Here it is, as much as I've put it off, I'm finally writing a post about Lebron that looks at him in a near-positive light, despite my disgust with his "Decision". However, this isn't about the off-season, this is about his play on the court. So without further waffling...
For some time now, the League has been lacking a real villain. Kobe is popular to the point of receiving MVP chants in a number of road games, and pre-Decision Lebron was so clean and wholesome that it was hard to hate him (though some of us still did!). Ron Artest was a pariah because of the Malice in the Palace, but he wasn't the megawatt star that drew the ire of every team in the League, and besides, the best villains are supervillains aren't they? Vince Carter copped a bit of hate when he crossed the Border to New Jersey, but that was only really in Toronto. The last real supervillain was Reggie Miller. He antagonised opponents, riled up the crowds - in New York in particular - and was damn proud of it too. That is really the essential difference between Reggie, a true villain, and the other names I mentioned here; he embraced the hostility and fed off the haters like a vampire (you know, a real one, that doesn't sparkle, remember those?). You just didn't see that any more, especially with the new technical rules. Until now.
Lebron made all the right noises in the off-season to prepare himself for the villain role, making a list and checking it twice (couldn't help myself haha) of all the people who had "wronged him". But, he then tried too hard to clean up with his image by making a "hard-hitting" commercial aimed at the haters, especially Charles Barkley, whom Lebron implied was fat (gasp!), which came off as desperate. It didn't help matters that when the regular season rolled around, he looked like a kid who'd been spanked for the first time and seemed increasingly frustrated with the closeness of that dreaded .500 mark as the losses stacked up for his new franchise. Then something remarkable happened.
I remember that morning vividly, I got up early to go the gym, and left early too, because it was going to be a momentous day, one way or another. It was the day of the Return (someday we'll all stop using capitals for every Lebron event, but not just yet) and with the Heat in a bit of a slump, a number of punters were tipping the Cavaliers, fuelled by the power of the worst hurt feelings in sports history, to pull an upset. It started off that way, Lebron looked upset that Mo Williams gave him the cold shoulder, and then Hickson threw down a vicious dunk, it seemed that amazing might just happen after all. But then it all started to go horribly wrong. Something snapped in Lebron, and he started hitting simply ridiculous shots. But more than that, he started taunting the Cavaliers bench, hanging around chatting at Daniel Gibson, humiliating him, and daring him to stand up to the schoolyard bully. The rest of the game was brutal, with the Heat easily closing it out for a 118-90 win, Lebron himself finishing with 38 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds in a mere 30 minutes. Ouch.
Whatever happened in Cleveland that night it had a profound effect on not just Lebron, but the Heat as a whole. They went on a vicious rip, winning 12 straight and were brought down by an extremely tough Dallas outfit. While it helps that Wade was scoring in bunches and shooting damn near 60% from the field, Lebron's adjusted attitude to hostile crowds was another big factor. I'd like to draw your attention to another game during this streak. Heat against Knicks in Madison Square Garden; Lebron returns to the place he snubbed in free agency, and is predictably met by boos. The Knicks had been on a streak of their own, and lost a nail-biting classic to the Celtics a couple of days before. Amare was playing like an MVP and the Knicks fans were more than ready to abandon any love for Lebron in favour of their new saviour; who, surprisingly, was on their team! Like the Cleveland game, it was hyped as a possible upset. Again, it seemed that way at the start. But somehow, Joel Anthony held Amare to 24 points on 11-28 shooting and Lebron once again fed on the boos. Rather than gunning for 40, Lebron opted to punish the Knicks with a 32-10-11 triple-double. The interweb was flooded with exasperated Lebron haters saying "stop booing him, you're only making him stronger!".
Finally, the transformation has occurred, and Lebron is a villain on the basketball court, not just in his commercials. It's not enough to be hated and to embrace it. You have to rise to the occasion, and silence the crowds with daggers, staring them down, taunting the opposition. Lebron is finally doing it, and understands the power of hate. While I still resent Lebron for his off the court antics, I respect his play of late in the face of hostile crowds. Lebron seems comfortable now with his role, he's chillin' like a villain. Just don't make him stronger for the love of God.