Will Heat be the most hated team ever?
Never mind the speculation that the Miami Heat will set a record for the most regular-season NBA victories, win multiple league championships and cause the South Beach party scene to spontaneously combust in a low-level nuclear blast. As LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and ... what's his name again? ... oh, right ... Chris Bosh & Co. prepare to tip off one of the most anticipated pro basketball seasons in recent memory, the real question facing the new-look Heat is simple.
Can Miami become one of the most hated teams in sports history?
Winning is elementary. It takes talent, health and a pinch of good luck. But being loathed from coast to coast? Provoking a fearsome torrent of negative Tweets and Internet message board antipathy? Getting millions to tune in for the sole purpose of cheering your prayed-for potential demise?
That takes work.
A few years back, Page 2 wondered if the video-tapin', touchdown-makin', perfection-chasin' New England Patriots would go down as the most detested team of all time; in the here and now, we're asking the same thing about the Heat and applying the same standards.
"The Decision" was a good start. James' enemies list and cut-me-and-I-will-bleed Twitter revelations qualify as promising follow-through. But do the Heat really have what it takes to join the non-esteemed likes of the Bad Boy-era Detroit Pistons and Ivan Drago?
Herein, an early breakdown:
Annoying attribute: Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that hell is other people -- probably because the French existentialist never had the opportunity to watch the same televised clip of the Heat's big three preening and mugging on a smoke-filled stage at Miami's American Airlines Arena approximately 5,000 times over a two-week span. Simply put, it's surpassingly easy to hate a team or an athlete you can't avoid, and downright impossible to remain indifferent. Think of a houseguest you can't get rid of: if you already disliked the team in the first place, the fact it's soiling your towels, day after day, is going to drive you nuts; even if you're fond of the team, the fact it's using up all the toothpaste will eventually leave you apoplectic.
Classic examples: Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls; Duke basketball; Notre Dame football; the Los Angeles Lakers; Brett Favre (not technically a team, but close enough); Tiger Woods (see Favre); Barbaro (see Favre); any New York-area sports franchise that has the slightest chance of contending (except the New Jersey Nets); the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees, even in years they're terrible.
Contemporary contenders: The Yankees (as always, poised to dominate offseason news); Duke basketball (as always, ranked high and stocked with primo recruits); the Oklahoma City Thunder (because they've been pegged as the humble, good guy anti-Heat); the Cowboys (still inescapable, if only for schadenfreude purposes); the New York Jets, as soon as they're done getting a [expletive] snack.
In an astonishing, unprecedented masterstroke that puts even Miami's unexpected summertime free-agent coup to shame, the Heat have become the most overexposed franchise in sports without: (A) signing Favre; (B) legally changing their name to a pidgin Spanglish numeral; (C) being Kardashian; (D) playing a single regular-season game. Ask yourself: Could any other team hold its preseason training camp at a military base and still draw 250-some reporters? When ESPN.com's dedicated Heat home page -- click here for more! -- starts running 5,000-word features on The Chronicles of Udonis Haslem, don't say we didn't warn you.
Annoying attribute: It's one thing to hate a team for winning. It's another thing to hate a team for winning via getting over. Detestable clubs often provoke a sense that their gains and victories are somehow ill-gotten and dishonest -- whether it's by actual cheating (think SpyGate), perceived cheating (it sure looked like Michael Jordan pushed off on Bryon Russell) or perfectly legal behavior that just feels unfair (the Yankees' de facto status as the "Monopoly" banker of major league free agency). Bending, breaking and plain old taking advantage of the rules rankles in part because it violates the principles of integrity, honesty and fair play that form the basis of both athletics and society as a whole -- but mostly because it makes you wonder: Why didn't my team think of that first? Morons.
Classic examples: The 1972 Soviet Olympic basketball team, which stole a gold medal with the help of dubious officiating; the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, whose ref-aided playoff victory over the Sacramento Kings prompted consumer advocate Ralph Nader -- Ralph Nader! -- to pen an angry letter; the 1970s Oakland Raiders; the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons; the 2007 New England Patriots, whose sideline signal video shenanigans remain a hot-button issue to this day; the Lakers, when they acquired Pau Gasol for a life-size Kwame Brown cardboard cutout and a sack of magic beans; the 1951 New York Giants and 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, had sports fans only known that they were respectively stealin' signs and allegedly juicin' like crazy.
Contemporary contenders: Any college basketball team coached by John Calipari; all big-market NBA teams in the playoffs; if you ask SEC football fans, every school in the conference ... except theirs.
Heat rank: Zero slashed hearts.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the Heat landed their big three free agents fair and square, beating out other big-market teams (Chicago, New York) in the process. Since then, they haven't done anything sketchy, or even anything perceived to be sketchy. (Note: the latter reference figures to change the first time James and Wade combine to shoot 60 free throws in a single playoff game).
Annoying attribute: Time for some math. To determine a team's jerk factor -- that is, the extent to which a squad's personalities are utterly abhorrent, and make you want to flip to, say, a marathon of "The T.Ocho Show" -- just use the following equation:
(People you wish would go permanently mute, and/or be trapped in a Chilean mine without the benefit of modern high-tech rescue equipment) X 2 + (People you would like to see punched in the face) X 2 = Jerk Factor
Understand: the jerk factor is not entirely limited to players, coaches and team executives who are, in fact, jerks. Slick, polished individuals who say and do all the right things and are utterly inoffensive also qualify -- because nobody can be that irritatingly perfect, right? (See Battier, Shane, the Duke years and Tebow, Tim, the campus Godhood thereof). In mathematical terms, the jerk factor acknowledges an essential truth of fandom: When it comes to rooting, the name on the back of the jersey matters just as much as the name on the front.
Classic examples: The Dolan-Isiah-Starbury Knicks; the Bobby Bonilla/Vince Coleman vintage New York Mets; the Steinbrenner Dynasty Yankees; the Dallas Cowboys of Jerry Jones, Barry Switzer and Deion Sanders, of which rooting against was practically a matter of national civic duty.
Contemporary contenders: Any college football team coached by Lane Kiffin; any football team coached by Nick Saban; any cinematic project involving Mel Gibson; the Lakers, assuming Phil Jackson has already fitted himself for an "XII" hat; the Yankees, because Alex Rodriguez is still playing for them; Floyd Mayweather; Tom Brady's hair.
Wade seems pretty likable. No self-respecting sports fan has ever spent a nickel of negative emotional capital on Chris Bosh. Pat Riley could serve as a black hat, but for now he's merely lurking in shadows, Senator Palpatine-style. (That is, until Erik Spoelstra decides to spend more time with his family). Fact is, the Heat hardly are a detestable bunch, with one glaring, MVP-level exception: James, whose "The Decision" was to personal branding what New Coke was to cola formula revamps. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: never was so much public goodwill spoiled for so many sports fans so quickly.
Annoying attribute: They're loud and obnoxious, illogical and biased, convinced it's always their year, that their favorite team can do no wrong, that every setback is the tragic result of a cosmic conspiracy. And that's before they've had too much to drink. Still, none of the preceding makes irksome fans unique -- after all, everyone feels that way. No, what makes some fan bases stand out like open sores is a mix of three variables:
(A) The degree to which fans sincerely believe all of the above renders them special, and that rooting for their particular club transforms them into better fans than everyone else. These are the fans who take undue pride in the mere act of rooting, as if it requires something greater and more admirable than a giant foam finger and a functioning larynx.
(B) The degree to which said fan base consists of front-runners and bandwagon jumpers. It's not Los Angelenos who make Lakers fans infuriating; it's people from Newark who ride and die with Kobe Bryant. Please.
(C) Courtside celebrities, except Jack Nicholson.
Classic examples: People who fetishized the Boston Red Sox's legacy of postseason flameouts; Tomahawk choppers cheering a team other than Florida State; Georgetown basketball fans who didn't go to school there or grow up anywhere near Washington, D.C.; anyone who ever owned a Michael Jordan No. 23 Washington Bullets throwback jersey; Cleveland Cavaliers fans not from Ohio, circa 2003 to July 2010.
Contemporary contenders: Any fans who refer to themselves as a nation, despite a lack of formal UN recognition; any fans who call their club "America's Team," when in fact their club isn't even Texas' team; residents of the greater New York metropolitan area who insist that their residency confers an honorary PhD in Basketball Appreciation; people who still fetishize the Chicago Cubs' losing legacy; the Cameron Crazies, who can't even muster a good taunt without a cheat sheet and committee preapproval.
Heat rank: On one hand, the Heat so far have managed to inspire more bandwagon deriders than jumpers; more to the point, it's unfair to fault Miami residents for clambering aboard, given that front-running is in the city's sports DNA. On the other hand, the Heat already are one of the top online video game bandwagon teams of all time; they figure to draw celeb fans for no other reason than the proximity of South Beach; once the Heat start winning real-life contests, their army of sunshine patriots will surely swell to Laker-esque proportions. Bonus points: James is a Yankees and Cowboys fan. Gack!
Je ne sais quoi
Annoying attribute: A team's collective personality, loosely defined. Is it mouthy? Constantly whining about the refs? Obsessed with perceived disrespect? A bunch of boring, company-line cliché-spouters? Also weigh style of play: Is a club joyful, fun and free-flowing, or drab, dull and grinding? Even the way a team was built can be galling; in baseball, for instance, a team constructed via free-agent signings (read: looting other clubs for high-priced mercenaries) is more hateable than a club built through shrewd trades and minor league development (even though all pro athletes are essentially high-priced mercenaries). The correlation between je ne sais quoi and hateability is difficult to pin down, largely because one fan's notion of heroic and/or entertaining is another's idea of villainous and/or boring. Consider 1990 NCAA finalists Duke and UNLV -- did you loathe the Runnin' Rebels for their rule-skirting, hot-tubbing-with-fixers rep? Or detest the Blue Devils for their too-perfect, armed-for-life schoolboy sanctimony? In the end, je ne sais quoi fits Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of obscenity: you know it when you see it.
Classic examples: The mid-1980s-early-1990s Miami Hurricanes, whose roguish penchant for penalty flags, military fatigues and Luther Campbell helped prompt a famous Sports Illustrated cover demanding the school dump football; Pat Riley's "force basketball" New York Knicks, who made the NBA less watchable than John McEnroe's short-lived cable talk show; the 2007 Patriots' tiresome prove-the-doubters-wrong attitude, which was largely tempered by an explosive, exciting passing offense; the poorly constructed 2004 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, which both the country and its own blame-shifting coach washed their hands of before the bronze medal game. U-S-A!
Contemporary contenders: The Romo-Phillips-Jones Cowboys, who seem equal parts dopey and self-impressed.
Heat rank: Due to their fabrication via free agency, the Heat can be tabbed as either cowardly carpetbaggers -- "punk move"-makers, to quote Charles Barkley -- or selfless stars surrendering individual glory to pursue a team championship. Beyond that, the club has yet to develop or reveal a collective personality -- however, early indications of an overtly self-pitying, subtly self-aggrandizing silence-the-haters mindset from both popular corporate pitchman James (lame) and bench nobody Eddie House (ridiculous) gives the Heat tremendous upside potential.
Shock and awe
Annoying attribute: If the team in question demanded your schoolyard lunch money, would you put up a fight? Or would you hand it over, offer thanks and give yourself a wedgie, hoping to avoid additional humiliation and punishment? Some teams find a way to win; others force opponents to kneel before Zod, then crush them underfoot while giggling to the lamentations of their women. In sports, everyone hates a bully, because fandom is all about hope. Possibility trumping probability. Butler beating Duke. Clubs that reduce contests to fait accompli -- again, see Duke -- suck the fun right out of rooting. Why watch the game if you already know the outcome?
Classic examples: "Punch-Out!"-era Mike Tyson; the '85 Chicago Bears; the 2007 Patriots (regular season); the '96 Chicago Bulls; the "fo'-fi'-fo'" Philadelphia 76ers; the 2000 Baltimore Ravens (defense only).
Contemporary contenders: The University of Oregon football team and its blur offense; the Lakers, if/when Bryant and Andrew Bynum are healthy; the Yankees, after they buy up Cliff Lee and whomever else they need this offseason to make sure their battle station is fully operational.
Heat rank: Zero slashed hearts.
For now, an incomplete grade. James handling the ball on the break with Wade on the wing, Mike Miller spotting up in the corner and Bosh trailing sounds pretty darn formidable, but we'll have to see them play -- and win big -- before we crown them, Dennis Green-style.
Annoying attribute: A team that exhibits all the qualities you wish your favorite team had -- from talent to coaching to cool uniforms. Also, the club wins, constantly, year after year, no matter the circumstances, often in memorable fashion. Envy has been described as "the art of counting the other fellow's blessings instead of your own"; when you're a Los Angeles Clippers fan staring at a sea of purple and gold in your own building, there isn't much art involved. People who prattle on about "haters" being exclusively motivated by jealousy are generally oblivious to the very lack of self-awareness that makes them so unlikable. That said, they have a point: of all the reasons to dislike a team, envy is No. 1.
Classic examples: UCLA basketball under John Wooden; Notre Dame football in the good ol' days; Duke hoops under Coach K; the U.S. Summer Olympics team, if you're not American.
Contemporary contenders: The usual suspects -- Duke, the Yankees and especially the Lakers. Just look at who Sasha Vujacic is marrying!
When James noted he was "taking his talents to South Beach," it wasn't simply the perfect catch phrase for all sorts of family-unfriendly activities -- it was utterly, unguardedly true. Win or lose, fly or flop, dynasty or disaster, the Heat story already has a happy ending -- a happy ending involving nightclubs, primo restaurants, mansions on private islands, tanned supermodels, adoring strangers and hangers-on, beaches, sunshine and more money than anyone not named Antoine Walker could ever spend. Envious of the Heat? Envy is an understatement.
For a committed sports hater, the Heat are the equivalent of a No. 1 draft pick coming straight out of high school: gifted, unseasoned, less a finished product than a tantalizing glimpse of what they might become. Fact is, Miami simply hasn't done enough to be widely loathed -- it would help to win a few titles, or at least play a few months' worth of games -- yet the team's ability to lose hearts and minds already suggests near-unlimited potential. Best-case scenario for Heat haters? James continues to sound put-upon and graceless; Wade and Bosh follow suit; Riley pushes out Spoelstra and Miami captures a championship by knocking out an underdog fan favorite (Oklahoma City?) with the help of questionable officiating. Worst-case scenario? James extends an olive branch to Cleveland, admits "The Decision" was kinda sorta a bad idea, becomes a latter-day Magic Johnson and plays with such unselfish, infectious joy that the Heat turn into everyone's second-favorite team, even Stan Van Gundy's. For now, the jury's out.
Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.