It used to be so easy to root against LeBron James, yet as the Miami Heat prepare to host a pivotal Game 7 with the Indiana Pacers with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake, it's becoming harder and harder not to root for him.
Rooting for James feels a bit odd. Sure, the guy was always talented, but he carried himself with such an unrelenting swagger and misguided sense of invulnerability that no matter how great he was on the court, it was nearly impossible for the casual NBA fan to actually want to see him win.
When LeBron was taking the Cleveland Cavaliers deep into the playoffs every year, we marveled at his ability to carry an entire team—hell, a city—on his back. LeBron had earned the basketball world's respect, but there was still a fundamental difference between respecting a guy's game and actively rooting for him to win.
As he got closer and closer to the title in Cleveland, some fans and media relished the fact that LeBron didn't have the ability to close out games like many greats to come before him. As great as he was, LeBron wasn't clutch enough to be a champion. The narrative of LeBron's inability to rise to the occasion, however misguided, became his career-defining characteristic.
In a way, that flaw began to humanize LeBron.
Had he stayed in Cleveland and continued to try to win a title with his hometown club, fans may have softened on James quicker, allowing him to make that inevitable transition from earning fans' begrudging respect to becoming an antihero to eventually, finally, the hero. It happened with Jordan. It happened with Kobe. It could have happened with LeBron.
Then "The Decision" changed all that, and James instantly lost all the begrudging respect on his path to becoming an antihero. He went back to being a villain.
Not only was James a villain for the way he and his handlers controlled the public relations debacle of The Decision—hindsight has shown that we should blame almost the entire thing on ESPN and the event's hijacking by Jim Gray—LeBron became a villain for spurning Cleveland to "take his talents" to Miami, of all places.
LeBron could have been the man in Cleveland or New York or really almost anywhere in the NBA outside of Miami, but he chose to join forces with Dwyane Wade and bring along Chris Bosh to create a three-headed monster of NBA elite stars in hopes of finally winning a title, even if it wasn't "on his own."
Maligned, lampooned and pilloried for his decision—sorry, Decision—James and the Heat were the easy villain for every team they faced, routinely booed and jeered as the three stars took time to learn to play alongside each other while Pat Riley and the Heat brass found a way to construct a roster of viable and affordable role players.
As good a basketball player as LeBron had become, he needed to be humbled before he could take that step to greatness. In a way, LeBron managed to humble himself—ironically the only way a self-proclaimed King could be humbled is to do it to himself—his first year in Miami.
Something changed with LeBron after The Decision. Perhaps he started listening to different people. Perhaps he realized how many boos were being directed at him in arenas around the league and didn't want his story to be defined by that moment. Perhaps he just decided to grow up.
James needed to go through the process of becoming a true villain to understand how important it is, historically, for him to become the NBA's biggest hero (the championship didn't hurt either).
Winning his first title took an enormous weight off LeBron's back. Everyone knew he was the most talented player in the NBA, but winning that first title—albeit alongside two other stars in Wade and Bosh—validated James going from merely the most talented player to the best, an incredibly important distinction in his career narrative.
Fresh off his first NBA title, the subsequent gold medal run at the Olympics allowed fans outside of Miami to justifiably root for James. After all, rooting for James was rooting for Team USA.
In a matter of two years, LeBron was able to reboot his career arc from begrudging respect to antihero to villain and back to antihero again, paving the way during the Olympics to becoming the NBA's bona fide hero. And he did it all on sheer will and unmatched talent.
Full disclosure: This is where I admit that I found myself rooting for the Heat in the NBA Finals last season. As likable and humble as Kevin Durant is, like many NBA fans I had tired on the narrative of James being unable to win the big one.
As much as I hope Durant gets his titles, it was better historically speaking for James to win his first. I was rooting against the narrative more than I found myself rooting for LeBron. I just wanted those lazy jerks to be wrong and shut up for once. We should all have been rooting for that.
James started this season with a gold medal, NBA championship and yet another MVP award stuffed in his shorts, but he never could have imagined that this year's playoffs would see his entire team—not his past—weighing him down.
James played the game on another level this season, doing things on the basketball court nobody has ever been able to do before him. We are witnessing greatness on the court, yet James has somehow managed to develop that sense of humility that was lacking for so many years.
It's actually easier to root for James now. Just three years removed from that career-defining decision—sorry again, Decision—James has been able to redefine himself into a full-fledged hero.
James has truly become the superstar he has always wanted to be. Unfortunately for him, and Heat fans, the rest of the team has fallen apart.
Wade is a shell of his former self, unable to handle the rigors of the NBA playoffs as he struggles through a rash of bumps and bruises. Bosh shined in the previous series but has been completely ineffective against the bigger and more physical Pacers frontcourt.
Ray Allen, brought in to Miami this season to give the Heat a three-point threat, has been a non-factor in the conference finals, as has Shane Battier, who is struggling mightily from the field, hitting on less than 25 percent of his attempts.
For much of the series with the Pacers, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen have been the Heat's second-and third-best players. That is not a good thing.
James carried the Heat to victory in the pivotal Game 5, so much that it was almost a breaking news headline during the second quarter of Game 6 when the Heat went on a 6-0 run with James resting on the bench.
The team-oriented approach from Indiana was too much for LeBron and the Heat in the second half of Game 6, leading to a 91-77 thrashing that forced Monday's Game 7. LeBron is at home for the series finale, however, and it's hard to believe any team—even a team as deep, talented and tough as this Pacers squad—will be able to deny James from getting to the finals again.
Let's not deny the fact that the Pacers are the easier team to root for, playing a tough and exciting brand of team basketball led by a budding superstar in Paul George. Certainly, Pacers fans deserve to get to the finals more than the fair-weather crew in Miami.
Still, LeBron probably deserves this one the most.
James has been so good and so dominant over the last 18 months that it would be a shame for him to get knocked out before getting a chance to win back-to-back titles. It would be a shame for LeBron to miss out on the chance to face Tim Duncan—maybe the best power forward in the history of the game—in what could be his last run to the finals.
If the Heat won the title as a team last season, LeBron is trying to win one ostensibly on his own this year against San Antonio, one of the best star-laden teams ever constructed.
History measures the greatest of the elite players by how many championships they've won. Michael wouldn't be Michael without all those rings. Magic and the Showtime Lakers or Bird and the Celtics wouldn't be remembered in a class above the other greats of their time if it weren't for all their titles. Shaq and Kobe wouldn't be legends without the hardware.
LeBron deserves to be in that conversation, certainly with his play, but also with the way he has learned from his past mistakes.
History doesn't owe LeBron anything, but witnessing his dominance has made it more apparent that rooting for him is akin to rooting for this generation's proper historical context. In a way, tonight's game kind of deserves that.