Originally written on Legend of Cecilio Guante  |  Last updated 6/29/12

What type of reputation has been earned?

Victor who deserves his spoils? Or villain who is worthy of nothing? Arrogance or assertiveness? Maturation or regression?

These are all questions that seem to arise when talking about LeBron James. Two distinct camps. Each standing staunchly at opposite ends of the spectrum, sharing only an intensity of belief. Those who hate and those who hail.

The whole “debate” is intriguing because of the emotions it arouses. Even as a “non-vested” fan — of either his former or current teams or the man himself — I’ve found myself sucked into comments sections in recent weeks. I read and was immediately tempted to match the venom of others and get caught up in the discussion. It just does that to you.

The reasons for the divide are not cloaked in mystery. There are those The Decision forever melded into diecast haters — in Cleveland and far beyond. There are also the blind followers, the devotees of the man, his game and his brand. What’s difficult is those of us who are watching from “afar.” Who is this “kid” who no longer is? What is he about and is he deserving of the kudos or the criticism? Like so many things, it’s probably a little bit of both.

Prior to the Heat closing out Game Five, I was a fan who believed he’d seen the worst of LeBron and was finally ready to concede the comeback. The comeback as a player, and the comeback as a professional. It sounds cheesy, but I often find myself asking the LeBron haters if they’ve ever seen the documentary “More Than a Game.” The reason I ask is that it’s impossible to view LeBron the pro without the context of his journey (and, yes, I acknowledge that it’s a “movie” and everything is put in sunny, shiny film form).

The spotlight  rarely shines so brightly and continuously on an athlete from such a young age. From his rookie season and into his first years as a pro, I marveled at how the SI cover kid handled interviews from national media, took on the beating of an NBA season, and put a team on his back. He did so at an age where most of us have yet to been given the power to make any professional decisions of real importance. Here he was on his sport’s biggest stages, taking it all in relatively smooth and effortless stride. It was astounding and impressive, whether fans and observers chose to notice at the time or not.

As the years wore on, and a championship continued to elude him in Cleveland, the critiques began to come. But, again, they largely focused on a perception (real or imagined) of James’s relative “clutchness.” As with any figure sitting squarely in the crosshairs, there may have also been rumblings about his “character” and whether he was more hellbent on becoming a “billion-dollar brand” or reaching to the limits of his on-court potential. But, really, the tide turned with The you-know-what.

One questionable decision. OK, one really shi**y decision. And, no, we’re not talking about his choice to don the uniform of the Miami Heat. We didn’t debate that logic at the time, and we surely don’t now.

Turning point

The folly in The Decision was in its very creation. A staged nationally-televised event. A platform built to benefit nobody but the man and his image. A terribly-worded quote (“taking my talents to South Beach), and an inexcusable disregard for a city that embraced him and put all their faith behind him. It was the production. The content. Its very spirit. All were totally wrong.

And, not surprisingly (or necessarily unfairly), the tide turned — with great vengeance and fuuuurious anger. Not just in Cleveland, either. That moment hit a fault line that divided the country’s roundball followers. You were either with LeBron or against him. Along for the ride with The King and his new Miami Empire. Or circling the hater wagon around LeFraud the ultimate pillager.

It continued that way. To be honest, I was a follower who went from lauding to lukewarm. It was a strange feeling. It continued as the 2012 NBA Playoffs kicked off. All of the sudden I didn’t know if I was rooting for LeBron or against him – where the tendency had always been the former. Remove the whole discussion around the Big Three and engineering super-teams and all that. There had been a time where the team that LeBron was on captured my support. A dynamic player that could do what so few could. A young star that had managed to maintain some level of humility and maturity, particularly given the scrutiny.

Strangely, as the postseason progressed the pendulum again began to swing. In his remarks (aside from skipping out on one pressers) and his demeanor, it seemed a more reflective and grounded LeBron James was re-emerging. With that seeming change in sentiment, my desire to see him succeed correspondingly increased – even if ever so slightly. But then it all crashed again.

I’ve admittedly not listened to every interview or speech. I’ve not analyzed the parade shout-outs or the lyrics dropped at the LIV Nightclub. Nor have I read every article or Tweet from King James. But I’ve seen and heard enough to know that the post-Championship commentary of LBJ has again turned the tide back in the wrong direction for this fan. Whether the “i am a champion” tweets or the Earned Not Given t-shirts (I know, I know. It’s Nike. He’s getting paid. It’s all business). Call it feel. It feels like what should have been a moment of ultimate maturation, what emerged was only more “me.”

His trophies

The media made the NBA Finals all about LeBron James. Not so much James the on-court player, but James the man. It was his redemption. The monkey off his back. His validation. His crowning moment. They made it about him, because they had to for a story. Once he secured his ring, LeBron has taken that ball and run with it. It’s unfortunate, because he was just starting to bounce back in the eyes of this fan. Maybe things change with a championship, or perhaps they already did a long time ago.

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