NBA fans have made their choice, and they didn’t pick Kobe Bryant.
But no one should be surprised at who supplanted Kobe at the top of the NBA popularity charts. In an ESPN poll, the King has been officially crowned as the fan favorite and there’s no reason to believe LeBron James won’t stay on top for the foreseeable future.
Three seasons ago, LeBron already had the otherworldly numbers, which are always attractive to consider when selecting players whom fans love most. Numbers, however, have always been an empty barometer of an athlete’s fame. Pile up a scoring title or two and win Olympic gold and watch how the popularity polls shoot upward.
Win a NBA title and, well … perceptions change dramatically. LeBron now has a pair of titles and he looks as if he’ll lead the Miami Heat to another one next season. They should win again because they have the best player in the game. The Heat might have the best player ever.
As much as you want to hate LeBron – I’m a native Clevelander, so I’m almost obliged to hate him – you must respect the excellence of his game. It has matured just as he has. The aloft air that marked his seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers has given way to a more Michael Jordan-esque persona. LeBron is more polished in how he presents himself, smoother with the way he handles media.
Yet landing the title of the game’s most popular performer has less to do with how a man packages himself for the masses and more to do with the quality of his play. A whole lot of NBA players have embraced a public profile better than LeBron, but their names don’t make the Top 10. To get there, you at least have to be in the conversation about having Top 10 talent.
LeBron has long been in that conversation and he and Kobe have traded the No. 1 spot for the past half-dozen years or so. Now that the popularity title belongs to LeBron, he’ll hold on to it for a while.
How could he not?
Kobe’s game is on the slide and LeBron’s game is nearing its prime. At 28, LeBron is still putting sheen on it, honing it with hours and hours of practice, producing better and better performances from season to season. It helps that he has a benchmark to follow in Jordan.
In many ways, LeBron seems to see himself in the same way that Jordan saw himself: cool, confident and consistent. Roll the basketball onto the arena floor and Jordan shined.
That’s what LeBron has done in his ascent to the top of the popularity list. He may not work the crowd like a politician, but he does know the value of a smart photo op. He won’t again make a “Decision” that will undo what he has built in Miami.
Both he and Kobe have lived life well after a mistake. They played through the mistake and the results have been the kind of appreciation that most athletes never achieve. A lot of them make money, but not a lot of them can win titles and hearts like Kobe and now LeBron.
So hail to the King!
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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