Even as LeBron James stands just four wins away from his third NBA championship, his popularity among the American sports populace has still not returned to what it was when he was a ringless superstar toiling away in Cleveland.
ESPN tracks scientific poll numbers each year for which NBA players fans consider their singular favorite. LeBron's popularity plummeted after "the Decision." It wasn't until after last season when once again became the favorite of the plurality of NBA fans, overtaking Kobe Bryant. His popularity still isn't quite what it was during his 2009-10 season with Cleveland, though. Here's the odd thing: James is more popular among black and Hispanic fans than he ever was in Cleveland. It's only white fans who still haven't fully re-embraced him.
"The reluctance of white fans to embrace LeBron again is the principle reason his overall popularity lags behind what it was with the Cavs," writes ESPN. "It's easy to come up with theories on why this is so, and harder to prove those theories. Other demographics have been far more forgiving, though."
Well, we have one theory we'll try to make a case for and it has less to do with LeBron's race as it does the racial makeup of the city he chose to play for it. We'll go ahead and say it: White people don't like Miami... or at least our sports teams.
Think about it. If LeBron had left Cleveland for any other city, could you imagine the backlash being quite as strong? Admit it, if he was now in a Bulls, Knicks or Celtics jersey he'd be back to full-on national hero status. It wasn't just that LeBron left Cleveland, it was that he left for this weird city most Americans only know from the most stereotypical depictions in movies and on TV.
LeBron set the stage himself by declaring that he was taking his talents to South Beach. Nevermind that the Heat don't play on South Beach. Nevermind that it's just a tiny neighborhood in a giant metropolitan area. Nevermind that equating all of Miami to South Beach is like equating all of New York City to Times Square.
In most Americans' minds Miami is full of neon lights, fancy Art Deco hotels and women with fake butts. They can't comprehend how it's actually a city full of mainly working class people, more than a few of whom came here after escaping oppressive governments to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Think back to that original backlash. People said Miami didn't deserve this team. Never mind the fact that the Miami Heat's attendance records have generally been better and more stable than the Cleveland Cavaliers. People said Miami was a "football town," as if we only deserved good football teams. Remember how many of them loved the 1980s Miami Hurricanes teams. Hmm? People still attack the fans here to this day (something we've tried to reason with them on).
Discussing race on the Internet is a tricky thing. So before we get into it, let's make a few things clear: 1) In this article "white" means non-Hispanic white, which is an icky thing we try to avoid because it infers that Hispanic people can't be white, but those are the standards used in ESPN's poll 2) If you couldn't tell by the byline, I am white. Very white. 3) The first part of this is going to read like I'm making excuses for white people. The later parts are going to read like I'm a race traitor. Prepare for that. Alright, now that that's out of the way ...
The Heat play in the least white city of any NBA team. White people make up just 11.9 percent of the population in Miami (Hispanics are 70 percent, Blacks are 19.2 percent). Technically Detroit has a smaller white population by percent, but the Pistons actually play in the white-majority suburb of Auburn Hills. Whites are also the majority in all of Wayne County. In all of Miami-Dade County, non-Hispanic white people are still just 16.3 percent of the population.
In fact, as ESPN points out, white people have never liked the Miami Heat as much as black and Hispanic fans. So clearly the hatred has at least something to do with the Heat in general.
There are perhaps two logical reasons for this.
Thanks to the Dolphins position in the NFL East, Miami's strongest sports rivalries are with Boston and New York, two towns whose sports fandoms range far beyond their boundaries and tend to include a lot of well, white people. The Heat have kept those New York and Boston rivalries alive through several heated playoff series with the Knicks and Celtics.
"Some of this dynamic might be attributable to Miami's playoff battles with the Boston Celtics, a team that claims a disproportionate amount of white supporters (9.7 percent of white fans cite the Celtics as their favorite team)," writes ESPN.
There's also the matter that people's affinity for certain sports teams may be influenced by friends and family. My dad, for example, was born in Minnesota. The first professional sports game I attended was a Twins game at the Metrodome. I'm a Miami fan, but if my teams aren't involved in any way then, sure, I'll go ahead and root for a Minnesota team (and coincidentally root against any Wisconsin team).
White people tend to be friends and family with other white people. They don't have a cousin who grew up in Kendall, you know? They might not know any actual Miami-dwelling Heat fans, and so its easier for them to hate the team as some South Beach spectacle.
But let's get real. Truth is, white people just don't like Miami. I didn't grow up here. I was born and raised until 18 in the sleepy old white people town of Naples. Just a two-hour drive across the Everglades.
People in Naples do not like Miami.
They'll fly out of Fort Lauderdale's airport if they can help it. If a band is on tour with stops in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa they'll go to the Fort Lauderdale stop. If they stop in Miami and Tampa, then they'll take the farther trip to Tampa. Those kind of kids who don't have quite the grades to get into USF or UCF are more likely to end up at FAU (despite the fact it's now a national joke) than they are FIU (despite the fact it's now regarded as a better school with some standout programs).
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When I go back and tell people I've lived in Miami for the past 10 years, it's not uncommon for me to hear, "Well, I'm not racist, but I could never live there. Too many people talking different languages." My go-to response is to let the conversation drivel on, then mention how I might have a job opportunity in Paris. In which case they'll usually rant and rave until I ask, "But don't you think it'd be a little uncomfortable to be in a place with so many people speaking in a different language?"
Sure, doesn't describe all people in Naples or all white people, but the attitude is common enough where I don't think it's at all unique. And this is coming from white people who live close enough to the city that they should have some better understanding of it than people living in, say, Iowa.
A lot could be said about why white people haven't re-embraced LeBron James, but that conversation isn't complete without pointing out the fact he decided to play in Miami.