By Mark Paulette
Tom Brady. LeBron James. The two most recognizable athletes in their respective sports per ESPN’s recently released “World Fame 100” and the two most polarizing athletes as well.
For 17 years, Brady has been deified in New England and resented everywhere else. Since jumping from high school to the NBA in 2003, King James has ruled ‘The Land’ to the infatuation of his fans (save that four-year soiree in South Beach). Yet, upon his travels, ‘The Chosen One’ is met with merciless boos. A fact, I’m admittedly guilty of.
Three years ago, even at the beginning of last year, truly I was fully aboard the irrational LeBron James hatred train. It wasn’t always this way, however. There’s evidence of a young, mangy-haired Mark Paulette donning a white Cleveland Cavaliers #23 home jersey on school picture day, circa 2005. But I, like many wise sports fans, saw those early cheerful days end with ‘The Decision’ in 2010.
Following that fateful announcement, LeBron’s image plummeted not only in the eyes of his disciples who took to the streets of America’ Gem (Cleveland), burning his jerseys and sacrificing effigies of his likeness. The decision also tarnished his reputation among peers, who repeatedly voted him as the most disliked NBA player for several years to come.
There was no sound reason for this hatred. Sure, if you were a member of Cavs Nation, you were scorned and you could justify venting at the sight of your sweetheart taking off for the guy she told you not to worry about. But the rest of us? We seized the opportunity to quash a young man who made a choice which most in his position would align with.
As world championships and MVP trophies rolled in with relative ease, the hatred, or masked envy, continued to grow. That is, until the King returned to Northeast Ohio three off-seasons ago.
Through four years of guided meditation and extreme focus, I had forced myself to spite the man more than anyone in the sports world. James was indefensible. He wasn’t a true champion; he took the easy way. He was a cry baby. A flopper. But as little as I wanted to admit it to myself, his (2nd) decision, to return to Cleveland and see the journey through, shifted the needle and begrudgingly made me a LeBron supporter. (Let me clarify. Off-court LeBron has always been a classy, upstanding role model. I’m talking purely in the context of LeBron the player.) It was not unlike the scene in The Grinch, where his heart grows three sizes and you see there’s good within.
This phenomenon is not unlike how the rest of the country has viewed our beloved TB12 for the better part of two decades. The dominating success and personal accolades foster a sense of jealousy and malice. You can’t relate to these men. They’re not a Brock Holt or Dustin Pedroia type, who look like your next-door neighbor yet they partake in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. LeBron and Brady are closer to the divine than they are the common man, but despite this, there comes a point where you need to sit back and admire the greatness of the individual. It’s this point that we’ve reached with Brady, who now is synonymous with a scraggly bearded, horned, farm animal. And it’s this point I’ve reached with LeBron. He’s just too good not to appreciate.
Now as LeBron faces certain death at the hands of the blood-thirsty Golden State Warriors, he has a chance to shut up any neigh-sayers that persist. And should the King be improbably crowned a fourth time, there will be no excuse to not mention him in the same G.O.A.T.’y’ breath as Brady.
Mark Paulette is the Senior Producer of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.