Two world championships seem to have healed some wounds for fans of LeBron James.
For the first time in four years, the Miami Heat forward is the most popular player in the NBA, according to the latest ESPN Sports Poll.
Nearly 13 percent (12.9) of NBA fans said James was their favorite player this season, allowing him to best Kobe Bryant (12.5) for the first time since the 2008-09 season. That was the only other season when James passed the Los Angeles Lakers star, the top pick by fans for five of six years from 2006-07 to 2011-12.
After "The Decision," James' approval rating slipped drastically. For his final season in Cleveland, 15.6 percent of fans called him their favorite, according to the ESPN Sports Poll taken after the 2009-10 season. But for his first two years with the Heat, James was called fans' favorite player by 10.2 and 9.4 percent, respectively.
But James became easier to love, thanks in part to his play on the court, which led to two titles and two Finals MVP awards. While casual fans of the league still didn't like him as much as they did at the height of his Cleveland days, the most recent ESPN Sports Poll shows that more avid NBA fans (18.9 percent) call James their favorite today than at any other point in his career.
The numbers show that James separated himself from Bryant thanks to greater support of the African-American population. Twenty-four percent of African-Americans said James was their favorite player this season compared to only 16 percent mentioning Bryant. James also skewed younger, as 18 percent of kids 12-17 said they preferred him while only 15 percent preferred Bryant.
The ESPN Sports Poll is conducted via telephone 350 days per year among a random national sample of Americans age 12 and older, including landline and cell phone-only respondents, and English and Spanish language interviews. Sports Poll has interviewed more than 400,000 Americans since 1994. In this study, 6,221 interviews were included from the first day of the NBA regular season through the last day of the NBA Finals.