away. Not this season, and likely not in future seasons, either, if they can figure out how to get a better supporting cast.

      That’s going to be tough, though, with three max contract players eating up so much of the payroll — and we’ll see how long these “Big Three” continue to get along, too. If they don’t win a title by next season, things will really deteriorate, I suspect.

      • Jake from da Burbs

        The key for the Heat will be 2 components: Erik Spoelstra and the upcoming CBA.

        They need to figure out if Spoelstra is the guy to coach their team. I still dont think Spoelstra has enough control and power to control the egos of the BIG Three. I dont think they trust him and I dont think he has the support from management to enforce his way of play.

        The new CBA wil also play a big key in determining how much of a supporting cast the Heat can put around the Big Three. If NBA goes to a hard cap, that might force the Heat’s hand to get rid of say… Chris Bosh in order to put a more complete roster together.

        Heat’s best chance to win a championship might be this season even though they dont look ready or complete enough to compete.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    If I ran the P.A. in any arena in which Spoelstra and the Heat come to visit, I’d crank up “Crying” by Roy Orbison and every other tear-related song I could think of.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Add Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party And I’ll Cry If I Want To” to your playlist ;)

  • Jayboto

    I believe it was an equal mixture of naivety and arrogance on LeBron’s part as well as those arround him. Considering how young he was when the fanfare started, he grew up in an unrealistic, and almost delusional vacuum where he has always been above it all. He probably could not even fathom a world where he was not adored, and I would not even be surprised if he expected his fans in Ohio to understand and still worship him. No matter how he adjusts or reconciles his new reality now, the damage has been done, and “the decision” will probably be a case study for high profile free agents for years to come. With all the money invested in LeBron’s brand, I would not be shocked if companies like Nike begin to have more input on managing these “decisions” as it impacts their brand and bottom line as well.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right, Jay. I can only imagine the disgust in the Nike offices the past two years with what’s LeBron and Tiger did to their own images. They’re certainly a whole lot harder to promote these days, to say the least.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        Excellent points Jay and Dave.
        Certainly the brand-management geniuses at Nike were not consulted.
        For openers, they would never have used Jim Gray as MC because I can’t think of anyone in tv more disliked by audiences than he.

        It was an amateur production and has cost Nike tons of moolah.
        You don’t sell product when the public thinks you are a selfish asshat.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Memo to Mitch Rosen and any other WSCR Management Mavens:
    Please notice that Bernsie’s blog is #1 in hits.
    But who drives your website in the #2 position?
    It’s Wisch…consistently.
    Please consider using Dave on other WSCR platforms, such as a weekly spot next year on B&B to discuss Big 10 hoops.
    Also, please notice that the posts he generates are very thoughtful and intelligent (well, except mine). Advertisers who are selling a product to people with brains enough to discern quality will appreciate the kind of web traffic that Dave generates for your website.

    • Jake from da Burbs

      Are you vying to be Dave’s agent or publicist when he makes it big in the industry? LOL.

      I like the Wisch blog because its not only interesting and thought provoking but because he actually responds to those who comment on his blog and its fun to banter back and forth trading ideas. All the other bloggers… Bernstein, Mueller, Thompson etc never respond to any comment… thats there perogative but thats also why I dont comment on theirs unless I really have something to say or if I really disagree with them.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        I appreciate your posts Jake…very smart, savvy and informed.
        You are a classic Wisch List guy.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Thanks much to both of you guys. Really do appreciate it. And I enjoy the banter, as well :)

  • Billy Parrish

    I think what were missing here is the real point, and that is that Miami has absolutely no team outside of the big three. I go back to the Knicks in the 1990’s or the Pistons in the late 80’s and early 90’s. People outside of Detroit and New York absolutely HATED those teams! I’m from Chicago and i would take it personal when Isaiah or john Starks would beat up on mj and their genuine love in doing it! But ultimately it was 5 people on the floor who would beat us and not just a big three. Lebron will find it much easier when he gets two more people in that line up that everyone can hate as well as it is much easier to play as a hated team rather than just a hated player

    • Larry Horse's Arse

      Very nice point Billy.
      People generally like DWade (except for his ex-wife) and Bosh is disliked as the Soriano of hoops…overpaid and over-rated.
      LBJ is the only one hated now, not the team.
      Now, if Riley comes back to Coach…THEN the Heat will truly be hated.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    I just saw on the national Booyah website that they have a poll question asking which will happen first….the NFL/NFLPA will reach an agreement OR that LeBron will hit a game-winning shot.

    As Krusty the Klown would say, “Hey, Hey!”

    If Booyah is dissing LBJ…the tide has turned because Booyah has been a journalistic suppository in LBJ’s arse up until that shot.

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