The LeBron James effect: Gotta watch

The Eastern Conference finals just enjoyed ratings and viewership records for cable TV on TNT, according to Nielsen.com. Meanwhile, the ratings for this year's playoffs on ESPN were up 8 percent over last season, and were the most-viewed in ESPN history. Not only was regular-season viewership of NBA games up 45 percent over the previous season, it was up 30 percent over 1995-96, when folks were obsessed over Michael Jordan leading the Chicago Bulls to a 72-win season.

And television isn't the only place where increased interest in the NBA is reflected. NBA.com reports that page views are up 40 percent over last season, video streams are up 130 percent and NBA mobile downloads are up 75 percent. Traffic to NBA content on ESPN.com has increased dramatically as well, with some categories approaching triple-digit increases. If it's too soon to say the NBA is in the middle of a full-fledged renaissance, at the very least the league has seen a resurgence, probably even an explosion.

And it's entirely because of LeBron James.

OK, the Knicks getting Carmelo Anthony and making it back into the playoffs caused a little bump, as did the run of the Chicago Bulls, whose local viewership reached historic levels. Having so many big-market teams in the postseason mix (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philly, Dallas, Boston, Miami) is always good for a league tilted toward urban fans. But this, or 90 percent of it, is about LeBron. From the time he announced on July 8 that he was taking his talents to South Beach, more people cared about professional basketball in America than at any time since Jordan retired from the Bulls in 1998.

"The Decision" was roundly criticized by virtually everybody, but it was exactly -- flaws and all -- what the NBA needed. People who didn't have a strong opinion of James either way suddenly had them. Nobody seemed to straddle the line anymore. You liked him or hated him, liked or hated the Heat, and you could not or did not look away.

With LeBron and the Heat in the championship series, the NBA Finals has a chance to be the highest-rated and most-viewed Finals since the Orlando-Houston series in 1995 or even the Bulls-Portland series, Jordan's second Finals, in 1992. LeBron -- at least temporarily, and probably for the next few years -- has done for interest in the NBA what Tiger Woods did for interest in professional golf. LeBron and the Heat have become the tide that floats all boats.

Asked the other night in Chicago about LeBron's impact on the season, teammate Dwyane Wade said: "Once everybody gets over being mad, angry, whatever they are, they have to admit that it's remarkable how many people took an interest in our team, in the league, in professional basketball beginning that night [July 8]. People who never watched the NBA to that point became interested. … I think we know that now. People who never even watched professional sports became interested in our product. It's much bigger than us now; look at the interest in the entire league."

Even commissioner David Stern, who went on record as saying he wished LeBron had delivered the news differently, told FoxSports.com something similar a couple of months ago, when he commented, "When you have so many people tune into an event, some of whom have never watched a game before, it does raise the interest of a certain number of people to tune into the games."

So LeBron, ripped to shreds for the way he announced his "Decision" on ESPN in prime time, has made the league millions of dollars already this season. However awkward "The Decision" might have been, it won't damage the league the way a work stoppage would; quite the opposite, in fact. The inability to start next season on time would undo all the newfound popularity created by fascination over LeBron.

It's difficult to discern right now what percent of the people who tune in love LeBron or hate him. After Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Bulls, an estimated 114,000 people watched the Heat's Internet postgame show, including a significant number of viewers from Asia and Europe. A source close to the club's owner, Micky Arison, said Arison was shocked at the initial negative outpouring and that he didn't think the flashy introduction rally for LeBron/Wade/Chris Bosh was anything different than the summer-of-2004 block party for Shaquille O'Neal, who came over from the Lakers and immediately declared that the Heat would win a championship, which the team did in his second season in Miami. A person close to Arison said the owner wouldn't allow cameras at the celebration if he had it to do all over again. But that very celebration -- which enraged a great many people, including basketball Hall of Famers -- is another factor that prompted so many to line up with or opposite James and the Heat. It might have triggered as much fascination as "The Decision" itself.

Whatever; the league hasn't enjoyed this kind of wire-to-wire attention since the 1995-96 season, when Jordan, back for his first full season since 1992-93, commanded unprecedented interest. Jordan, of course, also enjoyed unprecedented popularity without villainy.

Frankly, LeBron doesn't have any of the stuff villains are made of, yet he has accepted being cast in that role.

LeBron doesn't play with any noticeable physicality, hardly ever fouls anybody hard, doesn't talk much -- if any -- trash by today's standards, and other than a couple of notable occasions of walking off the court without shaking hands after playoff series defeats (a trend that, annoyingly, seems to be on the increase across the league), has been guilty of nothing objectionable. He simply hasn't fit the villain's bill.

That, of course, changed the night of July 8, when he told America without first informing his home-town team and fans (who had supported him since high school) that he was dumping them. At that point, LeBron might as well have been Bill Laimbeer.

LeBron tends to dismiss any notion that he alone is primarily responsible for the rabid interest in the 2011 season, specifically mentioning in one conversation other factors, such as the Knicks' bounce with Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, the emergence of Derrick Rose in Chicago, the Lakers trying to three-peat and the rise of young stars like Blake Griffin.

Maybe LeBron is simply saving any gloating for a post-Finals celebration. If people were fascinated with Miami all through this season, will the interest be sustained if the Heat win a championship right away? Will the Heat become more villainous or will folks simply lose interest, especially if the Lakers and Celtics aren't worthy rivals going forward and teams such as the Bulls and Mavericks don't prove to be quite good enough to mount serious challenges in the next few seasons?

Asked the other night in Chicago about this season, about the interest he's generated to this point, particularly as a polarizing figure people can't get enough of, LeBron said, "I understand the backlash," before explaining that he has zero regret about his decision, from either a basketball or a financial standpoint. "There's about a month left to continue with the hate, and then we'll see what happens next year."

And with that, LeBron James smiled and walked into the NBA Finals, his image having changed dramatically since he appeared in the 2007 Finals: a much richer, more controversial, more hated, more internationally celebrated, more complex and more fascinating figure now than then.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.