In Sports, Fans Love To Hate

LeBron James gets his title: Will he be hated more or less? Guest host David Greene speaks with NPR's Mike Pesca about the Heat's success and the Chicago Cubs' "love for the game," lacking success.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")

SISTER WINONA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ball game being played each day. Life is a ball game being played...

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If life is a ball game, well, Mike Pesca is our man courtside. We talk sports with him every Sunday. This week, we saw a lot of boiling hot temperatures around the country.

But, Mike, we should probably talk about a different kind of heat, I guess.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yes, the kind of heat that brings joy - to at least some people in South Florida.

GREENE: To at least people in Miami. So, LeBron James gets his NBA championship. He was hated when he left Ohio, his home state. Left the Cleveland Cavaliers behind a couple of years ago, saying I want a title. What's the story of LeBron now? Is he going to be hated more, hated less?

PESCA: Yeah, he's a fascinating case, I think. Because in sports, as much as we love to root for a team, we almost equally love to root against a team or against an individual. Now, the kind team or individual that's fun to root against is not the one that commits real serious moral transgressions. And that just brings a little reality to our escapism that is sports.

Then again, there's the person whose transgressions just aren't serious enough, where the player doesn't give an effort. And they're not really that much fun to root against.

So, LeBron James is actually in what I call the heel zone. The things he has done are the things that just get us mad enough that he is a very useful villain, but when he does something like LeBron James does, is put on a magnificent performance, I think that maybe begins to fade away.

GREENE: I want to play you a little bit of tape and get your impression. This is a bit of LeBron James in his Twitter videos to fans after winning the title.

LEBRON JAMES: And as you can see, I am a champ. But without you guys it wouldn't have been possible. You guys stuck with me throughout the whole playoffs. You guys stuck with me, you know, the last couple of years and thank you guys so much. So, you guys share this championship with me and this MVP trophy with me. Love you guys and I am back.

GREENE: I mean, is that true humble pie we're or is he putting on quite an act to seem, you know, really down to earth?

PESCA: The guy's allowed to celebrate. I mean, Dirk Nowitzki celebrated. Mark Cuban celebrated when the Mavericks won last year. Give the guy his moment, I say. And as much as he's maybe a lightning rod, he also becomes the touchstone. So, every other team can judge themselves against the Heat. And it's kind of fun. Sports are good when you go into a season with everyone wondering can anyone beat this dominant team? You know, when the Yankees were dominant or when the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers were dominant. And so that now becomes the dynamic of the NBA. Rather than, you know, this ridiculous question: Can by far the best player win a championship? You know, of course he can and now we could prove that hypothetical by saying of course he did.

GREENE: Mike, I have to ask you - speaking of wanting desperately to celebrate - I know that you're traveling in Chicago this weekend, a city where the Cubs have not won a World Series in more than a century. They're not having a good season. They're having an awful season. I mean, how are Chicago Cubs' fans keeping their heads up, if they're are?

PESCA: Yeah, strangely they're used to it, you know. Earlier in the week, I was actually touring around Wrigley Field with my 5-year-old and my 3-year-old. My 3-year-old was napping so he'll see the pictures later - well, he was asleep. And I was looking at all the statues and the names of the Cub heroes, and it did strike me that it seems like every Cub hero gets kind of forced into this narrative where they're all a guy who just loved to play the game. I mean, the Yankees had a lot of great players, right, but Ruth was allowed to by Ruthian and Gehrig was allowed to be the Iron Man and DiMaggio was allowed to be classy and Mantle was allowed to be a fun-loving guy. But it seems like every Cub is just, you know, this - it's all sepia-toned and it's all this innocent guy who just loved to play the game of baseball and maybe wins and losses don't matter. I think the Cubs really do need to win a championship and get a little swagger. I mean, I know it's fun to be the lovable loser, but as every Red Sox fan will tell you, the hated winner is also a great status to hold.

GREENE: Mike, always good to talk to you.

PESCA: Good talk to you too.

GREENE: Talking sports with NPR's Mike Pesca.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")

CARR: (Singing) ...play it fair.

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