To: Lebron James
From: Dave Zirin
As you prepare to play your ex-team the Cleveland Cavaliers, during a night you are already describing as "very emotional," I have one plea: hold the emotion and please at long last, wear the black hat. Be emotional off the court. On the court, be Lee Van Cleef. Be Tony Montana. Be Nino Brown. Be the bad guy.
When you enter the Cleveland arena, the boos will be cacophonous, creative and cruel. The reported extra stadium security will be on hand for a reason. Not only are you returning to the city you spurned, you are also leading a Miami Heat team that looks leaderless. The Miami Dream Team of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and yourself have worse chemistry than Mr. and Mrs. Tom Cruise.
The personnel on the 11-8 team is also awful. When sports radio yakkers speak hopefully about the Heat‘s recent signing of professional corpse Erick Dampier, you know there‘s trouble. When people like Miami sports columnist Dan Lebatard actually articulate the words, "The team hasn‘t been the same since Udonis Haslem was hurt," you know the dreams of a 73-win season are likely not to materialize.
But while a middling roster might explain the Heat‘s record, it doesn‘t explain your own listless play. Everyone has their theory why your points per game and shooting percentages are at their lowest point since your rookie year. Well, here‘s my theory: you can‘t handle the hate. Before this season you were King James, with a lofty q rating, cheers from the Cleveland faithful and even awe from the visiting crowds. Now, after creating an ill-schemed "dream team" in South Beach, almost everyone‘s feeling the Schadenfreude. The nightly boos seem to make you withdraw into yourself. Tony Kornheiser, the onetime sports writer, predicted that you wouldn‘t even show up for Thursday‘s game.
For Cavalier fans, this is Chili-flavored chum in the water. They want you to live up to your purported reputation and someone who shrinks from the brightest moments. This is Cleveland, whose fans burned your jersey in the streets and reacted with an unhinged rage when you said on your primetime special that you’d be "taking your talents to South Beach." There is only one rational response: be the bad guy.
I will never forget seeing Michael Jordan and his Bulls come into Madison Square Garden in 1992, the boos raining down like hail storms, and Jordan sneering at the crowd like a 1980s bad-guy wrestler. While Jordan‘s All-Star teammate Scottie Pippen shrank from many of these moments, Jordan bullied the Knicks from six-foot guard Greg Anthony to seven-foot center Patrick Ewing. Jordan when he had to would wear the black hat. Kobe Bryant is the same way. Kobe appreciates the love, but he thrives on the hate. He‘s the little brother, who can‘t stand being ignored and sees hate as a confirmation of his worth. Kobe thrives on negative attention. You, Lebron, need to understand that unless you quit the Heat to take your talents to a leper colony, the hate will always be there. The only antidote in our sports culture is winning. As Jordan, Kobe, and now Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger have learned, that‘s how you muffle the boos, if not in the stadium, in your own head.
My humble advice is to find old tapes of Hulk Hogan when he "turned heel" and became Hollywood Hogan in the now defunct World Championship Wrestling and take notes. I‘m serious. Remember, you once said your hero was Muhammad Ali? Well, Ali used to study a wrestler named Gorgeous George Wagner. You should show up in Cleveland with a Rampage Jackson haircut. Do your chalk toss with all the old bravado. When the crowd starts raining the hate, put your hand by your ear and demand they go louder. They say in Cleveland that you broke their hearts. Now you need to rip the pieces out of their chest. Then tell the crowd to say hello to the bad guy.