America’s Team: Part 1 – The Hate

I’m christening my new blog to talk about a subject that is not often on my mind…SPORTS.  More pointedly, DALLAS sports!  To wit:  Dallas Mavericks winning their first championship in the history of the franchise against one of the most hated and prefabricated NBA teams of all time!

Did it feel all the sweeter to do it against the very team that frustrated our efforts in the infamous 2006 series at the height of their powers?  Yes.  Was the taste of victory’s flavor enhanced by stuffing it in the face of the league’s most marketable player (greatness pending)?  Yes.  This post is not about LeBron hate, it’s about the Mavericks’ and the Heats’ storied journeys through the NBA playoffs in 2011 and what it can teach us a little bit about America.

Part 1 – The Hate:  or why we all hate LeBron James.

I don’t mean to do too much mudslinging here, but the internet is a funny place, so lemme just get this out of my system:

And my personal favorite…

What interested me most about this series, heck this entire season, is the character of the Mavericks, the character of the Heat and how America perceived the whole thing.  I’ve often heard complaints among my non-Texan brethren that the Dallas Cowboys’ moniker “America’s Team” is far too haughty a nickname, and doesn’t well represent the nations’ sentiments.  As if one team could represent the entirety of American sports.  But it is moments like this one that display how these sorts of nicknames come about.  Never have I seen so many people, far and sundry, cheering for one team, and I was unusually proud to be a Dallas fan.  But this solidarity didn’t come about entirely due to America’s love of a good old-fashioned David and Goliath story, it was first formed in the fires of hatred for one man:  LeBron James.

The formation of such national opinion began last July, LeBron announced his plans to move from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the franchise that had given him his start in the NBA at 18, to the Miami Heat, a team, perceived by many (me included) to be cultureless and corporate, wealthy and glamorous but lacking in soul.  Miami is a top destination city that Cleveland could hardly compete with.  Add that to the fact that five years into the NBA, LeBron still had no shot of claiming a title.  The move was understandable.  To be remembered as one of the NBA’s greats, the championship ring is a required accessory.  He made the smart move of coordinating his entry into the Miami roster with Dallas-born power forward Chris Bosh, another shining talent stagnating in the obscurity of the Toronto Raptors.   Together with established star Dwayne Wade, they formed a triple-threat with media glory shared between the three.  Here’s what a pure, America career move produced:

Sure, there was going to be some regional friction over the move, but the intensity of the pointed hatred was unprecedented and nationwide.  Cleveland’s loss of James to a top destination city struck a chord with all of America’s second-tier cities, i.e., cities that are not New York, L.A. or Miami.  (Chicago, despite its size can never be seriously hated).

To really understand the rage over LeBron’s move, you have to consider how it was made as well as what actually happened.  ESPN aired an hour-long TV special (stupidly named ‘The Decision’, seemingly putting it on par with a national presidential election) worshiping James’ career and building up his potential future before finally sitting down with “The King” to reveal his future.  Any sensible Cavs fan should already have guessed that he wouldn’t be returning to his home team, but all the tension and buildup probably put a little too much hope in their minds.  Perhaps the man had a soul?  Maybe he would “do the right thing” and stick it out with us?  Well…

This is clearly a man with his future on his mind.  He doesn’t at all appear pompous or arrogant.  He’s no Terrell Owens.  He, for all the world, seems to be focused on what is required to become a national superstar:  join a team that will allow him to “accomplish his goals.”  Which, of course is to win many championships.  To be the best.  His built up status as possibly the greatest player ever to enter the game demands it.  He, in the course of his free agency, became his own franchise.  As a free agent James became a free-floating entity with no roots and no identity other than his own greatness.  The media’s fault?  Partially (isn’t it always?), but it’s all too clear that James does not identify with any city or any people.  He has accepted his identity as an island unto himself.  Perhaps this is the natural outcome of so much media attention, endorsements.  Is it not the culmination of the American dream (or a wide interpretation of it)?  To be able to decide one’s own fate by becoming the best of the best?  To be a master?  A king?

Of course, quite a few of us regional folk didn’t really see it that way.  James’ refusal to even acknowledge any regional commitments is exactly what fueled the fires of hatred from fans of all stripes.  In the course of his interview, he confessed no love for Miami nor any appreciation for his hometown.  This was a business decision meant to lead to the accomplishment the essential goal of winning a championship, multiple championships.  This sort of attitude didn’t really go over well with those of us still bound to our regions, and understandably so.  We didn’t hate LeBron because he left Cleveland, we hated him because he behaved for all the world, like a man without a country, an island unto himself shunning any sort of community with the ‘common folk’.  The only other folks he mentioned were Bosh and Wade, both symbiotic friendships formed only to raise his own ship.  Commoner Americans everywhere felt slighted.  How could any city, not just Cleveland, compete with South Beach?  A perfect climate, a top tourist destination, and a seriously business-minded franchise gaining the greatest talent in the league seemed unfair.  I wonder what it would have been like if James had decided on Chicago or even Boston, storied franchises that seemed like better symbolic homes for what would likely be a historically remembered talent.  The Heat’s acquisition of LeBron seemed like a victory for billionaires, not basketball, bringing the best to just the sort of people who were used to getting the best: a bunch of MTV glitterati, beach babes and their stupid boyfriends all of whom care only about fame and recognition rather than the continuing story of an American pastime.  These perception, usually reserved for the LA Lakers, is a result of American regionalism confronting the rising tide of American regionlessness.  National and multi-national corporations have no home.  Cheering for the Heat is like cheering for Wal-Mart.

The most interesting part was that James seemed to be the most befuddled by how much everybody hated him.  He at one point in his free agency said that he would “disappoint nobody”, a wild promise that would have required a full-time campaign and PR staff to accomplish (especially since his eventual decision would disappoint the President of the United States).  James could never quite get his head around why people weren’t as interested in seeing his success as he was.

The lesson here:  America, though a seedbed for all sorts of heartless businessmen and corporations, retains a fierce regional spirit.  In a weird way, we don’t want to see the best become the best using the best tools at their disposal, we want our heroes to fight for the misty idea of us, i.e. people bound to a place, drawn together by common experience.  LeBron’s rise to the height of his powers is artificial because he didn’t invite anyone to come along for the ride with him.  He chose not to represent anybody but himself and believed that everybody in America had the same interest as the media:  his career, his talents and his championships.  He believed that America would love him, not because of where or who he was, but because he was the best.  He chose Miami because he saw it as the highest parapet from which he could hang the moon for little boys and girls everywhere:  a representative of American greatness and an inspiration to everybody.

But no.  The fabric of American admiration is markedly different.  We have a segregated unity.  Commonality through particularity and difference.  A Bostionian and Chicagoan may have vastly different sports loyalties, but maintain a mutual respect by recognizing the intensity of their respective loyalties.  A Chicagoan most respects a Texan when he is being as Texan as he can be and vice versa.  We have a universal love of distinction and dissimilarity.  It is when a team, or a player attempts to represent all of America, bring all of American experience under one banner, that we start gnashing our teeth.  Even the Miami’s mascot represents such featureless ubiquity.  Jordan was a Bull, Bird a Celtic, Johnson a Laker, but James will be a….Heat? a Heater?  a Hottie?  Admiration comes from planting one’s feet firmly into the soil of a specific storied community, not just an area code, and identifying oneself as a member of that people.  Had James expressed his desire to become a Miamian, the nation may have grown to accept it, but he’s just a unit of Heat, a statue to consumerism, America’s top product.

Next in Part 2!  The Dallas Mavericks and the triumph of particularity!


About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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