Commentary

Good news, LeBron: You're unloved!

James is among the most unpopular athletes in the country right now. Bully for him!

Originally Published: September 15, 2010
By Patrick Hruby | Special to ESPN.com

First came the Cleveland Cavaliers jerseys, ablaze with righteous indignation. And also actual flames. Next, the scathing comic sans missive from scorned owner Dan Gilbert. Public flogging followed, with everyone from Michael Jordan to Charles Barkley to random amusement park hecklers playing whack the piņata.

Now comes news that in the wake of LeBron James' much-publicized, much-criticized decision to take his talents to South Beach, his popularity-measuring Q Score has taken a major tumble. All of which seems to indicate a burgeoning anti-James backlash, a serious and metastasizing image problem for the would-be global icon.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhIf LeBron James is smart -- and he is -- he'll turn his new dislikeability to his advantage.

Well, except for one thing.

The current public hate-fest is pretty much the best thing that can happen to him.

Understand: I'm not talking about James' blue-chip corporate sponsorships, his branding position as a nonthreatening, sweater-wearing, nice young man peddling auto insurance and flavored water. Nor am I referring to his stated desire to become a billionaire worldwide super-duper famous person, which supposedly led him to take Mandarin lessons. (And whatever happened with that, anyway?)

No, when it comes to hate making for counterintuitive great, I'm talking about James' day job. The place that makes everything else possible. The basketball court.

On the court, James being the nation's sixth-most disliked sports personality -- behind Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Kobe Bryant (but, somehow, not Ben Roethlisberger) -- is a plus.

On the court, only 14 percent of the public seeing James as a positive figure is a win.

On the court, 39 percent of the same public seeing James in a negative light -- a 77 percent increase over the same measure in January -- is a huge, huge positive.

The reason? Sports isn't the prom. Nor is it presidential politics. You don't win by being liked. You win by beating the other guy's brains out. And at the highest levels of competition, doing so takes more than mere talent. It takes hunger. A chip on the shoulder. A seething edge. It takes motivation; and if sports has taught us anything, it's that nothing -- not even giant sacks of cash, and/or impassioned pep talks ending in the opportunity to consume an [expletive] snack -- motivates athletes more forcefully and consistently than a mindset of me against the world.

Stick it to the haters.

Prove the doubters wrong.

You're either with me or against me.

Simplistic sentiments? Sure. A bit juvenile? As adolescently angst-ridden as any Eminem song. Utterly played out? Without question. And yet: All of the above isn't clichéd by accident.

It's clichéd because it works.

Take Clinton Portis. Take Tim Tebow.

[+] EnlargeJames
AP Photo/Amy SancettaGood deeds grow from LeBron's unpopularity. Beachwood, Ohio, restaurant manager Christina Weiner collects unwanted LeBron shirts and sells 'It's Not Us, It's You' shirts in exchange. The unwanted shirts and proceeds go to a homeless shelter.

Or take Jordan . All-world basketball player. All-universe self-motivator. His inner fuel of choice? Not Gatorade, not Wheaties and definitely not Ball Park Franks. Try disrespect. Slights and slings and arrows. Real and imagined.

Jordan gracelessly used his Hall of Fame acceptance speech to taunt and needle his perceived enemies. That's who he is. Once, he famously pretended -- read: made up out of whole cloth -- that opposing player LaBradford Smith taunted him during a game … just so he could pump himself up to destroy the relatively anonymous Smith the next time the two faced each other. That's also who Jordan is. He lives to settle scores; despite being the best-known and most-beloved athlete on the planet, a man who could convincingly co-star with Bugs Bunny, he played in a controlled rage to rival Clint Eastwood at the end of "Unforgiven." The desire to prove people wrong made Jordan a champion, again and again, long after the world became his oyster, long after any reasonable individual would doubt him in any area of basketball competition not involving a No. 23 Washington Bullets throwback jersey.

Finally, James has the opportunity to walk a similar path. Likely for the first time.

Think about it: James always has been well-regarded. Admired and liked. When Jordan was a high school sophomore, he was cut from his varsity basketball squad; when James was a prep junior, he was celebrated on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Chosen One." Without the help of haters and doubters, James has earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors, made six All-Star teams and been named MVP in back-to-back seasons. Jay-Z loves him. Warren Buffet loves him. In consecutive playoff flameouts, James didn't play as though he had something to prove because … he's never had something to prove.

Now he does.

Barkley called James joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami "a punk" move. Likewise, Orlando general manager Otis Smith questioned James' competitiveness. In a pair of passive-aggressive slaps, Jordan and Magic Johnson said they were too busy trying to defeat their rivals to consider joining forces with them. Numerous pundits and writers blasted James for "The Decision." A jeering billboard put up just minutes from his Akron, Ohio, estate reads WELCOME HOME LEBRON HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A SIDEKICK?

Add it up, and that's a great big cooler of Haterade, just waiting to be guzzled. James seems to be taking his initial sips. Earlier this summer, he tweeted that he's taking "mental notes" of everyone who has dissed him. A Nixonian enemies list! That's a start. Not quite Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill," or Gilbert Arenas vowing to punish every team that passed on him in the draft. But promising, nonetheless.

Better still, James is now playing for Heat president Pat Riley -- not only a popular motivational speaker and author, but also an Emperor Palpatine-like master of using hate to one's advantage. At least in their own minds, Riley's grab-and-clutch, "force basketball" New York Knicks teams of the 1990s weren't hard-fouling hardwood bullies; they were persecuted underdogs, fighting the good fight against Jordan's pretty-boy, league-favored Bulls. Ditto for the mindset of Riley's late-1990s Heat clubs. And don't think Riles not coaching James and Co. doesn't mean he isn't practicing his dark art. Just last week, he lashed out at James' critics, telling them to "get a life."

Pat Riley
AP Photo/Alan DiazHeat president Pat Riley has never met a motivational ploy he didn't like.

"I know one thing," Riley said. "We will show up and we will play games. And our team will be ready. And I think that's the way we can answer all the critics."

C'mon, LeBron. Answer the critics! Does James need an antagonistic chorus to spur him? Maybe not. But it can't hurt. If nothing else, it should keep him from being too happy. Too complacent. After all, he joined the Heat to team with friends Wade and Bosh. He has South Beach as a personal playground. He'll be suiting up in a sports town known for fan adoration and indifference, playing in front of crowds that wouldn't dream of throwing snowballs at Santa Claus, assuming it ever actually snowed in Miami. He's the biggest name on a team that's poised to be the first national sports bandwagon of the new decade, maybe the biggest video-game bandwagon team of all time. Without a bracing, refreshing blast of mean-spirited, uncalled-for, sports talk radio-style negativity, James could see his mojo dulled completely -- washed away in a warm tide of surf and sun, approval and acceptance.

Fortunately, that doesn't appear to be happening. James was booed at the ESPYS. He was booed at Carmelo Anthony's wedding. Poke around YouTube, and you'll find an acoustic ditty that's the anti-LeBron equivalent of "Blowin' in the Wind" -- that is, if Bob Dylan were a funny, foulmouthed Cleveland sports fan. The ill regard makes James fortunate, more than anyone realizes. His Q score may be down, but his odds of winning are inching up. Indeed, if Miami captures an NBA title, James might have only one thing left to do.

Go though his enemies list. And send everyone flowers. Plus jerseys and lighters.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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