MIAMI — LeBron James has been called heartless, callous, narcissistic, cowardly and selfish.
And that was just in one letter from Dan Gilbert, the man who used to pay him to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A Miami Heat win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, and James will have to be called something else: NBA champion. "As crazy as it sounds, I haven't got caught up in it," James said.
Vilified for exercising his right to leave Cleveland and for the manner in which he announced the move — in a television special dubbed "The Decision" — James has spent two years in Miami chasing his first championship. He remains one of the world's most polarizing athletes, not to mention one of the world's best-paid both on and off the court, with his annual income recently estimated by Forbes to be $53 million.
But apparently, when it comes to LeBron James, enormous money and fame are not enough to satisfy everyone. He needs a title.
And if it happens ...
"Perceptions better change, OK?" Heat forward Mike Miller said. "You would be looking at a three-time MVP and a world champion. There's a very, very, very, very, very short list of those. A very short list. The way I've seen him improve in just the two years I've been around him, I've seen the maturation the whole time, and it's a scary thought because it's not going to stop. It's a freight train right now."
James' successes are celebrated. His failures might be more celebrated.
When the Heat lost last year's finals to the Dallas Mavericks, all the blame went James' way, and with good reason. He averaged three points in fourth quarters of those six games. The most common complaint, one that James acknowledges is true, is that he didn't make enough plays in the biggest moments. He managed only eight points in the loss that turned the series around and spun it in the Mavericks' favor.
"Old Lesson for all," Gilbert tweeted a few minutes after Dallas won the championship in Miami. "There are NO SHORTCUTS. NONE."
Gilbert didn't mention James by name in the tweet - or in his letter that came out shortly after The Decision. He didn't have to, either.
The Heat are understandably biased when it comes to perceptions about James. Some of Miami's competitors are as well.
"He does the right thing," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "When he makes the right pass and the guy misses the shot, he's criticized. When he forces a shot in a double team, he's criticized. It's the way it is for him, for whatever reason. He's competitive as heck. He's one of the most powerful players to ever play the game. And maybe it isn't enough. I don't know."
Rivers said he thinks only one athlete might be able to relate to what James has to deal with - Tiger Woods.
"Tiger over the last two or three years," Rivers said. "Other than that, no one. No athlete that I can ever remember being under the scrutiny - definitely in basketball. I've never seen anyone under the scrutiny that LeBron James is under."
So in these playoffs, instead of trying to defeat the scrutiny, James is trying to ignore as much of it as he can.
He hasn't been taking phone calls or tweeting. He's not watching much television. Instead of reading articles about him or the playoffs, he's been reading books, something that now seems to be part of his pregame ritual. ("It slows my mind down," James said.)
"He's just focused, you know, just like the rest of this team," Wade said. "He has a goal, and he wants to reach that goal, and he doesn't want nothing to stand in his way, and he doesn't want himself to stand in his way. He wants to make sure once you leave the game or you leave the series, you can say, I gave it my all. I don't know if we all could have said that last season."