According to Darren Rovell of ESPN, LeBron James has surpassed Kobe Bryant as the most popular player in the NBA. The latest ESPN Sports Poll revealed that 12.9 percent of fans voted LeBron as their favorite, with 12.5 percent selecting Kobe.
After two of the most tumultuous years in NBA history, James proved that one thing remains true—success cures all when you're a professional athlete.
Bryant had been the most popular athlete in the NBA since 2008-09, pairing his major market star status with a generally amicable persona. It certainly doesn't hurt that Bryant won NBA championships in both 2009 and 2010, securing his fourth and fifth career rings.
It's no coincidence that LeBron became the most popular player in the league after winning a pair of back-to-back titles for himself.
Behind Kobe and LeBron is a top five that consists of Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and James' Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade. While one might assume that it's close between five of the best in the world, it isn't.
Durant checks in at 3.6 percent, D-Rose at 2.8 and D-Wade at 2.6—all at least 8.9 percent lower than Bryant.
The question on everyone's mind is simple—could championship rings have actually saved LeBron's reputation? Were they really the source of his going from the most hated man in basketball to the most loved?
Plain and simple: yes.
From Hated to Praised
In case you've been living under a rock for the past three years, LeBron rubbed some people the wrong way. James infamously went on national television, hosting a program called The Decision, to announce that he was leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to form a superteam with the Heat.
As you can imagine, fans didn't take too kindly to the drawn-out spectacle.
Cavaliers fans took James' jersey and burned it in the streets. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert wrote an open letter, berating LeBron—in Comic Sans, mind you—and claimed that the Cavaliers would win a title before James.
NBA legends even questioned why two of the top three players in the world—at that time, it was LeBron, Kobe and Dwyane Wade, so excuse your short-term memory—would play together instead of against one another.
In the matter of an hour-long television program, LeBron went from one of the most likable figures in sports to, arguably, the most hated. He was the star of every meme, the punch line of every joke, and, until he won a ring, the focus of every critic.
Did we mention that proceeds from The Decision actually went to charity? Of course not, because people were that mad.
Rings Do Matter
When a fans' favorite player has yet to win an NBA championship, they instantly jump to the conclusion that rings don't define a legacy. Once their favorite player has won a title, however, they'll instantly use that as a means to defend their greatness.
LeBron is now on the sensible side of things.
James entered the NBA with your proverbial basketball silver spoon, being handed magazine covers, the title of the next Michael Jordan and the first overall draft choice around the age of 16. Ten years into his career, LeBron overcame his postseason woes and began to meet the lofty expectations.
The fans have rewarded him for it.
LeBron's popularity had actually decreased from the 2010-11 season to the end of his 2011-12 campaign. Even with one championship, the average fan seemed unconvinced that he was legendary based upon statistics and one glorious postseason.
In turn, LeBron went from being the favorite of 10.2 percent of fans to 9.4 percent.
Upon winning consecutive championships, however, LeBron saw his favorite rating, if you will, improve by 3.5 percent. That's a higher percentage than Rose and Wade have individually, and it's just 0.1 percent off Durant's.
Once and for all, let's acknowledge the facts—rings do matter.
There's something that we must acknowledge here, as it's not just about winning titles, but how you win them. For instance, you could be Derek Fisher, a popular player who made key contributions, or Michael Jordan, a respected player who led teams to titles.
After the 2011 NBA Finals, some were unsure of whether or not LeBron could do that.
LeBron disappeared during the 2011 finals, becoming passive and shying away from big shots. Worst of all, his immaturity was placed on full display as he celebrated in-game and opened the door for a more focused Dallas Mavericks team to make comebacks that shouldn't have transpired.
James learned the hard way that a superstar will wrongly receive full blame for losses, as easily as he incorrectly takes the entire praise for victories.
One year later, LeBron had one of the greatest seasons in basketball history. He won the regular season and NBA Finals MVP awards, took home his first career NBA championship and won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA.
As a result, fans did the inevitable—they compared him to Jordan.
It's far too early to compare LeBron and Jordan, specifically from a legacy perspective. Both are legends of basketball, but Jordan is a six-time NBA champion who dominated what was, arguably, the most competitive era in league history.
LeBron was thrown into the fire as a one-time NBA champion whose upside may correlate, but achievements weren't justifiably comparable—and how could they be?
Since then, James has become the unquestioned king of the modern-day NBA. He's defeated old rivals, became "the man" in Miami and even overcame the on-court immaturity that plagued him in recent seasons.
Most importantly, LeBron has become a champion—and that goes to show you that success cures all in the world of professional sports.
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