"I like him," I said.
"Really? I hate that guy," the man said. "He's a punk."
It was a fascinating phenomenon, this LeBron James thing. Despite proving all season long that he was the best player in the league, James still might be the most polarizing figure in sports today. Some like him. Most can't stand him. And to me, that's weird.
In an era of sports dominated by scandal - performance-enhancing drugs, drunken driving, domestic violence, and felony criminal activity - James became a villain of epic proportions. Ray Lewis obstructed justice in a capital murder case and today he's considered the bastion of good character and leadership. Michael Vick served nearly two years in prison for running a dogfighting operation and we plead for his forgiveness. James had a television show and he became Public Enemy No. 1.
With James winning an NBA championship, worlds undoubtedly are collapsing. Within those worlds, there is now an affirmation that evil can triumph, and we have been taught since Sunday school that that could never be the case. Darth Vader is now running the church bingo. Vladimir Putin is moving Barack Obama out of the White House.
Those who think that James' winning a title might quell the discontented had better think again. Over the next few days, we will hear the excuses: He beat a young Oklahoma City Thunder team. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut. Let's see that fraud do it again, like Michael or Magic.
Hating James is an obsession that might not have a dial-down switch.
Even younger fans were affected. You'd think that youths born in the era of modern-day sports debauchery - where ego is appreciated, and often rewarded, more than talent - would get the James thing. And yet, I had a 19-year-old kid tell me that he thought James was faking his cramping injury at the end of Game 4 because he was afraid to fail in the final seconds.
If I were to write a book titled The Psychology of Sports Fans - don't worry, nothing is forthcoming, I'm too lazy - it would include this theory on the loathing of LeBron: Fans love superstars, they just don't love them when they get too big. When James did that television show to announce that he was "taking my talents to South Beach," he dug a wide moat that further separated him from the masses.
We already know these athletes are on a pedestal. We just don't want them to tell us they're on that pedestal, where we can't possibly touch them anymore. When James did that, without regard to how that might be interpreted by fans, he lost them.
But that's just a starting point. Allow me to provide more perspective on the LeBron James caper.
1. "The Decision." The idea to go on national television to announce that James would be going to the Miami Heat was hatched by his team of overzealous marketers, but he's the one who was on camera. You can say all you want about ESPN buying the concept, or that it ultimately gave a financial benefit to Boys and Girls Clubs. It was a colossal public relations mistake, and a product of ego out of control.
James has all but admitted that. But it wasn't the first time that a superstar succumbed to his ego. The great Michael Jordan endorsed $150 sneakers made by children in slave labor camps and refused to budge on the price even as those Air Jordans became the target of thieves and robbers.
2. The pep rally. How can we ever forget James' response to the moderator's suggestion about NBA championships at the staged rally at the American Airlines Center introducing the big three of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
"Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five . . . "
All right, it was obnoxious. But I guess none of us have ever seen a pep rally that pandered to a home crowd.
3. Joining forces. Folks have gotten crazy over the fact that James joined forces with two other stars to create a team that could win more easily.
So, let me get this straight: He was supposed to stay in Cleveland playing with stiffs on a team that had very little chance to draw enough good players to become capable of winning a championship?
Who does that? Roy Halladay didn't want to do it. Nobody here squawked when Cliff Lee decided to leave Texas for the Phillies. I have to laugh when I hear people say that Jordan or Larry Bird would never have done it. M.J. was enjoying the building of a championship team in Chicago - unlike Cleveland a major market, by the way. Bird was in Boston playing with Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, and Dennis Johnson. Yeah, sure. Both of them would have stayed, alone, in Cleveland.
4. Leaving Cleveland. I just hate the way he left Cleveland, the critics snipe.
Since when did we start caring about Cleveland? Players leave cities. That's what free agency is about. Don't forget that James played out the last year of his contract, risking injury and his financial future, so he could have that kind of a choice. I didn't realize that Cleveland had turned into Vatican City.
With confetti raining down as James embraced the Larry O'Brien Trophy on Thursday night, maybe it crossed his mind that he would never be universally accepted. After all, it is our right to like or dislike any athlete we choose.
But with LeBron James, it was clear that we may have denigrated his talents because his personality rubbed us the wrong way. If the NBA Finals taught us anything, maybe it taught us to grow up.
Mike Missanelli hosts a show from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 97.5-FM The Fanatic.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.