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How ESPN created the LeBron Monster

By: Nate Douglas

There was a time when LeBron James wasn’t perpetually hated.  There was a time when he was adored by the sports world.  When he wasn’t dunking all over the Detroit Pistons and single-handedly carrying the Cavaliers to the conference finals, he was swimming in a pool of commercials.  He was everywhere—one of the most influential icons in sports.  He had it made and his legacy was also being made for him.

The NBA, more so than other sports, is unique because it has a clear-cut “greatest player of all time”.  Not that MLB and NFL players aren’t short of icons, but they don’t have the definitive Michael Jordan.  You never hear baseball scouts commenting, “Oh, he’s the next Babe!”, or Joe Buck claiming, “If he keeps this up, he could be the next Roger Staubach.”  On the other hand, comparing a rising basketball star to Michael Jordan flowed off the tongues of basketball analysts like endorsement drops from NASCAR drivers.  Probably because Jordan crossing over Byron Russell is still ingrained in their memories, and his greatness gave them such a sports-high that they’re dying to see more god-like performances again from such a player.  So the sports media started throwing Jordan doppelgangers against their corporate walls, hoping they would find something that would stick, and then ride his success. The culture they were catering to wanted another god worship they had to find someone else. Then LeBron James came along.  He had a kingly last name, and ESPN was ready to coronate him.

Ever since LeBron was in high school, ESPN was already slapping the label of “the next Michael Jordan” on James.  He was prodigy, a man-child…destined for greatness, and ESPN was going to put him on a throne and sell the tickets.  They started airing his high school games, a rarity at that time.  SportsCenter was filled with his highlights, he was Cleveland’s messiah and Nike said that we were all “Witnesses”.  This was greatness.  This was the god they were looking for.

But then years went by, and he couldn’t win a championship.  Championships defined Jordan.   Championships were a necessary ingredient.  The self-named King James didn’t have one, and his contract was up in 2010.  Months ahead of time, ESPN started reminding us of the looming free agency, and speculated where James would go.  Jim Gray asked if he could have dibs on an interview with LeBron James when he made his decision of where he would play.  LeBron’s handlers asked if the interview could be aired on ESPN, and ESPN, after glancing over the major network television ratings, thought this interview would make for great reality tv, and agreed.  They would go on to call it, “The Decision.”

We don’t know if the thought even occurred to ESPN that what LeBron might say could have negative connotations.  Not that it would matter to them, in our culture it would draw millions of viewers, and apparently that’s all they cared about.  The interview bombed. LeBron quickly declared he would only refer to himself in the third person, but the next day he predicted at least eight championships for the Miami Heat.  Within the space of 24 hours, the King passed A-Rod as the most hated player in sports.

People started pointing fingers at ESPN, asking how dare they host such an arrogant and pig-headed athlete and his self-serving agenda.  In an interview with Mike & Mike in the Morning, Stuart Scott jumped to ESPN’s defense, claiming, “This is the culture we live in.  This is what the people wanted!”  This is true, but to quote the great Bill Cosby, what if the culture is an asshole?  What if all journalists cast integrity aside and catered to the masses?

Americans love their heroes, but they also love to hate.  ESPN made sure to give folks plenty of opportunities to hate LeBron, as he dominated SportsCenter for the next year, highlights, lowlights and all; ESPN was the lens through which society was viewing all of this, and ESPN was going to keep him on his throne, for the good or detriment of King James.  The Finals came and went, and LeBron came through ringless, and was hated and reviled more than ever.  He made fun of Dirk Nowitzki’s sickness, had fourth quarter acts resembling a very human Paris instead of the demigod Achilles, and scoreboarded his detractor’s pitiful lives in his final press conference.

At some point, you would have to think he’s asked himself over the last couple days, “Man, what happened?  Less than a year ago, I had it made!”  Charles Barkley had the answer.  After the Finals ended, in an interview with ESPN New York radio, Chuck said, “It’s you guys’ fault!  You’re the ones that kept saying he was Michael Jordan!”

Wish I may
Wish I might
Have this I wish tonight
Are you satisfied?
Dig for gold
Dig for fame
You dig to make your name
Are you pacified?

All the wants you waste
All the things you’ve chased

Then it all crashes down
And you break your crown
And you point your finger
But there’s no one around

Just want one thing
Just to play the king
But the castle’s crumbling
And you’re left with just name

Where’s your crown, King Nothing?

-Metallica, King Nothing

 

Nate Douglas lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife and 10-month son.  While his day job is sorting through the dirty legal details of the oil and gas industry, his night job is a sports Jack Bauer.  So he founded the Sports Smithy, as well as FantasyReport.co, a unique fantasy sports aggregating web-site.  You can follow him on Twitter- @NateDouglas34.