LeBron James and the phrase player hater were both born in the 1980s, the latter coined by a gangsta rapper in Richmond, Calif., called Filthy Phil, whose 1990 track Player Haters defined a specific mix of envy and anger, born of inadequacy and always aimed upward: "Player hater is a label/For those who hate players/Why? They ain't able."
In the short history of playa hating (as the phenomenon came to be known), no American athlete has been more widely "hated" than LeBron (as that phenomenon has come to be known). Ten years to the week since he appeared as a 17-year-old high school junior on the cover of this magazine—billed as THE CHOSEN ONE—LeBron is a different kind of Chosen One, chosen most recently as the sixth Most Disliked Athlete in a Forbes magazine poll, trailing mostly men who've been to prison or married to a Kardashian.
LeBron is also the Unchosen One. When Larry Bird was asked by ESPN's Bill Simmons whom he'd rather have played with—LeBron or Kobe Bryant—the unimpeachable Celtics legend replied, "It would have probably been more fun to play with LeBron, but if you want to win and win and win, it's Kobe."
And while Bird went on to say that James is the best player in the NBA "by far," Larry Legend's comments were seized on by a nation of haters to mean just the opposite: LeBron Sucks. That domain name, LeBronSucks.com, was offered for sale on Craigslist for $10,000 in 2010, days before James announced on his infamous prime-time television special that he was taking his talents to South Beach, unleashing hell.
The staggering ineptitude of The Decision made LeBron, in his own words, an easy target. "If someone wants to get a point across, just throw LeBron's name in there," he said last week. "You could be watching cartoons with your kids, and if you don't like it, you say, 'Blame LeBron.' If you go to the grocery and they don't have the milk that you like, you just say, 'It's LeBron's fault.'"
Fans aren't yet picketing his games—Hey, hey, LBJ, how many milks did you spill today?—but they might as well. The hashtags #ItsLeBronsFault and #BlameItOnLeBron blossom on Twitter as parodies of playa hating. (Example: "There is no decent Chinese restaurant in Athens, Texas: It's LeBron's Fault.") When LeBron took to Twitter to praise Blake Griffin's Jan. 30 dunk on Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder center responded by implying that LeBron is not even a great player. "If you're an elite player," Perkins said, "plays like that don't excite you."
He has been called, on the cover of a recent book, the Whore of Akron. He is ripped for his hairline (receding), his stat line (also receding, in the fourth quarter of every game, goes the received wisdom) and even for riding his bicycle to games in Miami. Yes, the bike has KING JAMES emblazoned on the frame, but for LeBron, everything has become no-win. (And no-Schwinn. He bought a stake in his bike's manufacturer, Cannondale, in 2007. You buy a bike, he buys a bike company: These are the seeds of playa hating.)
His factory-issue vanity appears no worse than that of many very famous people, especially among those who were dubbed the Chosen One in high school. And yet, it seems, the two-time league MVP, with a spotless record off the court, will never live down The Decision.
But here's the thing about LeBron. He has lived it down, even if you haven't. LeBron seems gallingly content with his life. After the Heat lost in the NBA Finals, he addressed his age peer, the Playa Hater: "All the people that were rooting for me to fail, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before they woke up today. They got the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want with me and my family and be happy with that."
And so he has. On New Year's Eve, the day after his 27th birthday, LeBron proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, the mother of their two sons. "She's happy, my family's happy," he said. "That's what it's all about."
That's what it's all about? Happiness? Who knew. A decade ago, when he appeared on his first SI cover, LeBron had already been featured on a mock SI cover. It hung in his mother's apartment in West Akron, beneath the billing: IS HE THE NEXT MICHAEL JORDAN?
Turns out, he isn't. LeBron will not likely win six rings. But he just gave his fiancée one, and maybe—just maybe—that's fulfilling too.
LEBRON IS RIPPED FOR HIS HAIRLINE, HIS STAT LINE AND EVEN FOR RIDING HIS BICYCLE TO GAMES IN MIAMI.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
The Brazilian soccer club Corinthians last week announced that it would confine star striker Adriano to a hotel at the team's headquarters so that it could monitor the player's food intake and control his ballooning weight.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
PAULO WHITAKER/REUTERS (ADRIANO)