When LeBron is bad, he's really, really good
PORTLAND, Ore. - LeBron James has come to know something about himself that The Decision made plain to everyone else: He is the bad guy.
"I've kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me and I'm OK with it," James said. "I'm in my comfort zone."
This is Anakin Skywalker embracing the dark side. This is Reggie Jackson and all his brashness and ego in pinstripes laying the foundation for The Evil Empire. This is Michael Corleone embracing the family business.
This is very good news for the Heat and very bad news for everyone else.
The Heat have now won 13 straight road games, nine in a row overall and 20 of their past 21 games.
The Decision and the resulting life-as-villain status it granted The King could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.
LeBron has been fantastic all season. But his game hit a new level, and his team followed him to it, when he returned to Cleveland.
In that game, on the heels of days when the ridicule and hatred clearly were bothering him, he wasn't intent on just beating his old teammates.
He wanted to destroy them. To crush them and everyone rooting for them - which was most of the country.
Which he then went out and did in a powerful performance of rage and talent.
Since then he's been a super-villain on the road, absorbing every boo and turning it to fuel - using his self-righteousness, his ego, his sense that the world revolves around him to become the player he was supposed to be all along: the game's most dominant.
His play on the road, where he is relentlessly decried and loathed, underscores the ease with which he's accepted his villainy. In hostile arenas he averages 27.9 points per game, 7.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists.
At home his stat line's more modest: 22.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists.
That's because behind the stats is a star who has taken personally the hate thrown his way, though he doesn't entirely grasp it or understand his responsibility for much of it. And when these things create problems for him or his team, he doesn't understand that much of the blame falls to him.
Many of the great villains don't. But they are powerful. And successful. And not to be underestimated.
Beware, NBA. LeBron is fueled by his anger now as much as his talent.
It seems The Chosen One - and you and I - failed to understand some important, basic and deep truth about him: that he needed to be the bad guy all along.
LeBron is many things. He's a recovering child star plagued by all the good (so much promise) and bad (so young to have been burdened with it) that entails.
He's a global icon who, Forbes estimated in 2007, makes $27 million a year selling shoes, apparel, insurance and other goods based on the notion his brand can move merchandise.
He's a global icon who doesn't seem to understand that means criticism, scrutiny and a parsing of his words are going to be mainstays in his life.
He doesn't grasp that more than the non-local media see him this way. Executives, coaches, players, sponsors - to talk around the league is to find many who don't like The King.
Unsolicited, sources who have moved in his orbit will volunteer how insufferable he can be. Not all. But many.
Before, most respected his game despite their personal feelings about him. Now nearly all fear it.
This isn't just a talented child star who has focused his skill as an adult. It's a very ambitious, talented, angry, out-to-prove-the-world-wrong star suddenly hell-bent on domination.
If this were a comic book about the rise of such a villain, the cliches would be exhaustive: happy kid with incredible talent; rising ego; celebrated at highest levels; decides to name himself The King and The Chosen One and has said names tattooed on his body; rises in success and tries to play good guy; true nature comes out to world in stunning live-television moment; joins forces with other powerful people, is hated, dominates, volunteers he's now a villain.
Yes, the Chronicles of LeBron would not be about a good guy trying to use his superpowers to help others.
Now that he's surrounded with players like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it's not hard to see how this ends: with a dynasty headed not by the beloved and celebrated Michael Jordan, but by bizzaro-Jordan, a man as disliked as he is respected, a man booed even as those booing marvel at his skill.
A villain the league can love to hate as much as it loved to love Michael.
A quick pause:
LeBron haters: I'm not saying he's the world's best teammate, or a shining example of humility, or suddenly in the right when he does wrong. I'm not saying The Decision wasn't a colossal public-image disaster. I'm not saying The Decision wasn't a sign of uncontrollable ego and narcissism unleashed on live television. I'm not saying that some of these things won't come back to bite LeBron and the Heat. I am saying, especially to those of you in Cleveland, the world is unfair and it's very possible The Decision will bring out the best in LeBron.
Heat fans: I know you don't want to hear negative stuff about your star player. That you'd like reality to fit comfortably around the way you just wish it could be and that you think he's just a great and swell guy trying to get along. Never mind you'd be feeling a bit differently if he'd smiled awkwardly and said, "I'm taking my talents to Chicago."
Like all great villains, the seeds of his rise were there all along. And like most great villains (Lex Luthor, Darth Vader) he tried to play the good guy before finding his true self.
Every season except his first two, LeBron has played better in, and scored more points during, regular-season road games than home games.
-- 2009-10: 31 points a game on the road vs. 28.4 at home.
-- 2008-09: 31.5 vs. 25.4
-- 2007-08: 30.7 vs. 29.4.
So during most of his career we have a player trying to sell merchandise, live up to the expectations that come with being anointed as The Chosen One, keep his entourage happy, grow from a kid to a man and still be expected to evolve into a well-adjusted and public-relations friendly star.
And what happens? Before The Decision, still loved, he plays best on the road, in hostile arenas, in places that were the closest approximations of competition as the bad guy.
Those were the places where his focus was finer and his task more daunting. Road games mean the grind of travel, grumpier moods and fans less likely to shower you with adulation.
Maybe LeBron wasn't built to Be Like Mike - to sell shoes with a smile and sell himself to America as a great guy.
But maybe LeBron was built to be like Bill Russell (a proud black man whose focus was a lot of things, but being liked wasn't one of them) or Isiah and those Pistons teams.
Yes, it's looking more and more likely that LeBron never was meant to play the good guy, the lovable superstar, the guy you'd want to drink a beer with.
Sidetracked by Nike's need for a lovable pitchman, and all that love, and all that celebration, LeBron is just now finding his true basketball self.
Looks like he was meant to play the antagonist, the bad guy, the dude you respected because you feared him, not because you adored him.
Or even liked him. At all.
LeBron James is the perfect NBA villain. Darth Vader is a pop culture icon because he's not real, not in the sense he ever actually suffocated someone with his fingers or helped destroy an entire planet.
In the same way, LeBron James never has done a single thing truly wrong - in the moral sense, in the sense that actually matters - off the court. He has never been accused of a crime, never helped kill dogs, never been arrested for drug use or sat on a train and insulted every way of life and ethnicity he could think of.
That alone makes him the perfect sports villain.
Because he's only a bad guy in the basketball sense, and that's something that the league can sell, fans can love to hate (but still pay good money to see), and he can channel into greatness.
Maybe all the love and acclaim - the childhood praise, needs of his sponsors, sycophancy of his handlers - took away too much of his competitive edge.
Maybe it was the same thing Hemingway believed happened to Fitzgerald when a man talented enough to write "Tender is the Night" and "The Great Gatsby" lost himself in his need to please readers rather than wow them.
Hemingway called it blunting the instrument.
Maybe that's what LeBron risked in seeking love, the blunting of his incredible instrument.
That seems to be what he's found in becoming the bad guy. In saying, "I've kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me and I'm OK with it."
Maybe those are the scariest words the rest of the league ever heard. Just as "I'm taking my talents to South Beach" were the most obnoxious.
It's easy to hear Bill Russell embracing villainy if it suited winning. Or Reggie Jackson. Or those Pistons teams. As long as victory is what followed.
The true test of whether this is so with LeBron - of whether there's actually an upside to The Decision and its aftermath - will come in the playoffs.
There is a huge difference between racking up stats and being fantastic in the regular season (good to see you, Wilt Chamberlain) and being fantastic under the pressure of playoff time (hello, Bill Russell).
Other greats thrived on the road during championship runs. During the 1987-88 season in which Magic Johnson led the Lakers to another championship, his away numbers (20.8 points, 7 rebounds, 11.9 assists) easily outshined his stats at home (18.5, 5.4 and 12).
Same for Jordan. During the first two regular seasons of the Bulls' last three-peat, Jordan scored more points on the road in those first two seasons (by nearly three points per game) than at home.
Yet over the course of an entire career, LeBron has taken his game a notch higher during regular-season road games in a way Kobe, Jordan and Magic did not (all three have nearly identical career road-vs.-home stats).
Not LeBron. He was thriving in hostile arenas long before The Decision.
It's very possible The Decision was the formative struggle LeBron's youth and promise robbed him of. One that his arrogance finally provided him.
LeBron James - wrapped in his bubble, blessed and cursed with an incredible talent recognized too early in his life - didn't know how to turn it on the way Jordan, Magic and Kobe learned to as less-celebrated young players.
Now he seems to know.
If LeBron can continue to channel his misplaced indignation into excellence on the court, feed off that in the postseason and not pollute his team with the offshoots that come with a villain's ego, maybe The Decision becomes the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter.