Basketball’s new villains

Meet the Miami Heat, the pro basketball team America loves to hate.

Its players are booed in packed arenas across the country. Fans bring homemade signs. They write derisive messages on their T-shirts. And they shout insults.

When the Heat comes to Staples Center on Saturday afternoon to play the Lakers, the team is likely to get the same unwelcome treatment.

The primary target of this anger is LeBron James, one of the best players of his generation. He left Cleveland, where he was beloved, for Miami to team with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in hopes of winning a National Basketball Assn. championship.

The nation can’t seem to forgive James for the way he left Cleveland ... or embrace his new team.


As much as America likes winners and champions, especially Cinderella teams, it doesn’t think much of sports teams, such as Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees, that buy their way to the top year after year.

Miami is experiencing the “Yankee Syndrome,” said Bob Corb, director of the sports psychology program at UCLA.

“We want to take our shots at people at the top,” Corb said. “Part of that is done out of jealousy. People are happy to see Miami struggling. They’ve become the new evil empire. People like to root against them.”

Fans gloated when the Heat got off to a surprisingly slow start, winning eight of its first 15 games as headline-snaring stories were leaked that James was unhappy with Erik Spoelstra, the 40-year-old Miami coach. Miami shook off its slow start and had won 13 of its last 15 games going into Thursday night’s contest against the Phoenix Suns, but people flock to games to see them lose. The Heat is the NBA’s No. 1 draw on the road.

Star-laden teams, of course, are nothing new in the NBA. The Lakers’ “Showtime” teams of the 1980s featured Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. The Boston Celtics of that era had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. But the Heat elicits negative responses because of the perception that the team was assembled more like a cartel than as an organic array of draft picks, trade acquisitions and occasional big-name free-agent signings.

“They cheated the system,” said Nate Rose, 32, a Wizards fan and financial executive in Washington. “If you can’t win on your own, you’ve got to go get all your friends. That’s what LeBron did, that’s what Wade did, that’s what Bosh did.”

In a game Saturday in Washington, there was a loud cheer when James skidded a few feet along the court after being tripped. The Wizards played well that night and almost won, but it didn’t prevent a Wizards fan from verbally jousting with Miami supporters who plucked at their jerseys and grinned at the victory.

James was harangued in Cleveland this month when he played against his former team. Angry fans wore “Lyin’ King” T-shirts and booed whenever he touched the ball.

Bosh, the least accomplished of the three stars, was greeted by fans’ chants of “overrated” last week in New York and was serenaded the following night with sing-song chants of “coattails” while shooting free throws against Washington.

Wade, who won an NBA championship with the Heat in 2006, escapes most of the ridicule in other cities, though in Cleveland, fans derisively chanted, “Scottie Pippen” at Wade, a disparaging reference to Michael Jordan’s sidekick on the Chicago Bulls’ championship teams of the 1990s.

“We hate them because they’re front-runners,” said Peter Stratoudakis, 20, a student at Stony Brook University on Long Island who saw the Knicks lose to the Heat last week in New York. “They think that just because they got three of the most talented players out there that they can win.”

The Heat struggled early this season when James and Wade had trouble adjusting to each other’s score-at-will abilities, but Miami is now routinely beating teams and, perhaps adding to the nationwide jealousy factor, enjoying it.

“I’m having a blast,” said Bosh, 26, who left behind a disappointed following in Toronto to play with James, 25, and Wade, 28.

Added James: “People boo me in certain cities -- they boo in every city, honestly, besides Miami -- because they appreciate the way I play basketball. You look at things and you say, ‘One day they’ll appreciate me as a person.’ That’s the only thing for me that matters. You can’t get too involved in how the fans treat you.”

The loathing for the Heat also is evident when Miami is not in town. When the Lakers recently played in New Jersey, Lakers fans went out of their way to compliment their star, Kobe Bryant, with snide references that could be interpreted only as knocks on James. One fan wore a T-shirt that read, “Kobe: Thank you for not quitting on your team.”

“Sports fans in the United States have a one-sided relationship with our heroes,” said Corb, the sports psychologist. “Whoever we fall in love with ... we expect them to be humble, we expect them to be loyal, we expect them to be respectful. When they fail to do those things for us, we turn on them 180 degrees.”

Corp said James brought the fans’ animosity on himself with the very public, orchestrated way he handled the announcement that he would be joining the Heat in an hourlong ESPN telecast. “Had he not gone on that special TV program, had he just come on as genuine -- ‘This is the hardest decision I’ve ever made on my life, it’s tough to leave Cleveland’ -- if he handled it that way, people would be agonizing along with him.”

Popular Lakers forward Ron Artest, suspended for 73 games after going into the stands and punching a fan in 2004, advises to James to relax.

“Just let it happen naturally.” Artest said. “It’s entertainment and the people are entertained right now. Even if they boo, that’s entertainment.”

Being a villain, though, can be good for business.

“Angry people will still buy tickets to go yell at a team,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

People dislike James and the Heat now, but if Miami wins championships, that could change. Bryant’s image has been restored after the legal issues he had in 2003, thanks to the Lakers’ multiple NBA titles.

Could James eventually reverse things? He is seven years younger than Bryant, and Miami’s youthful roster is primed for years of success.

“It depends on how they handle it, and if they get humble and more gracious,” Corb said. “Or it could ... be the evil empire forever.”