Five years ago, when LeBron James was still on the Heat and NBA TV's The Starters were still on the Internet as The Basketball Jones, I had a monthly TBJ column called the LeBron James Hate Index. The concept was simple: I judged current events in the world of LeBron -- he won 27 games in a row, he blazed through the playoffs, he came back against the Spurs in the finals -- and rated, on a scale from one to ten, how much I hated him that month. (10/10 for that last one, natch.) Because I did hate LeBron: I hated his corny sense of humor, I hated his overwhelming media presence, I hated his businessman's approach to basketball, and (shockingly) I hated how he routinely beat all the players I liked better than him.
The columns have since been scrubbed from the Internet -- along with the rest of The Basketball Jones' digital archives, sadly. In the case of the LeBron James Hate Index, though, that might be for the best: I enjoyed writing them at the time, but I can't imagine they've aged terribly well. My reasons for hating LeBron were always stupid and arbitrary, and I acknowledged as much at the time -- writing the column was mostly a chance for me to vent about being increasingly (and understandably) alone in simply not enjoying LeBron's incredible success, and standing up for my right to feel that way. It was Sports Hate that I felt for LeBron, after all, not actual hate, which I believed was supposed to be stupid and arbitrary and objectively unjustifiable.
But I wouldn't do the column today. What felt winking and irreverent to me in 2013 seems mostly obnoxious and pointless to me in 2018. I still don't root for LeBron, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't softened on him over the years. He's been an outspoken activist and thoughtful social leader at a time when basketball (and maybe society in general) desperately needed him to be one, and now that the Warriors have elevated to full basketball enlightenment, he'll probably never again seem the bully on the NBA block the way he was in 2013. And I've long thought he was the best player in basketball, and on the shortlist of greatest players ever -- one of the more regrettable parts of my Hate Index column was how from afar, I probably looked like one of the fools who clung to the notion that he was soft, or overrated or (gulp) not a real winner like Kobe or MJ.
I mention all of that to say this: Although I still can't help but hate a little, I acknowledge that LeBron is the greatest, I think he's basically a mensch (and much smarter than me and 95% of the people writing about him), and I understand that Sports Hate isn't some inalienable right that allows me to write whatever I want about a generally well-intentioned professional athlete. But I'm still rooting against LeBron signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, and, well, I hope that's OK.
First off, let's make this clear: LeBron James playing a game with the Sixers is still most likely never going to come to fruition. It's a possibility, but one of many, and one we will (in all likelihood) have no actual hard evidence of until the moment LeBron and Lee Jenkins announce his next destination to the world. I have no idea where LeBron will sign and neither do you, and while there's an argument to be made for him coming to Philly, it's not necessarily more compelling than one where he goes to Los Angeles, or Houston, or New York -- or one where he stays in Cleveland. Until it happens, it probably won't happen.
Whether or not LeBron to Philly is actually A Thing, though, it appears unavoidable that we are going to spend the next four-plus months treating it like one. As the Sixers won seven games in a row and edged themselves into the thick of the East's playoff race on the impressively sturdy-seeming backs of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, fans have been increasingly eager to point out the sales pitch the Colangelos could present LeBron on joining the league's most promising young squad. Even noted league prognosticator and sporadic Process hater Bill Simmons concluded for The Ringer that the Sixers would be the ideal landing spot for LeBron in the autumn of his NBA career, pointing out the "growing 'LeBron to Philly' buzz" and declaring that the possibility "might make Michael Jordan nervous."
Then, of course, the three billboards: As if by divine providence, there appeared in the skies of downtown Cleveland yesterday a mighty trio of advertisements meant to further entice The King to choose Philadelphia as his ultimate domain. One cleverly posited his No. 23 as the perfect on-court complement to our No. 9, No. 33, No. 25 and No. 21 (see you 'round No. 17, see you question mark No. 20), one made the fill-in-the-blanks-yourself suggestion "Complete The Process," and the last explicitly stated "#PHILLYWANTSLEBRON." All three, courtesy of Power Home Remodeling (official aluminum siding installers of The Process?), make one point abundantly clear: Philly fans will not be shy in their courtship of LeBron James from now until his Day of Decision.
And to them, I say: Go nuts. LeBron coming to Philadelphia would, objectively speaking, be an incredible thing -- the first time since Wilt Chamberlain that the league's most dominant player would arrive in the City of Brotherly Love while still in the full blossom of his greatness. For fans who would view being gifted LeBron as the final karmic retribution for the combined eight seasons (eight!!) we've had to anxiously wait for Andrew Bynum, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, I could not argue or find fault. A Sixers team with LeBron James would instantly become the truest championship contender we've had since we actually won the thing in '83. That's not nothing, and it'd be silly to disregard it as such.
To me, though, it's not everything. All of sports, even championships, remains meaningless without some degree of context. Successful professional basketball isn't an inherent good; it won't cure cancer or mend political divides or ensure that Get Out wins Best Picture. It only means what we invest in it, and that's a personal thing for all of us -- which no two fans, even Process Trusters, will define the exact same way. And at some point in the next four months of inevitable LeBronathoning, we will all have to ask ourselves: Which team are you really rooting for, The Sixers or These Sixers?
Many will answer the latter -- that the team winning is the most important thing, no matter who's on it, and why not do so with maybe the best player ever? -- which, again, fair enough. But I think even the most ardent LeBron-to-Philly enthusiasts would have to acknowledge that once he arrived, the team's culture would never be the same. As amazing as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are, as inspiring as Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie was, as bewildering as Markelle Fultz may remain, it'd all instantly get shaded in the Total Eclipse of LeBron. The Process would essentially go from one of the most fascinating experiments in pro sports history to The King's Twitter wallpaper.
Perhaps the LeBron-to-Philly crew nods at all of that and says, "OK, and...?" After all, while it was often reduced to a Tanking Uber Alles philosophy, the main overarching tenet of the Process was really about doing whatever it took to land stars. Hinkie believed that the easiest way for him to do that was through the draft, and when he started, it probably was. He didn't get to stick around long enough to get the chance to recruit the likes of LeBron in free agency, but rest assured, if he believed he had the chance, he would not have balked at it. Signing LeBron would be a validation of The Process, not a repudiation of it -- proof that Hinkie had the right idea all along in building his core through the draft, and maintaining maximum cap and asset flexibility around them for when that core blossomed into a team an established superstar might actually want to join.
But for many of us who've spent the last half-decade getting attached to the human element of The Process, it would still be a bummer. It's not just The Sixers we've been rooting for these five-plus years, it's a group of players (and a coach) who we've suffered with like few other fanbases in history -- through countless catastrophic injuries, philosophical sieges, surreal controversies, and losses upon losses upon endless, soul-sucking losses. Did we go through all of that with these guys to see them become LeBron's backing band, the supporting cast in his hero's journey for the perfect end to his NBA narrative? Would we be OK with him insisting upon arrival that we deal Dario or Markelle for more veteran help? Are we ready for him to shade Simmons' locker room demeanor on his Instagram, to complain about Embiid's work ethic through the media, to visibly overrule Brett Brown in a crucial late-game huddle? Because even in a best-case LeBron-to-Philly scenario, we're almost certainly signing up for at least some of that.
For me -- and I can only really speak for myself here -- the increased championship odds aren't worth it. To be fair, I've never been a championship-or-bust guy anyway: My favorite non-Sixers teams of the century have been the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns and the Grit-n-Grind Memphis Grizzlies, lovable teams with iconic personalities and game-changing NBA identities, but zero finals appearances. If I had the choice between the Process Sixers mimicking the six-year run of consistent quasi-contention those teams enjoyed in their prime, or a one-and-done title team like the '06 Heat or '11 Mavs, I'd go the former without hesitation. There just aren't enough rings to go around in pro sports for them to be the *only* thing that matters.
But more importantly, I'd rather just see how far this crew can go on their own -- specifically, as led by Joel Embiid, a guy I think most of us believe to be good enough to be the best player on a championship team someday. Embiid is our guy, like no Sixer ever quite has been before. Allen Iverson didn't nickname himself The Process. Charles Barkley didn't fight his way back from two years of lower-body injuries and Shirley Temple abuse. Julius Erving didn't joke about how Dario was never coming over. Sixers fans have a bond with JoJo that we could never share with LeBron, because he's been here through the bad times, because he led us to the good times, because he's embraced everything that comes with being here and because he's never been anyone's but ours. To ask him to hand the team over to LeBron when he's barely had a chance to play 100 games for Philly feels wrong to me.
Does that mean that if the Sixers actually do land LeBron, I'll start rooting against them (or him)? Of course not. It'll be an adjustment after having sports-hated LeBron for over a decade, but it's one I could probably make in time -- I have a feeling that getting to watch the maybe-GOAT play for your home team has a certain persuasiveness to it. And I'd be happy for the team that they'd be almost guaranteed a deep playoff run, that they'd get to benefit from LeBron's passing and general basketball IQ, that they'd be on national TV practically every week. But I'd always wonder what would've happened if we hadn't taken the shortcut -- if we'd kept it pure, as Michael Levin put it on this week's Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast. Could the guys have gotten there on their own, or with a less-planetary free agency star in LeBron's stead? How much more special would that have felt?
Maybe for you, the answer is none. Maybe you think all titles are created equal, or are just desperate enough for one after 35 years that -- as with the Eagles -- it doesn't hugely matter to you who the team's QB1 is that leads them there. Totally fair, and I wouldn't try to talk to you out of it if so.
All I ask is that you let me have my reservations about LeBron-to-Philly, without it becoming an Us vs. Them thing. Reasonable Process Trusters can and will differ on this point, and I fear it may turn into a right-side-of-history-type debate that leads to the kind of mockery and scorn usually reserved for writers who insist the Sixers should've given Jameer Nelson a three-year contract in 2016. I won't be as insufferable as that, or as I was about LeBron five years ago. Just please allow me to hope LeBron signs elsewhere this summer as I quietly, respectfully hate in peace.