Nineteen months after "The Decision" sent his personal stock plummeting, LeBron James is as desperate as ever to please and still clueless on how to go about it.
So maybe the only surprise about Forbes magazine's latest list of most-disliked athletes is that James hasn't demanded a recount. He came in at No. 6, a dozen percentage points behind co-leaders Michael Vick and Tiger Woods, both of whom polled 60 percent. Unlike either, James finds no slight too small to ignore and has so many public feuds running at any moment that it's hard to keep track of them all. But something James said recently is true about every one of them:
"I'm an easy target; if someone wants to get a point across — just throw Lebron's name in there. You could be watching cartoons with your kids and you don't like it, you say, 'Blame it on LeBron.' If you go to the grocery store and they don't have the milk that you like, you just say, 'It's LeBron's fault.' "
Fair point. And to be fair, he's a model citizen as pro athletes go and all five guys who finished ahead of him on the list were guilty of actual sins:
Vick headed up a dogfighting ring and Woods ran a stable of girlfriends while pretending to be married. Jets receiver Plaxico Burress did jail time for shooting himself in the thigh, which at the time seemed like punishment enough. Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh, who four months earlier topped the Forbes' poll of most-liked athletes, was on the fast track to becoming the NFL's dirtiest player when he paused to stomp an opponent last season and earned a two-game suspension. Nets forward Kris Humphries married Kim Kardashian — if only for 72 hours. Even Kobe Bryant, who finished a notch below James at 45 percent, spent time in court defending himself against a rape charge that was later dropped.
Yet it's James who winds up in the public dock all the time, and that's because unlike everyone else on the list, he doesn't know when to quit talking. On Jan. 30, he tweeted about Los Angeles' Blake Griffin dunking thunderously over Oklahoma City's Kendrick Perkins, then unwisely got into a back-and-forth skirmish with Perkins that still simmers, reminding the rest of us almost daily what's so annoying about James.
"Dunk of the Year!" is how James began his tweet, "(at)blakegriffin just dunked on Kendrick Perkins so hard!!! Wow! I guess I'm No. 2 now. Move over (hash)6."
Notice the not-so-subtle self-promotion, "I guess I'm No. 2 now," plus James' ever-more maddening habit of referring to himself in the third person, "Move over (hash)6."
Perkins certainly did, cutting right to the quick in his response. "You don't see Kobe tweeting," he told Yahoo. "You don't see Michael Jordan tweeting. If you're an elite player, plays like that don't excite you."
Perkins knows that James is not just an 'elite' player; he knows James is probably the best player in the league at the moment. But the subtext of what Perkins said — that for all his talent, James still has zero championships compared to Bryant's five rings and Jordan's six — is indisputable. Larry Bird touched on both points earlier this week when he said in an interview that if he could play alongside anyone for a season, "It would have probably been more fun to play with LeBron, but if you want to win and win and win, it's Kobe."
After all these years, you would think the Kobe-versus-LeBron debate is one that James would avoid. He hasn't.
"It's simple, he has five rings and I have none so it's easy to say that. If I had five rings and Kobe had none," James said blithely, "it'd probably be the other way around."
Until it is the other way around, James should pick his fights more carefully. Bryant spent much of his youth and most of his early NBA career mimicking everything Jordan did, from his maniacal work ethic and lack of conscience to the way Jordan walked and talked. Eventually, he figured out he was always going to suffer in the comparison. So he won and won and kept on winning until everybody else made the connection. Bryant is still far from being loved, as his No. 7 spot on the Forbes list proves, but he is universally feared by competitors and respected even by fans who don't much like him. James has taken the opposite tack and run into so many headwinds, it's hard to believe he hasn't changed course by now.
Not long after "The Decision," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a shrewd marketer in his own right, reckoned that James lost a billion dollars in brand equity. So naturally, LeBron doubled down. He starred in a Nike spot retracing his steps from high school and tweaking his growing legion of critics at every turn, asking over and over, "What should I do?" In hindsight, it was the beginning of a pattern.
All these squabbles later, the answer is the same now as it was then: Win a little and say even less until you do.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke.