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King no more

Sports | LeBron James has earned his role as NBA villain

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

In the wake of the Miami Heat's loss in the NBA Finals, the mounting pressure of criticism on superstar LeBron James finally triggered a backlash. The league's most physically gifted player, who had underperformed in critical moments of the championship series, appeared to play schoolyard bully as he sought emotional solace in the denigration of others: "All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point."

James later clarified his comments, claiming he was simply calling for everyone, including himself, to move on: "It wasn't saying I'm superior or better than anyone else, any man or woman on this planet, I'm not. I would never ever look at myself bigger than anyone who watched our game."

Nevertheless, the damage was done. James all but sealed his public persona as NBA villain, an image that first garnered widespread traction a year ago with the overhyped pageant-style announcement to leave his hometown team in Cleveland for Miami. James seemed bewildered by the anger following that decision and just as flummoxed by the hostility directed his way throughout this year's season. Why do so many basketball fans want to see him fail?

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In fact, the rancor is not so difficult to understand. James helped lay the groundwork for unpopularity long before his departure from Cleveland. The genesis of his public-relations doldrums dates to his high-school days when an unrelenting media hype machine cast the Akron, Ohio, youngster as the greatest ever before he had played a single professional game. James happily followed the script, dubbing himself "King James," tattooing "Chosen 1" in 72-point font across his upper back, and taking on a string of endorsement contracts that had him play the role of Greek god.

Now, eight seasons into his professional career, James has yet to win an NBA title and has proved far less than great in critical, late-game moments. During the NBA Finals, he failed to score a single point in the last five minutes of close games. The disparity between his promise and his delivery has produced a predictable result: buyers' remorse. James was simply oversold.

High sticks

Despite featuring a Canadian team, the Stanley Cup finals produced some of the highest fan interest in more than a decade. The seven-game grudge match between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins opened with a bang when its Game 1 television ratings climbed 14 percent from a year ago to reach levels not seen since 1999. And that trend continued throughout the series. Such numbers cap off a season during which the NHL was named professional sports league of the year by Sports Business Journal.

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