Driving through western New York this weekend I saw some interesting abodes. It’s not exactly an area that features your standard cookie cutter developments. The houses I saw were decorated with a unique style. One in particular caught my eye. It looked like it was being held together with a patchwork of corrugated metal siding. Decorating the metal were several #3s, spray painted in black. I assume they were a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt. In some areas of the country, Earnhardt probably belongs on the short list of the most popular athletes of all-time.
His legend is so strong, his fans so loyal, that many of them have flocked to his son, Dale Jr. Earnhardt Jr. is perennially voted the most popular driver in NASCAR despite his inability to live up to the promise of his early career. After six wins in 2004, Earnhardt has won just four times in the last eight years and just ended a drought that saw him without a win in three full seasons. He’s never finished higher than 3rd in the season ending points race, but none of that seems to matter to his fans. Earnhardt Jr. could be judged less on performance by fans than any other any athlete.
It’s difficult to compare NASCAR to the NBA, and certainly within the racing world Earnhardt has plenty of detractors, but it’s hard to imagine LeBron James winning many popularity contests. In contrast to Earnhardt, James is judged solely by his results, and not individual results, but how his team finishes each year. His obvious greatness and how he is perceived by the media and fans lead to every season being judged by one question: did LeBron’s team win the title? If they didn’t, even in a year where James was clearly the league’s MVP, the season is a failure and LeBron is saddled with another layer of criticism regarding his abilities as a winner.
Any athlete who fails to win titles begins hearing questions. The early part of LeBron’s career could be compared to what Peyton Manning faced in his early years with the Colts. Manning was an MVP, a regular season record setter, but he often failed in the NFL Playoffs. Those failures defined him to a certain extent until he finally broke through and won a Super Bowl. LeBron was starting to hear those same murmurs in his final years in Cleveland. The Cavs had made a trip to the Finals, LeBron was an MVP, but there was no ring to show for his efforts. In addition to that, he had turned in several shaky efforts in key moments, his final playoff series with the Cavs being the most notable.
When LeBron left Cleveland, he accelerated the wave of sentiment against him with his television special. This is what people cite when they explain why they root against LeBron and the Heat. For me, my mind was made up long before The Decision. My general stance as a sports fan is to take a contrary position when confronted with a certain level of greatness. Unless a player wears the uniform of my favorite team, being a perennial MVP isn’t the way into my heart. Players and teams that win too much annoy me–think Jordan, or Tiger, Federer or Kobe. LeBron was such a prodigy that I put him into that category before he actually started winning anything.
Rooting against a player or team is a powerful part of sports and for years I’ve spent these months waiting for a particular NBA team to lose. It might have been LA, or Chicago, but the last two years it has been the Heat. Every year LeBron went without a title was a success for me, even as my interest in the NBA as a whole waned. This year as I watched bits and pieces of the Western Conference Finals I found myself rooting for the Spurs because I thought they had a better chance of beating Miami. This despite the fact that if I was forced to pick a team between San Antonio and OKC, I’d take the Thunder every time. I almost like Kevin Durant. If I had any chance of coming back around to the NBA, you’d think I’d want the Thunder to move on and beat the Heat, but that wasn’t the case.
And so I was unimpressed with the Thunder’s effort last night. I felt Miami and LeBron inching closer to what may be an inevitable title. If not this year, you still have to like LeBron’s chances to win one eventually. I saw the Heat take a 2-1 lead, and thought to myself–see, the Spurs should have won. But had San Antonio won it all, that would have been five rings for Tim Duncan. How does that fit into my theory on excessive winners?
The conclusion is, I shouldn’t be spending any time rooting against LeBron James in a sport I hardly care about. So rest easy tonight, LeBron, there’s one less person against you out there in the world.