Oh, what a difference three years can make. When Lebron left Cleveland, just three years ago, he was one of the most impossible professional athletes to respect. Not only did he publicize his “Decision” to sign with the Miami Heat like a fourth grader showing off their art project, he lacked self-confidence, was a traitor to his hometown, and was still ring-less. In January 2010, Lebron’s Q score (which is a measure of public popularity) proved that his approval rating was hovering around 14%. Nobody really liked Lebron. He was lost in Michael Jordan’s illustrious shadow, yet donned his number “23” like he deserved the right to be considered one of the best yet.
Yesterday I saw this new Nike commercial with Lebron James, and thought to myself, damn, I love this guy. I’m not the only one. A 2013 ESPN poll noted Lebron as the most popular player in the NBA right now. Why the change? Over the past three years, Lebron has won over the hearts of many fans, and here’s why:
1) He started wearing #6- After Lebron’s seven year tenure with the number 23 he decided to become his own man. Ever since Lebron was in high school, the sports world was super horny about him becoming the next Michael Jordan. Deep down, I think Lebron probably wanted to walk in his footsteps, too. When he ditched number 23 for 6, he finally understood the importance of creating his own legacy.
2) He apologized the right way- Some athletes really suck at apologizing (see Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, or Lance Armstrong). Bottom line, fans what to see star athletes speak candidly. They don’t want to hear a manufactured, I’m-really-not-that-bad, apology that was probably written by a PR professional. They want to see self-deprecation. Look at a guy like Andy Pettitte. You probably don’t even remember his steroid use, do you? That’s because he was candid about the problem. He faced the national media himself, looked us all in the eye, admitted he was an idiot, and moved on. Lebron did the same thing. He laughed at the 2010 production of “The Decision,” and admitted that it was over-the-top.
3) He is faithful to his wife and kids- When you’re a superstar athlete, there is temptation everywhere. Lebron has remained loyal to his long-time girlfriend, even though his celebrity status probably allows him to “play” women like Derek Jeter. They were recently married in private, unlike Kris Humphris and Kim Kardasian. When he’s away from basketball he’s a family man. He’s proud of his kids, and understands his role as their father.
4) He has stayed out of trouble- Think about it. People are breathing down this guy’s back constantly. Everyone is watching him. See if you can come up with one situation where Lebron has had issues with the law? It’s like the guy lives on the moon, and nobody can get to him and bring him down. He knows better. He understands what the consequences will be if he screws up, even a little.
5) He put in the work- No one ever questioned the fact that Lebron James was a freak athlete. Hell, he’s probably been the best athlete in the world for the past ten years. But when he humbled up and decided to develop some of his weaker skills, a snowstorm became a blizzard. He’s never been satisfied with his game, even after gold medals, MVPs, and NBA Championships. There is always something he is trying to improve. He’s not a baby anymore. He’s a basketball junkie with a high IQ, and he’s willing to learn from greats like Hakeem Olajuwon to further evolve his game.
6) He made the United States proud- Team USA basketball was pretty embarrassing in the years prior to Lebron James. Lebron has been our savior in the past two Olympic Games, leading the team to Gold Medals in each. Most importantly, it was evident that Lebron wasn’t just there because he had to be. He played with fire. He worked his ass off, and made us all cheer for him.
7) He lets us in on his life- One thing that’s refreshing about Lebron compared to guys like Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or Tiger Woods is his willingness to let us see who he really is. He uses social media the right way, makes public appearances, and he understands his responsibility to maintain the face of basketball. It’s cool to see a basketball player wearing a football uniform. It’s honorable to see a man speak from his heart at the ESPY’s, like any other human being. Most importantly, it’s refreshing to see a guy that understands his place as a role model for people that look up to him. I don’t know if this is something I could have said three years ago.
8) He started winning- Above all else, Lebron has proven himself over the past three years to the tune of 2 Gold Medals, 2 World Championships, 2 League MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs. He used his failure and public disdain as motivation to become more mature. He’s a winner now, but he’s a pretty good human being, too. Maybe he can sit down with Richie Incognito for a few minutes.
With all this being said, Lebron’s just needs to enter the dunk contest now.