America loves an underdog, right?
Ha! Not in the Miami Heat’s case.
That’s right, Vegas has established the Spurs as slight betting favorites in the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday in San Antonio. But according to an ESPN poll, the entire nation outside of Florida is rooting against LeBron James & Co.
No real surprise in that finding. But I have never fully understood the copious amounts of Heat-hate or the considerable depth of those passions. They have always struck me as disproportionate reactions to whatever offense Miami committed.
I get it if you don’t love the Heat.
But loathe the Heat? Surely that’s undeserved.
We’re not talking about the Boston Celtics, New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys, flagship franchises that earned their disfavor over several decades of prominence and dominance. The Heat is just 26 years old and didn’t reach its first Finals until 2006. Miami returned to the field in the next four seasons, making three first-round exits and missing the playoffs altogether in 2008.
Dwayne Wade was a good guy back then, catapulting into our consciousness as the unheralded star who led Marquette to the 2003 Final Four. Miami drafted him fifth overall – behind James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh (sorry for the painful reminder, Detroit fans) – and he quickly became one of the league’s most popular players. He had the NBA’s best-selling jersey for a couple of seasons while teaming with Shaquille O’Neal for a title in 2006.
But now Wade is Robin to a Batman who’s viewed as equal parts super villain and superhero.
James is a conundrum, much like the Heat. They are arguably the league’s most disliked player and team, respectively. Judging by polls, journalists, social media, friends & family and assorted anecdotes, nothing but enmity exists for James and Miami outside of the Sunshine State.
Yet, he just topped the NBA’s most-popular jersey list for the sixth time. And the Heat just repeated as No. 1 in best-selling team merchandise.
A friend said she doesn’t like the Heat because they’re “arrogant.” We all can agree that Miami was over-the-top initially when James and Bosh opted to join forces with Wade. The team threw a preseason coronation that resembled a post-Finals celebration and James infamously declared the Heat could win “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships.
Nowhere close to a prediction or guarantee of eight titles, the quote was taken as such anyway. With his widely panned TV special, “The Decision,” still fresh in folks’ minds, James was portrayed as a first-class jerk while the Heat was painted as his willing and greedy enabler.
A deeper examination of James and the Heat would reveal plenty of admirable traits, but it was too late for the haters.
They criticized James and Bosh for signing to form a super team with Wade, but didn’t credit the Big Three for accepting less money to do so. There’s been plenty of talk about their egos but not as much about their on-court sacrifices – blending and repressing their individual talents – to benefit the whole. For players held up as the epitome of selfishness, they are willing passers who share the ball and don’t fret over which teammate gets the last shot.
Adore them or abhor them, they’re fun to watch. And we should enjoy it while we can because this could be the final act.
Win or lose against the Spurs, I wouldn’t leave Miami if I was James. The Heat will continue to draw players willing to co-star and fill supporting roles. Living in a tropical climate with no state income tax are added bonuses. So is having Pat Riley in charge of basketball operations.
James is on the verge of leading his team to a third consecutive title, a feat accomplished by only George Mikan, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and O’Neal. If successful once again against this improved Spurs team, James will be positioned to join Russell as the only players to win at least four straight.
However, for sheer drama, it would be delectable if James took his talents elsewhere next season.
I don’t think Heat owner Micky Arison would issue a childish screed, or fans would burn No. 6 jerseys in the street, or James would call Jim Gray for “The Decision II.” But teams would put on an all-out blitz and it would be fascinating to see if James could be part of another championship formula with a different cast of characters.
Strange as it is, America’s love-hate relationship with James and whichever team employs him will continue.
Whether they’re underdogs or favorites, you can bet on that.