LeBron James, the Underdog?

On the eve of the NBA finals, public opinion may be shifting in LeBron's favor

Posted Jun 04, 2015

Keith Allison/Flickr
Source: Keith Allison/Flickr

Like many of you, I have long been one of LeBron James’ most ardent critics.

I resented the comparisons to Jordan. I disliked his showy pre-game antics and his muscle-ly brand of basketball. I cringed at the way in which he “took his talents” to South Beach.

But last week, something strange happened. I actually felt the urge to root for LeBron.

Why? Certainly, he has been impressive on the court this post-season. With Kevin Love sidelined with a shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving playing at half-speed, LeBron is single-handedly willing his team to one victory after the next.

But exceptional play has been a hallmark of LeBron’s since he entered the league in 2003; it does little to explain why, now, I should change my opinion on LeBron.  

Perhaps psychology has the answer.

For the first time in his career, LeBron is beginning to show the slightest hints of vulnerability in his near-superhuman abilities. And, oddly enough, it is making him more likable.

In a press conference last week, LeBron commented, “There’s a sacrifice to your body when you want to win. You’re not going to feel as great as you’d like when you want to win. I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade it back for a healthy body to be sitting out of the playoffs. I’m OK with not being able to sleep at night because of a back or ankle knowing I can win.”      

Now 30 years old, LeBron may be beginning to realize that time is no longer on his side, and that the window to win championships is starting to close, even if ever so slightly. This, it appears, has produced a sense of urgency in LeBron that we have not witnessed in previous seasons.

Indeed, the dedication he is showing to his craft is inspiring. LeBron has gone into “lockdown mode,” separating himself from social media and other sources of distraction for the playoffs.

He showed exceptional composure in the hard-fought series against the Chicago Bulls. Trailing two games to one, Lebron nailed a buzzer beater to win game four that changed the tide of the series. (This was after he scratched a last-second play drawn up by Cavaliers head coach David Blatt, instead saying, “Give me the ball and get out of the way.”)

How bad he wants this title is evident to even the most casual fan. A championship ring this year would keep him on pace with Michael Jordan’s championship timeline. It would bring a long-awaited title to his hometown and put past acrimony over his decision to move to Miami to rest. (It would also give legitimacy to Nike’s presumptive “Together” ad campaign.)

LeBron has been the underdog before. He was an underdog in the 2006-07 NBA finals, when the San Antonio Spurs routed LeBron’s Cavaliers. In fact, in all of his previous seasons with the Cavs he was an underdog, to some extent.

But this time it feels different. Having just returned to Cleveland, and factoring in all the adversity the Cavaliers faced this season (at one point, people were questioning whether the team would even make the playoffs), it feels like LeBron is fighting this first true uphill battle of his professional career.

The oddsmakers agree. Not only are the Golden State Warriors favored to win the title, regular season MVP Stephen Curry has the edge over LeBron for most likely player to be crowned Finals MVP—another reminder that LeBron’s NBA “King” status may be in jeopardy.

And yet, in LeBron’s newfound vulnerability, many people (myself included) have found reason to like him more than ever before.

Indeed, psychological research shows that most people have a soft spot for the underdog. A study by Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, for example, asked a group of people who they would root for in a fictional basketball playoff series: the favorite or the underdog. Approximately 90% of people chose to root for the underdog. However, when those same people were informed that the underdog had won the first three games of the seven-game series, half switched their allegiance to the favorite.    

Why do people have a natural preference for the underdog? It may have to do with schadenfreude—the idea that we derive pleasure from watching the favorite lose. Think, for instance, about all the people who root against Duke and the New York Yankees.   

However, in the case of LeBron James, it may be more based in our desire to view the world as a just place, where good things come to deserving people. Perhaps we are all starting to realize how much LeBron deserves it, and how much the city of Cleveland deserves it.

While LeBron didn’t issue a guarantee that the Cavaliers would win the championship, he did guarantee that they would play their “asses off.”

Maybe it’s simply LeBron’s honesty we are all beginning to appreciate.

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Frazier, J. A., & Snyder, E. E. (1991). The underdog concept in sport. Sociology of Sport Journal, 8(4), 380-388.