The Philadelphia 76ers came very close to standing in LeBron James and the Miami Heat's way in the Eastern Conference Finals. But even Sixers fans like myself knew that if they faced the Heat, they would have long odds to win even one or two games. Yet a lot of NBA fans would have rooted for the Sixers because they faced the hated Heat and James - like they've rooted for all Miami opponents since "The Decision."
Now that the Heat and James have finally prevailed in the NBA Finals, perhaps that knee-jerk hatred will go away. Not all of it will, of course, yet the perception of James has certainly changed now that he will actually get a ring on his finger. Since he is now riding a narrative of redemption, perhaps he really has started to wear down his massive army of critics - at least those outside of Cleveland.
With James admitting his faults from last season and how he needed to change - and by admitting it was "About damn time" he won it all - it seems he has finally shown some contrition for how out of control last year got. Ever since "The Decision" he went from beloved star to the most divisive athlete in sports - which is why most everyone celebrated when he fell apart in last year's NBA Finals.
But all it takes to earn forgiveness in sports is apologies and victories - especially championship victories. After nine years of waiting to get those wins, they all finally came in the last week against the Oklahoma City Thunder. As such, talk about "The Decision," past playoff collapses and James' past arrogance has faded away, if not completely disappeared.
The greatest sign that critics may be laying off James was that even his arch-nemesis gave him his dues. ESPN's Skip Bayless relentlessly bashed James long before it became trendy, but when "Prince James" became the King, he stepped back and finally gave him credit. Of course, Bayless still trashed James even then for not winning it all in the past eight years, yet mixing in complements is still progress for him.
The Sixers and other rivals will still hate James and the Heat because they have to beat them out for championships - a task which is bound to get harder now. But widespread hatred for James and Miami may have officially peaked, at least now that they can't be bashed for coming up short in the playoffs. Perhaps they can now become the NBA's version of the New York Yankees - who are hated more for winning too much and spending too much than for anything else.
Hating James for those reasons might soon dwarf any leftover hatred for "The Decision" if it hasn't already. It seems he finally found a winning strategy of buying time, wearing critics down, waiting for them to exhaust themselves and then making his move towards glory. If he succeeded last year while the wounds and controversy were still too fresh, it wouldn't have worked as well.
Maybe it hasn't worked in all circles - especially those in Oklahoma City, Boston, Indiana, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland. But now that James and the Heat are champions, America's favorite pastime of blindly hating them doesn't seem as fun or easy anymore.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan.
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- LeBron James
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