Credit: Lynne Sladky/AP Images

It’s hard to recall now that at this time last year, LeBron James had the world eating out of his hand. Yes, his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, had flamed out of the playoffs in rather embarrassing fashion, but free-agent King James was wanted by everyone. Chicago. New York. Miami. Los Angeles. They all bowed at his feet. What a difference a year makes.

Since losing to Dallas in the NBA Finals on Sunday, James has been scapegoated for choking in the games’ big moments and vilified for his petulant post-game behavior, which included telling reporters that “all the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.” Classy.

The criticism and the jokes have been ruthless. (Why can’t LeBron make change for $1? He can never come up with that final quarter.) Even Betty White threw a jab. In what can’t be totally unrelated, Universal announced yesterday that Ballers, the basketball comedy where James gets pulled into the screwball lives of a group of average guys attending his fantasy hoops camp, has been delayed for another year, because, as Variety reports, “the script is still being developed.” It’s unclear if that is simply a kinder way of saying that they’d rather make a buddy-comedy with Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen.

Less than a year after the poorly-orchestrated Decision, which blindsided Cleveland fans and left a bad taste in the mouths of objective observers who were irked by James’ tone-deaf publicity machine, James might be the most-hated athlete in the world. Correction, most-hated active athlete. In an informal Twitter poll conducted by CNBC’s sports business reporter Darren Rovell, James came in second to suspected steroid user and home-run champion Barry Bonds as the most disliked jock ever. But James managed to “edge” O.J. Simpson, who placed a distant third! Ouch.

“I’ve been covering the business of sports for 11 years, and I’ve never seen the hatred [like this],” Rovell told KHTK radio in Sacramento yesterday. “It’s basically just the totality of what LeBron is representing and how he doesn’t get it … LeBron hasn’t been able to separate [his arrogance and his confidence], and I think that’s hurt both him and his corporate partners.”

James is in dangerous, uncharted territory: He’s royally unpopular right now. And he’s also currently collared with the reputation of a choke-artist. The former is regrettable but manageable. (See: Kobe Bryant.) But the latter is an anchor that can take him down for good. Think of Tiger Woods and how quickly his air of supremacy crumbled once he became a punchline. Both athletes are young enough, for their respective sports, to return to form, but nothing’s guaranteed.

Perhaps Universal is still developing the script for Ballers, but perhaps the filmmakers really need to find a role that better suits the current LeBron: Does Sam Mendes still need a Bond villain?

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