Cleveland Cavaliers,

Confession of a Former Hater: LeBron James is My Favorite Athlete

All these years later, and I finally figured it out. LeBron James is a Rorschach test. He is a mirror reflecting upon the viewer — a puzzling polarizing figure in the most challenging era athletes have ever known.

He is everything. Global icon. Physical specimen. Benedict Arnold. Bandwagon jumper. Underachiever. Hometown hero. Overachiever. The whore of Akron. The prodigal son.

He is all these different things to different people. His massive shoulders carry the load of countless opinions. He is a vessel for our time, a canvas for neon takes. The facts stopped mattering a long time ago.

How a person views James tells you everything you need to know about how they consume sports. Simplistic? Maybe. But it’s a hypothesis gleaned over a decade-plus of watching his detractors bend over backward to find ways not to enjoy a once-in-a-generation player in real time.
Confession of a Former Hater: LeBron James is My Favorite Athlete
I once hated James. I sat helpless as he ripped out my heart by scoring 25 consecutive points to stun the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. He made me feel small and elicited a rage and jealousy I’d never felt before. I hated him because he was good.

He has become my favorite athlete despite a tepid interest in the NBA.

Because I came to the realization that he’s everything I’ve ever wanted out of a sports superstar. His skill set is otherworldly and he plays an inclusive brand of basketball. He is honest. He has a positive impact off of the court. He has met and surpassed sky-high expectations from the moment he appeared on the national scene.

All of those things are great. But the real reason why James resonates with me and so many others is because he’s human. There have been plenty of mistakes along the way.

The Decision. The Miami Heat press conference. Blown Finals opportunities. All of the passive aggressiveness.

The very things that give haters their perceived ammunition also make him more endearing. The schism between these two camps grows as time marches on, with no bridge in sight.
Confession of a Former Hater: LeBron James is My Favorite Athlete
James’ story arc is epic. It’s something out of a Greek play or The Bible. He’s Messiah turned Judas turned Messiah again by virtue of last night’s victory.

Try as I might, I’ve never been able to understand why someone’s reaction to James would be to diminish him as a person, player or villain. As a sports fan, if you can’t enjoy James — or at least the existence of James as a foil — what can you enjoy? Why are you watching?

I don’t understand it. I’ll never understand it. That’s not what I see when I look at the LeBron James-shaped ink blot.

At the same time, I admit not everyone will understand my viewpoint, which is shaped by one more thing.

James and I are the same age. He’s matured a great deal as a player and person in his 13 years in the NBA. I’ve evolved as a sports fan during that time, going more from a blind fan of laundry to a person who roots for individuals.

Things change.

I think back to that night in 2007 when I thought — and probably said — some deplorable things about LeBron. The outcome of that game felt like life and death. Looking back through the lens of experience, now I’m grateful to have been a witness before shirts proclaiming such became fashionable.
Confession of a Former Hater: LeBron James is My Favorite Athlete
Here’s the point where I’ll lose some of you when you drown in the sap. I’ll say it anyway.

James spoke last night of his calmness down 3-1 in the series. He talked about spending time with his children and realizing that while basketball is a big part of his life, it’s not the biggest thing.

It may have sounded like a b.s. line to many but for me it resonated. James’ career has coincided with my own adult life. To see him grow both as a player and person in the face of unwarranted criticism has been rewarding.

There’s a one-way connection with James that I don’t feel with other athletes. He engenders empathy within me for whatever reason.

Misguided or not, his successes bring me joy on a level far greater than others. And I’ll admit it feels good — perhaps because it’s more rewarding than wringing my hands trying to decide if he’s the second, third or fourth-best player in basketball history.

When I look at LeBron James, I see the real-life embodiment of the ideal sports character — a human being to root for.

But, hey, see what you see.
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