By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - Freshly crowned NBA champion LeBron James heads to the London Games as one of the top U.S. athletes and one of the greatest basketball players of all-time but, strangely, as a man many fervently hope will fail.
James's performances have been at such a level that he is comparable in status to soccer's Lionel Messi - the undoubted greatest of his generation and a player whose career is sure to be ranked among the very best in his sport.
Yet while even the most fervent fans of rival teams would never question Argentine Messi's status in world soccer, James has been jeered and booed by fans across the United States and faced an American media that has leapt on any hint of weakness.
The hostility toward the 27-year-old may be hard for fans outside of the world of American sport to understand. James was a free agent in 2010, out of contract, and chose to team up with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat.
After seven years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where the supporting cast rarely looked capable of giving him the help he needed to win an NBA title, James joined forces with two players he believed could become a dominant championship winning team.
Naturally, Cleveland fans were upset at losing their star player who they had drafted out of high school, but unlike in international soccer, where players change clubs frequently in search of glory or better rewards, many NBA watchers felt James was wrong to ally himself with other great players.
"There is no way I would have joined Magic (Johnson) or Michael Jordan and play with them," Hall of Famer Larry Bird, who won three NBA titles with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, said at the time of the move.
"The only time I ever wanted to play with Magic was on the Olympic team, and even then our practices were hard, and we beat each other up in practice."
Yet the Olympic experience James enjoyed in Beijing with Bosh and Wade was in many ways the seed of the move - all three were heading to free agency at the same time and began to wonder what they could achieve together.
The big mistake James made, as even he and his supporters now concede, was announcing his move in a nationally televised special where he pompously announced he was "taking my talents to South Beach."
Although the show was primarily a way of raising money for charity it was no way to treat the Cleveland fans, especially coming from a native of Ohio, and it was clear that James had been badly served by his advisors.
During his first season in Miami the team was heavily booed on the road, James in particular, and it felt like most of the nation was urging German Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in their eventual triumph in the 2011 NBA Finals.
A remarkable performer at both ends of the court, James was labeled a 'choker' for failing to come up with big plays late in games during the finals before spending the off-season working on his few weak areas.
This year James, voted the league's Most Valuable Player of the regular season and title series, responded with a series of outstanding displays and especially when it mattered most.
He averaged 30.5 points in the playoffs and delivered a triple double in the decisive game five of the finals with 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds.
"I don't know what people will say now," Miami's experienced reserve Juwan Howard said. "He's done everything now. What are they going to try to beat him up about now? What'd he do wrong this time?"
What makes the hate affair with LeBron even stranger is that, aside from his outstanding physical ability and talent, he is also quite an engaging personality.
"When you get to know LeBron, you don't understand why he was such a lightning rod for the criticism and all of just the incessant critiques about a player who embodies all the qualities you want of a champion," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
"You spend ten minutes with him, you absolutely love the guy because he's so engaging. He's one of the most charismatic people I've ever been around. He's giving. He's an incredible team mate."
Even the main threat to his dream of a first NBA title, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, had nothing but praise for James after the series ended - just as well given the players will be team mates in London.
"The guy is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable person. ... It was a storybook season for him," said Durant.
"That guy played phenomenal basketball all season. Hopefully we can get a gold medal together this summer."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)