MIAMI — Shane Battier knows exactly how LeBron James was looked upon a year ago. He even provided a demonstration.
The Miami Heat forward cocked his head to the right. Then he halfway closed his right eye.
“People were skeptical and sort of gave him the hairy eyeball,’’ Battier said.
Battier was uttering an expression that means to look at somebody disapprovingly or to doubt the person. But one thing is now sure: Armed with the first championship of his career, James is no longer getting the hairy eyeball.
“I think now he gets the benefit of the doubt,’’ Battier said.
To use a more common expression related to the head, James, a 10-year veteran, now wears the white hat. The black hat has been put back in his closet.
Entering the playoffs last year, James was without a ring. The naysayers were still out in full force.
James chokes in big games.
The King never will win a crown.
Even Heat president Pat Riley said while looking back, “He had in his mind that (winning a championship) is something that may never happen.’’
It, of course, did happen, as Miami beat the Thunder 4-1 in the Finals last June. Now, James is looked upon differently as the Heat begin play Sunday night against Milwaukee at AmericanAirlines Arena in their quest to claim a second straight title.
“The difference is he’s coming in as a champion, which obviously is a huge difference,’’ Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “He’s coming in playing exceptionally well, and the biggest thing is he’s coming in as a champion. … That monkey is off his back.’’
The forward put together a season that surely will result in his fourth MVP award. But James entered the playoffs last year as the front-runner for a third MVP and was handed the trophy before Miami’s second-round series against Indiana. None of that changed James’ public perception a great deal until he won the title.
There was still lingering bitterness over how James bolted Cleveland as a free agent in the summer of 2010 to join forces on the Heat with Wade and center Chris Bosh. Then James had a disastrous Finals in a 4-2 loss to Dallas in June 2011.
“Last year was a question mark for him,’’ Bosh said of how James was being perceived entering the 2012 playoffs. “Is he good enough? Is he clutch? And all that other stuff.’’
You want good? During Miami’s playoff run, James averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
You want clutch? How about 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists when the Heat, trailing the series 2-1, won a key Game 4 at Indiana? How about 45 points and 15 rebounds in a dramatic Game 6 win at Boston in the Eastern Conference finals when the Heat faced elimination?
James followed up winning an NBA title with leading Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in London. It all led to being named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
Now, James is coming off his most efficient NBA regular season. He averaged 26.8 points, a career-high 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists while posting career bests in field-goal (56.5) and 3-point percentage (40.6).
James is suddenly really liked. He was asked if he prefers wearing the white hat to the black one.
“I like wearing the Heat uniform,’’ James said. “That’s what I’m here to do.’’
James sidesteps questions about no longer being a villain. He knows the public is fickle and at some point he could be back in that role. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said about James’ current popularity, “Who knows? It could change again.’’
For now, one believes James prefers a lot more being liked. Wade said, “I’m sure he would. Who doesn’t?’’
Entering the playoffs, though, it remains to be seen what James will use as motivation. He’s talked plenty before about using criticism he received to help push him to last year’s title.
But nobody is saying anything bad about James and Miami now. After the Heat closed the season on a 37-2 run to finish 66-16, they’re the overwhelming favorite to win it all again.
So what’s James going to use for fuel?
“I’m just motivated because I want to be one of the greatest and I want to represent this team and represent this franchise the best way I can,’’ James said. “So my No. 1 goal is win championships. That’s what I came here to do and I shouldn’t be on the floor for nothing else.
“I think for my own personal sake, my own personal pressure that I put on myself, I want to win multiple titles. Will I do it? Time will tell. But I want to put myself in a position.’’
James often is compared to Micheal Jordan, who won six crowns for Chicago during the 1990s while being adored by many. James was asked if he takes any lessons from Jordan about how he was able to regularly motivate himself while in that position.
“I know the history. I know who has done it,’’ James said of the greats who have won multiple NBA titles. “I haven’t studied anyone. I’m writing my own book.”
It remains to be seen how the chapter on the 2012-13 season will turn out as James goes into the playoffs being liked. But there is at least one Heat fixture who might not have minded when it was the opposite.
“I want to take him back to last year if that’s what created the championship,’’ Riley quipped about the relentlessness James showed in the 2012 playoffs. “Can we get it back to that state of mind?’’