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Billy Vargus: It's OK To Root Against LeBron James!



A couple of Philly sports talk show hosts are pushing hard to get everyone to like and accept LeBron James, who appears to be on his way to winning his first NBA title.  But, despite the efforts of the talk show guys, I don't feel any shame in rooting hard for LeBron to lose.  
And neither should you.
I remember doing a TV live shot before Duke's game against Temple at the Wachovia Center in 2008, and saying on the air, "I hate Duke."  I went on to explain that I've hated Duke ever since they knocked Temple (my alma mater) out of the NCAA tournament in 1988 in the regional finals.  (Temple star Mark Macon made only 6 of 29 shots in that game, otherwise it might've been a different story!) Believe it or not, a viewer complained to the station about my comments, saying "You shouldn't hate. That's the reason the world is in the shape that it's in."

People need to realize that "hating" in sports is not the same as in life.  Hating a player or team doesn't mean you're going to try to kill anyone; it's a "healthy hatred" that simply means you're going to root against them.  Oftentimes,  if your own favorite team is out of the running, rooting against a player or team is the only motivation to watch a game and care about the outcome.

I can only think of two other things that cause people to have a rooting interest in a sporting event:

1) Fantasy sports, which is why it's so ridiculous that some sports "purists"  don't like fantasy football, baseball, etc.   Hey, anything that gives people a rooting interest  is good for sports.  

2) Gambling, which is the only exception to that statment, because people sometimes bet their rent money and mess up their lives, and because sometimes money can change hands and influence NBA referees.

But rooting against people you don't like is a big part of sports. Before he became the world heavyweight champion in 1964, Muhammad Ali (who was still known as Cassius Clay at the time), bragged and berated his opponents and made himself an anti-hero; this was his away of insuring that people would "hate" him and come to his fights in hopes of seeing him lose.  He got the idea from a wrestler named Gorgeous George, who also specialized in making people love to hate him.

As a kid, I tended to go exactly the opposite of the way the media tried to direct me. When Ali beat Sonny Liston for the title, the newspapers made it sound as if the devil himself had won and the world was going to end, but  I loved Ali. On the other hand, I hated the teams that the TV networks tried to force down my throat.  Back then, in the 60's, they put Notre Dame's football team on TV almost every week, and placed them on a pedestal,  and, even though I was a kid,  I instinctively rebelled against being told which team to root for, and always "hated" Notre Dame, to this day.  But I never hated the Fighting Irish' basketball team, because they didn't get the same kind of TV treatment.

In the same way, I developed a "healthy hatred" of the Dallas Cowboys.  How could the TV networks decide that one team was "America's Team?"  And when I moved to Philly in the late 70's, I found a city full of people who "hated" the Cowboys as much as I did, and so I felt instantly at home. Becoming an Eagles fan gave me all the more reason to "hate" the 'Boys, and with an arrogant group of players who got caught doing all sorts of crazy things, coupled with an idiot coach who actually got busted carrying a gun into an airport, the Cowboys gave us all plenty of additional  reasons to feel a "healthy hatred" toward their team.

Which brings us back to LeBron, because similar to Notre Dame, I don't root against Dallas' basketball team just because they're from the same city as those football fools. And I really hope the Mavs find a way to beat the Heat, especially Lebron.LeBron James photo: Getty Images

I don't want LeBron to win because I don't think he's a champion in the true sense of the word.  A couple of years ago, my barber asked who was the best player in the NBA, Kobe Bryant or LeBron?  I went with LeBron, because I didn't like Kobe.  Didn't like the fact that, after winning several championships with Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe wanted Shaq gone so he could be the MAN.  

But I looked at it differently  after watching Lebron leave Cleveland and join Dwyane Wade in Miami because LeBron didn't want to be the MAN.  LeBron  doesn't want the pressure of being the guy who has to take the shot at the end of the game.  He wants to be able to defer to Wade.  So how can LeBron be the best player in the NBA when he's not even the MAN on his own team?

Turns out my barber was  right to pick Kobe, and I was wrong;  I now admire Kobe for wanting to take the pressure on his own shoulders, while LeBron shunned it.   That's why it's absolutely idiotic for Scottie Pippen to make a statement recently that LeBron may be better than Michael Jordan was.  Pippen, of all people, should know that Michael was the MAN.  When the game was on the line, the ball was going to Jordan, and he wasn't going to pass off to Pippen. He was going to put the team on his shoulders and take the risk of being the hero or goat--and almost always  came away the hero.  

By contrast, even if the Miami Heat beat Dallas and win the NBA title, it won't be Lebron's title. Wade is number one and LeBron is only 1-A.  A perfect illustration of that came in Game Three last night, when Wade took over the Miami offense late in the 4th quarter of a close game, scoring the  7 straight points for the Heat.  At that point, analyst Mark Jackson said, "If you're the Dallas Mavericks,  you have to get the ball out of Dwyane Wade's hands, and make him pass it to someone else, even if it's LeBron. "

That pretty much says it all. Wade already has won a title without LeBron. The reverse is not true.

The strange thing is, I agree with the talk show guys who say LeBron has the best all around game in NBA history. (The only player I can think of who can even challenge LeBron in terms of shooting , passing, ballhandling, defense, and rebounding is Oscar Robertson.)  But the question that's always surrounded LeBron is whether he can handle the pressure at crunch time. And frankly, I didn't  used to agree with those who questioned his courage when he was in Cleveland.  

But LeBron apparently agreed with the critics himself,  so he signed on with Miami, orchestrating a deal with two other star players, rather than allowing someone to build a team around him.  And now, regardless of who wins the title, LeBron has already established this--he is not the MAN.

So if the Heat  win the trophy this year, LeBron should make sure Wade gets it first and parades it around. And when Dwyane is done, LeBron can have a look at it.

But I'd still rather not see him get it at all.  

Billy Vargus is an Emmy Award Winner for Best Sports Anchor for 2008 and 2009. (Mid-Atlantic region, covering all of Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware.) Bill has been a TV sports anchor in the Philadelphia area for 18 years with the last 12 coming at Fox 29. He’s also had stops at Channel 10, Channel 12, plus at other television markets around the country.He has also served as the pre-game host for all Seventy-Sixers games in the past and also has acted in films, TV shows and commercials.

Billy V can be contacted at billv@philly2philly.com

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11:57 PM
Wed Jun 8 2011
Good column, even if I disagree slightly

Billy V,

Nice to see your work here, and share some space on this page with you.

I'm in a bit of a minority in that I'm rooting for Miami (even if I should have more of a soft spot for Dirk, J-Kidd and company or more hatred for the Heat). as I've always liked both Wade and LeBron. Yes, the latter part of that equation became tougher after "The Decision", but I get some of the hate toward him, but don't share in it.

Now, in Game 4, LBJ threw in a clunker. But otherwise, he has always been a very good playoff performer.  I hated how he left Cleveland, and it would've been nice if he stayed, but so what?  He had nothing around him there, and they only contende dbecause he was the best playe rint he league the last few years.

Anyway, we can agree to disagree here, but it's good to see you in print, and I hope you can check out my "interviews" every Thursday here.