Despite the summertime hostility directed toward LeBron James, and in contradistinction to insistence otherwise, the Miami Heat have not been particularly villainous this season. Miami is disliked, probably more than any other team, but the gap between it and other elite teams is more crack than chasm. Consider Boston, which must regularly confront geographic enmity, Paul Pierce intolerance, and the burgeoning Fuck a KG movement. The Celtic haters are legion, and Boston might actually win something, so the hate means more.
To the extent that any Heat is disliked, LeBron either bears or inspires the most vitriol, however it does not feel all that cool or warranted to hate him anymore, partially because he has maintained a fairly low profile this year. James hasn't stoked the flames of fan antipathy in traditional ways. He has not feuded with beloved figures, he has not injured anyone on purpose, he has not acted like the oblivious diva that we like to say he can be during his lowest moments. (Chris Bosh is another story: fair or not, it's fun to marginalize him.) He said a few things about the union and contraction that appeared to piss off journalists more than anyone else. Were Miami a more legitimate threat to win a title this season, that looming possibility might inspire stronger feelings, but until Miami finds a Kendrick Perkins (or Boston gets hurt), the Heat will not end the year with a coronation that echoes what we saw at their introduction.
All the same, some people do cling to the narrative of a dastardly Miami, perhaps none more so than...the Heat, themselves. It's weird and somewhat dissonant. True, there have been few feel-good marketing campaigns this year featuring LeBron, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh. But frankly, there has been little to say about any of them beyond the confines of traditional basketball conversations. Wade's T-Mobile ads are the most memorable contribution the Big Three have made to NBA culture so far this season, and while they satirize the tabloid news cycle and the fury that attended Heat news this summer, the ads feel played out, not poignant. For so much screaming about such a celebrated union, the anticipation appears to have exhausted most of the available oxygen.
Like most things, it's LeBron's fault. Or it might as well be. James's "What Should I Do" ad seemed to cauterize the wounds endured this summer, rather than prolonging the pain or launching a series of reprisals. It was a coda, not an introduction. Some of that effect may owe to how easily, and quickly, the ad was lampooned; critical response from media and fans robbed LeBron's defiant moment of its gravitas. Moving so swiftly to answer James, to cast his ad as either a brilliant ethering or a clueless misstep along the same ill-found path, crowded out his message and seemed to indicate general Heat fatigue. Judging the ad, regardless of direction, meant it could be processed and disposed of swiftly. People were tired, and hating requires far more energy. So Heat haters, far from vituperative and animated, quickly settled into a muted kind of loathing, and the Heat have gone about business--at times struggling but largely playing well--in the glare of celebrity, but without the elevated temperature of hatred.
Don't tell Miami, though. The Heat seem to think there's a war going on outside. Game after game, Miami is introduced to a C-Murder soundtrack:
Conspicuously missing, no matter how understandable the reasons, is the original chorus:
Fuck them other n***as cause I'm down for my n***as (What)Angry, profane, spiteful, violent, retributive, cloistered. "Down 4 My N***az" is the soundtrack to the season the Heat expected to have. Only, they aren't having it, as noted. The basketball intelligentsia made its peace with the Heat long ago. Some fans may hate the team, but enough either do not, or just do not care, to the point that James and Wade still started in the All-Star Game. Heat games on national television are broadcast with something resembling calm, the announcers seemingly happy to operate in the quiet epilogue of a story that may ultimately have been about nothing. (Or about everything--power, race, money, labor--but only in years to come.) Still, Miami soldiers on.
Fuck them other n***as cause I'm down for my n***as (What)
Fuck them other n***as, I ride for my n***as (What)
I die for my n***as/Fuck them other n***as (What)
Night in and night out, the Heat carry this mantle of hostility out onto their home floor. For each of the three All-Stars, it conjures something different. James has been his usual, brilliant self this season. Without mind-boggling numbers which the most optimistic James fan, or the most excited champion of spite (like me!), may have expected, he has made the Heat his own. Not only does he control the ball when it matters, but Wade has played a role as LeBron's second-in-command. James's steady demeanor, toned down from the exuberance he displayed in Cleveland, bespeaks a man toiling under the weight of expectation, some of it self-imposed. But not merely chastened or quiet, LeBron also has played with an air of dignity that contradicts The Decision and probably would not seem as strong were the Cavaliers not historically terrible. As though Miami's ascension and his game's devastating impact were inadequate, the sorry plight of a Cleveland team sinking swiftly has created a new and dazzling manner by which we can calibrate LeBron's preeminence. For his part, James has spoken kindly of Cleveland and otherwise focused on the task at hand, clawing back some of the respect he surrendered in July. The C-Murder track just isn't right for James under this light; he has been serious and spoken through example, but not insolent.
For Wade, meanwhile, the lasting impression is far more somber. Generally effective but intermittently out of sorts, Dwyane has occupied the role many forecasted for James. He has been supplanted as Miami's leading player. For years, his explosive style carried with it a noble air of martyrdom. He threw himself, often quite literally, into everything, from passing lanes to collapsing big men, and his regular ability to either win or go down furiously was heroic. Dwyane Wade was a wonderful loser when he had to be, and he made long odds a part of his appeal. He has never been a great winner, though, as his referee-aided championship surely reminds even some of his fans. Now, with his athletic exploits less mythic and his place on a winning team somewhat diminished, striding out as the Heat do each home game feels insincere. The bravado and assurance of the track no longer mesh with a player who seems like a lesser version of what he once was. Perception has hurt Wade more than any Heat, and his relative reticence has only reinforced the secondary lane in which he travels. He's like Magic--the bad rapper, not the bad television personality--on this track.
For no one, though, is the illusion of a season spent fighting more disconcerting than Bosh. It doesn't even bear explanation, really. After a summer during which he was happy to subordinate his will and persona to that of the teammates he hoped to gain, the specter of this lanky studio gangster with the disorienting facial hair (he's black, it's Asian) coming at an opponent fueled by C-Murder's bile is laughable. Sorry to be so literal, but C-Murder is in prison. Chris Bosh usually seems like he only eats when LeBron allows it, and as though he would punch with the underside of his fist. Though, this does make Bosh the perfect Heat for today's analysis. The Heat are not who they thought they would have to be, and Bosh lives it.