Learning finally to not hate LeBron James

The determination shown by LeBron James to earn an NBA title is enough to turn the tide of criticism. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

I have a confession to make. It’s not easy to say, and I’m not proud of it, but … here goes:

I don’t hate LeBron James.

There. I said it.

This confession, of course, makes me an outlier. Someone far removed the American mainstream. A freak. An embarrassment to all who know me. In the past year, James has polled anywhere between the most-hated athlete and the sixth-most hated athlete. Not on the Heat. Not in the NBA. In the world. Most-hated in the world.

How did it come to this point? How did I lose the LeBron hatred virtue? It’s tough to say.

What’s for sure is that it’s not a bandwagon fan thing. I don’t have the bandwagon fan makeup. My team allegiances are locked in. Now that LeBron has a ring, I haven’t purchased a No. 6 Heat jersey. I don’t have any Heat T-shirts. I haven’t even ordered this 8-bit video game-inspired Heat champions T-shirt, as tempting as it might be. I’m not a LeBron James fan, I’m just … I’m just … I’m just no longer a LeBron hater.

It doesn’t get easier to say. But there it is.

Looking back, perhaps this non-hatred cancer that has grown inside me took root with “The Decision.” The made-for-TV event was arrogant and unnecessarily cruel to Cleveland fans. “BOOOOOOOO!” I said along with everyone else, taking up my Twitter torch and pitchfork. “Down with the LeBron! He is the most loathsome athlete in all the land! Let’s all wish him nothing but ill until his dying day!” I was there. I was feeling it. My hating heart was full of black, rotten joy.

But even then, there was this nagging thought: “Well, his announcement did generate $6 million for charities, with $2.5 million going to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.” Didn’t all that good coming from a mishandled and tone-deaf announcement by a sports free agent count for something? Did LeBron at least deserve to be hated less than athletes who have been involved in violent crimes? Violent crimes rarely are done with a charitable tie-in, right?

No. I hid those thoughts deep inside of me. Poured some hate bile over it. Covered them up a bit more with some “Hey, is LeBron starting to lose his hair?” jokes. BALDY! Bald and bad. Maybe only 99 percent bad, with the $6 million in charity being the 1 percent not bad. But the charity part was probably just a cynical ploy by James to dupe people into thinking he is capable of good.

I wouldn’t be fooled. Those kids helped by those millions would know the money was stained. “No thanks. I’m not attending an after-school program financed by LeBron. I am an 8-year-old with DIGNITY! Also, what was the deal with the shirt he was wearing for The Decision?”

Then came the introductory extravaganza/pre-championship celebration -- complete with pyrotechnics! -- at American Airlines Arena, at which LeBron clearly guaranteed no less than eight championships. We all heard him say it! “Hate me until I win eight titles! Then continue hating me, if you’d like, but at least maybe respect me then!” That’s what he was telling us, right? And so we obliged.

Sure, James was not the first athlete to sound gobsmackingly cocky or make outlandish predictions. It’s kind of an athlete requirement. Michael Jordan, whom James is constantly and negatively compared to, showed in his Hall of Fame speech to be one of the most arrogant people in recorded history. Heck, even Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco recently declared himself the best quarterback in the NFL. But … pyrotechnics! A bit much, don’t you think? Plus, much of that $6 million Decision charity money was probably already spent by the time the Heat had their little rally. Hate! Hate! Hate!

My hatred was refreshed. I felt ALIVE!

Then came the 2010-2011 season. There was a poor start to the season for the Heat. Losing streaks. And then, most magical of all, the Heat blew a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals with LeBron shrinking in crucial moments. LeBron had failed to attain what he wanted most in life! He took a gamble, decided to play for a new team in a new city, even though he knew it would anger many people, and it didn’t work out for him. So awesome. We all had a national high-five. Hate wins!

But out of nowhere, doubts started to creep in again. LeBron was only 26 years old. Is a person, even someone as deplorable as James, unredeemable at that age? He still hadn’t, to my knowledge, committed any actual crimes. What if he learned from his mistakes and got better? What’s the point of rooting against the greatest player in the NBA to win a title? What was wrong with me? Was my hate broken?

Then came this year. LeBron laid waste to the NBA. In the regular season. But all that did was set him up for more pressure in the postseason. Would he fail again? He almost did against the Pacers. And also against the Celtics. And then in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

But with each stumble, he got better. I started to … oh, my … I started to almost root for him. He seemed like a fairly good-natured guy. In some perverse way I enjoyed seeing a great talent improve and reach his potential. I enjoyed seeing someone respond to criticism in such a definitive and determined way. And then there was the pure joy in James’ face as he hugged the NBA championship trophy.

Ugh. It was final. I didn’t hate LeBron James anymore. I appreciated his determination and love of the game. I appreciated being able to see him play in his prime.

I didn’t hate LeBron James anymore. I hated myself.