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Lebron Isn’t the Player Michael Jordan Was, but He Might Be the Better Man

And he isn’t, and never was, a ‘bitch’

Early in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last night, a photo started circulating on Twitter of a Golden State Warriors fan wearing a shirt that read “LEBRON IS A PUSSY ASS BITCH.”

Profane as it was, the shirt was unremarkable to anyone familiar with either basketball or the internet, as social media is littered with memes espousing LeBron’s supposed bitchass-ness.

And the memes are more than just internet ephemera; they reflect a deep-seated, lasting hatred of LeBron. Earlier this year, Sporting News named LeBron the single most hated player in NBA history, ahead of players such as Latrell Sprewell, who choked his own coach during a practice in 1997, and infamously dirty Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer.

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Flying home for game 4. @djstephfloss ?

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Many of the knocks on LeBron’s toughness were likely put to rest last night, as LeBron iced the game with what initially appeared to be a broken wrist to lead his team to an NBA championship over the best regular season team in league history.

Still, the general LeBron hatred will likely continue, and it will be just as baseless in the future as it was five years ago. Hating LeBron was never justified, and its persistence proves that sports breed unquestioning acceptance. Once a narrative about a player, either good or bad, takes hold, sports fans never bother to think critically about its merits.

Push a LeBron hater to explain why he hates Lebron and you’ll likely get one or more of the following criticisms:

  • He’s too soft (i.e., “a bitch”)
  • “The Decision”
  • He’s not Michael Jordan

The first is an erroneous, albeit understandable, criticism. LeBron does flop and exaggerate pain after getting hit (see: last night’s wrist injury), but soft is an odd descriptor for the quickest player to log 41,000 minutes on an NBA court. Reaching that figure over the course of an entire career is an achievement. LeBron did it before he was 30.

For the few who have forgotten, “The Decision” was the 75-minute ESPN special from July 2010 in which LeBron announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and “taking [his] talents to South Beach” to join a Miami Heat super squad. It came off as a crass, overdone, self-important spectacle (which it was), and LeBron himself seemed especially arrogant and tone deaf. He was labeled as yet another overpaid, entitled prima donna who lacked any self-awareness.

This point is valid, but I refuse to hate a basketball player simply because he had poor media training. If you enjoy marketing that much, join an advertising agency or re-watch Mad Men.

But to really understand why people hate LeBron, you have to view him in relation to Michael Jordan, the man who allegedly set the template for what an NBA superstar should be and the player with whom LeBron is most often compared.

Old-school NBA fans love Jordan with a fervor that borders on the religious. He’s seen as the epitome of what an athlete should be: An unflappable, “refuse-to-lose” competitor with an unlimited amount of heart. He could score 38 points while suffering from the flu. He could spend a year playing baseball, and still be the best basketball player on the planet. Jordan seemed unstoppable in the most literal sense of the word.

What Jordan proponents fail to realize (or mention) is that Jordan was, and is, kind of an asshole. But unlike LeBron, who isn’t an asshole, Jordan was really good at PR.

Jordan was legendarily arrogant, as evidenced by his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, in which he took cheap shots at everyone from his high school coach to former Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause. Jordan was so psychotically competitive he once punched Steve Kerr, his teammate, in the face during a Bulls practice because Kerr’s team had the gall to beat Jordan’s in a scrimmage. Jordan once barked, “Shoot it, you fucking midget!” at 5-foot-3 guard Muggsy Bogues during a game. Bogues later said he was so shaken by the comment that it ruined his career. Kwame Brown was considered a basketball prodigy when the Washington Wizards drafted him out of high school in 2001, but Jordan routinely questioned the 19-year-old’s manhood, crushing his confidence.

All the while, he shilled for McDonald’s, perpetrator of untold injustices against Americans’ health and its own workers, and Nike, hawking shoes made in sweatshops by people making 50 cents an hour.

Yet we forgive Jordan, because he was a master of personal branding. The idea of a “personal brand” didn’t enter the lexicon until recently, but it was something MJ intrinsically understood in the late 1980s and ‘90s. From his entry into the league, MJ handled his image with the same kind of maniacal intensity he brought to the basketball court. Everything was calculated, and that calculation perfectly cloaked his dickishness.

Space Jam was a cute animated film, but it largely served as a marketing vehicle for the Jordan brand, portraying him as a compassionate father and a hero for all man- and cartoon-kind.

In 1990, Jordan declined to support Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat, in his Senate race against Jesse Helms, an unabashed racist who opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and would whistle “I Wish I Was in Dixie” in public. “Republicans buy shoes, too,” Jordan is alleged to have said.

Muhammad Ali he was not.

And yet no one would ever actively hate Jordan the way so many do LeBron. Instead, we love Jordan for, not despite, his shortcomings. Stories like that of his punching Kerr come off as weirdly charming and only add to the mythos of Jordan. They reinforce our perception of him as a man with indomitable will. Yes, Jordan made mistakes and hurt people, but that was necessary to achieve that level of greatness. With Jordan, the ends always justify the means.

But in LeBron’s case, the opposite has proved true; we hate LeBron not because of what he does on the court, but because we don’t like how he played the game off it. We loved the lie Jordan sold us, but have rejected LeBron for living his truth.

LeBron is the anti-MJ. He doesn’t hide the fact he’s a fun-loving guy — a transparency we reward by calling him a “bitch.” LeBron is actually braver than Jordan in many ways, unafraid to speak out about the alarming number of unarmed black men who have been killed by police in recent years, often with no consequences for the killer. In 2012, LeBron and his Heat teammates wore hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin. And LeBron wore an “I CAN’T BREATHE” T-shirt during warm-ups in 2014 in a nod to Eric Garner. But when he declined to comment on the shooting death of Tamir Rice, citing ignorance on the issue, people were appalled.

The universe has a way of correcting itself, though. After LeBron led the Cavaliers to their first NBA title in franchise history last night, a revised version of the “PUSSY ASS BITCH” photo started making its way through Twitter, this time with Crying Jordan photoshopped onto the T-shirt wearer’s face.

Jordan, a man revered for his pathological competitiveness as a player, is now remembered on the internet as the crying guy, and that image was used to defend LeBron James. Sports fans might be unreasonable, but sometimes they’re also poetic.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about how the psychological dangers of living in a city.