(Sports Network) - The LeBron James bandwagon is overflowing ever since he won his first NBA championship ring last June. Truth is, some people need to give up their seats.
The Miami Heat will play just like they did last season. Other than that, the NBA climate is markedly different.
For one, the NBA was just opening up shop after an extended standoff between players and owners, resulting in the first seven weeks of the 2011-12 season getting sent down the drain. The Christmas Day contests were actually the first games of the season and fans rejoiced that the league was back in business.
But then there's this second, very conspicuous difference from last season: the energy around the Heat has changed significantly. It's night and day from where it was last year. The Heat are no longer derided for their style, head coach Eric Spoelstra is no longer second-guessed for everything he does and, of course, LeBron James is no longer public enemy No. 1.
The vitriol, which was on bubbling cauldron levels, is gone now. Replaced by a "welcome back" bear-hug from the fans and the media. After winning the MVP award in both the regular season and the Finals last season, James topped it off by leading Team USA to gold in the London Olympics. People were forced to change. It was embarrassing to keep hating on the dude.
It was only last year that much of the free world was against him. Things went from people hating LeBron to wondering why people hate LeBron to really wondering why people hate LeBron.
We all remember -- it went beyond normal fan disdain and pro athlete jealousy. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's crazy letter set it off and the flames spread.
It became a national event. It dominated sports news cycles like nothing any of us had ever seen. People who didn't know anything about basketball knew enough not to like LeBron. Even as recent as last February, he was rated No. 6 on a list of most-hated athletes compiled by the Nielsen's ratings people. It was unintelligible and, to boot, had an absurd shelf life. The dislike for him crossed over and went mainstream. It was the Gangnam Style of '10, '11 and half of '12.
It wasn't just that he left Cleveland, but how he left that angered people. He went to another team to try to win a ring. People went on and on with "back in the day" stories about how things were done a certain way in years past.
Then on June 21, it went away. Gone the next morning like a crescent moon. After the Heat won the championship it immediately went back to "Hey, LeBron's great, isn't he?" and "Maybe he is better than Jordan" and other similar sentiments on how awesome he is. Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year. That's not a performance-only award, that's given to the athlete the magazine feels had the biggest positive impact -- period. It's a popularity contest, just elevated to the pro ranks. It's essentially being named prom king of the sports world.
LeBron could have went full jerk-mode on people, but he kept it civil and only hinted at it in a interview with ESPN.
"It's a challenge when everything you do or say can be used against you," James said. "The thing that's helped me is that I've been watched and followed since I was 16 years old. They praise you, and you make one mistake and they bring you down. They praise you again and then bring you down again, so I've had a lot of hardships, but it all makes it sweeter in the end."
Granted, this turn of events isn't startling. Winning a ring has a certain halo-effect on things -- people even stopped saying Chris Bosh is soft -- and it's to be expected that perception changes when people succeed at the level James has in recent months. It's just hard for people to stay angry with a guy who, by all accounts, seems like a stand-up dude. No off-court drama, no allegations of any sort, no police blotter recognition, no nothing.
But a full embrace without an explanation seems unworthy. People should have to wear T-shirts that say, "I hated on LeBron, too. Forgive me."
For those people who never got down with the foolishness, the fact that scores of people are just going to plop down on their seat on the bandwagon is outrageous. What, you think people don't see you there, on your smartphone, sending out desperate texts to distract you from having to lift your head up and make eye contact with the common sense folk? You think you just sit there with the rest of the popular bandwagoners like it's all good, and take up a seat, while the too-school-for-cool set has to stand up? No way.
People say crazy things online and, then, if the pushback is sufficiently ugly, they erase it. A mea culpa, as it were. In real life, though, those pushbacks are fortified, and unless you do a full "my bad" apology, you have problems. The narrative changed so solidly as to make you wonder if people were really upset to begin with or just following the crowd. Either way, it shouldn't be forgotten.
When LBJ comes out on game day, he doesn't need cheers from a road crowd, but it's better -- and more deserving -- than what it had been and, hopefully, that chapter is fully closed.