Plaschke: LeBron James goes from shunned to beloved in L.A., a remarkable image makeover

Bill Plaschke
·6 min read
Los Angeles Lakers v Los Angeles Clippers
Lakers star LeBron James celebrates during a win over the Clippers at Staples Center on March 8. (Harry How / Getty Images)

It was barely a year ago that Staples Center hosted what should have been a celebrated achievement in the career of one of the greatest basketball players in history.

Yet on that night, LeBron James was booed.

In the first quarter of the game in which he passed Michael Jordan to move into fourth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, James missed four free throws and was roundly jeered.

When he passed Jordan in the second quarter, he was barely cheered.

By the time the game ended, a season’s worth of suspicions were proven true.

Los Angeles really, really didn’t like its new King.

All of which makes it so compelling that, in the latest edition of a respected survey conducted by Loyola Marymount University, James was overwhelmingly voted as the favorite local professional athlete.

From shunned to beloved, James has pulled off the image comeback of the year.

According to the survey, which polled 1,000 Los Angeles County residents across various demographics, it’s not even close. Asked to choose from a list of 10 players — one from each team — while allowing for write-in candidates, respondents gave James an amazing 46% of the vote. He went deep on runner-up Cody Bellinger (10.7%), did a bicycle kick over LAFC’s Carlos Vela (8.4%), and scalded the Angels’ Mike Trout (6.7%).

Think about that. Think about who he beat. Think about how far back he came to beat them.

Bellinger was the National League MVP of a team that drew nearly 4 million fans. Vela was the MLS MVP in a deeply rooted soccer town. Trout was the American League MVP who might become the best player in baseball history.

James dominated all of them in an election that revealed stark realities about how we view our sports landscape.

The first involves a Dodgers dichotomy. The voting was conducted in January and February — while the Dodgers weren’t playing — but the results are still startling. While the Dodgers finished a close second to the Lakers in the vote for favorite team — 35% to 31% — Bellinger wasn’t close to James, and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw didn’t even receive a write-in vote. This is apparently what happens when a large segment of your fans can’t watch you on TV. Locals love the Dodgers, but it’s tough to embrace players who are virtual strangers. Surely Kershaw’s postseason failures also didn’t help.

”The Dodgers players underperform compared to popularity of the team,” said survey research assistant Vishnu Akella.

The second involves the Rams dilemma. They finished third in team popularity, passing even the trendy Clippers, but Aaron Donald received only 2.7% of the votes — ranking seventh — while Jared Goff received one write-in vote and Todd Gurley received no votes. Once again, fans like the team, but don’t really relate to the helmeted players. Goff is the only Ram who can break this trend — elite quarterbacks are football’s only true rock stars — and yet he hasn’t looked elite since throwing that interception late in last year’s Super Bowl.

In this town, you not only have to win, you also have to entertain and connect, and with astonishing speed, James has done all three.

”What he’s done is really cool. ... I would have loved to see what his ratings were the year before,” said Akella, noting that this was the first year the annual survey has asked about a favorite player. “He’s such a polarizing figure, yet he was loved by everybody, regardless of race, age, gender or political affiliation.”

Lakers star LeBron James reacts during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Lakers star LeBron James reacts during a game March 3 against the Philadelphia 76ers. (Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)

James won, first, because he turned the Lakers back into winners. At the time of the survey, James had led them to the best record in the NBA's Western Conference.

“Fans thought he came through, he hung in there, he delivered,” Akella said.

He won, second, because he was winning while dramatically buying into the team and the town.

It was James who laid out the welcome mat for Anthony Davis, eased the burden on new coach Frank Vogel, and gave the Lakers hope this summer when the front office was disintegrating.

“I was just supportive of whatever moves that they were making,” James said, adding, “I love the coach and what the coaching staff are doing.”

It was James who brought the team together before training camp, overseeing his own bonding session in Las Vegas, after which he showed up clearly ready for redemption.

“I’m very motivated. ... I think as a team and myself, we need to get the Lakers back to where they’re accustomed to over the years,” he said on media day.

Once the season began, James refused to sit when healthy, while the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard — who finished just fifth in popularity at 4.3% — made a habit of load management.

“I don’t know how many kids that may show up to a game are there to see me play,” James said. “And if I sit out, then what?”

While playing in 60 of 63 games, he not only averaged 26 points and eight rebounds, but also, in a stat that epitomized his season of empowerment, led the league with a career-high 11 assists per game.

Then, in his most compelling moment of the season, James finally completely connected. It occurred before the Lakers' first game after the death of Kobe Bryant, when James addressed a tearful Staples Center crowd in a moving pregame speech that began with him holding a single piece of paper.

“Now I’ve got something written down ... but Laker Nation, I would be selling y’all short if I read off this. ... I’m going to go straight from the heart,” he said, tossing away the paper.

He then launched into monologue that carried deep and true, embracing the Lakers fans as family, celebrating Bryant as their hero, and making a promise.

“I want to ... continue his legacy ... because that’s what Kobe Bryant would have wanted,” James intoned.

And until the sport was shut down last month amid the pandemic, that’s exactly what James did, clearly and solidly endearing him to the city. It’s important to note that the survey was of the general population, not only sports fans. Somehow, in such short time, James has appealed to everyone.

“It’s no surprise when the country’s biggest major athlete comes to a major market, that market is going to be drawn to him,” Akella said. “But LeBron is on a totally different level.”

In an interview with me nine days before his death, Bryant urged fans to cheer James like they once cheered for him.

“He is now a Laker, he is part of our brotherhood, part of our fraternity, and we should embrace him that way,” Bryant said, later adding, “Appreciate this guy, celebrate what he’s done, because it’s truly remarkable.”

Los Angeles has listened.