Tonight in Oklahoma City, LeBron James takes the court in the NBA Finals against the Thunder and gets another shot at redemption. With his tone-deaf July 2010 ESPN television special announcing his decision to take his talents to Miami, no American athlete – outside of pro wrestling – has ever gone from hero to heel as quickly as James, the onetime teenage wunderkind who was anointed the heir to the crown worn by Magic, Jordan, and Kobe. Departing the Cleveland Cavaliers was not unexpected, but the manner in which he rejected them turned the basketball gods against him. Even before his first game with his new superstar teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he predicted the Heat would win at least eight NBA championships. Boos subsequently greeted him in every arena the Heat visited. And though the Heat went to the finals last year, his failure to bring home a title was relished by critics, who taunted him for repeatedly coming up short when the game was on the line. After helping the Heat rally to defeat the Celtics last week, though, James is on the verge of proving the naysayers wrong and perhaps winning back some goodwill.
On Thursday near San Francisco, Tiger Woods will tee off in the first round of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. Since his still-baffling car crash in November 2009 led to the exposure of a sordid secret life of multiple extramarital affairs, no American athlete – including pro wrestlers – has ever shed an armor of invincibility to become a subject of ridicule so quickly.
Before his personal life fell apart, Woods was the unrivaled paragon of mental toughness – his mere presence in his iconic red shirt rattled even his most accomplished rivals. By the age of 32, he had won 14 major titles and seemed a lock to break Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18. Since his wreck, though, Woods has yet to win another major – the longest drought of his career – and his play lacked flash or consistency. Yet, there he was two weeks ago, chipping in an impossible shot, pumping his fist as the crowd roared. It was vintage Old Tiger, and just like that, he became the odds-on favorite to win this weekend.
Both James and Woods have been stalked by persistent doubters who will only be silenced when they are crowned champions. James delivered in some clutch moments against Boston, but he still hasn’t won the big one. Woods has won a few tournaments since 2009, but people will continue to ask what’s wrong until he wins a major or reclaims his position as the world’s top golfer. (He’s currently ranked fourth.)
Even then, it will be intriguing to see how winning at the highest level impacts our affection for them. Earlier this spring, Woods and James ranked No. 2 and No. 6, respectively, in a poll of the country’s most disliked athletes. (Michael Vick was No. 1.) Yet American sports fans revere greatness and have a tendency to overlook their heroes’ foibles. (Ask fans in San Francisco about Barry Bonds.) If James and the Heat upset the Thunder, will this difficult two-year stretch fade from our collective memory as he’s reinvented again as King James, the MVP who once hosted Saturday Night Live and seemed every bit the “global icon” he aspired to be.
Ditto for Woods, though he’s always been more revered than beloved. If and when he returns to the top, will his off-the-course indiscretions become footnotes in the resurrected central story that is his march towards golf immortality? It will be exciting to see both athletes battle this week at the highest levels of their respective sports – and to see how they are received should they raise their arms in victory.