When the ball is tossed up Saturday night in Miami, the country will split into two groups: those rooting for the triumph of LeBron James and those hoping for his failure.
The disharmony suggests that the Miami Heat forward is a hero or a villain or perhaps both. He is neither.
He has never balled up his fists on an NBA court, never spit on or cursed a fan, never gone into the stands to fight, never been exposed as a philanderer, never gone on trial facing allegations of sexual assault.
James is an extraordinary basketball player who has gone eight NBA seasons without a championship. His biggest crime, as far as we know, is a tendency to invite ridicule by saying or doing the wrong things at the wrong times, in the wrong ways.
This provides good reason for the hard-core basketball fan to get behind James and the Miami Heat on Saturday when it meets the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at American Airlines Arena.
The NBA playoffs field is reduced to three -- Western Conference champ Oklahoma City awaits the Miami-Boston winner -- but the field of burgeoning rivals is reduced to two. How can we want any other NBA finals than the one in which James shares the court with Thunder forward Kevin Durant?
They were 1-2 in the MVP voting, and there is no reason to believe that can't be repeated several more times. They have contrasting images, James the flashy self-promoter who too often leads with
As dazzling as Durant was in the decisive Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, James was even better in a do-or-die Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
James and Durant need each other, and the league needs both. How many years has it been since the championship was decided between teams featuring the two players generally regarded as the league's best -- and who happen to play similar positions?
Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant has been peerless for most of this millennium -- despite the absurdity of having only one MVP award. His crown was never truly challenged in the finals, not even in 2008, when he was outplayed by Boston's Paul Pierce.
San Antonio Spurs superstar Tim Duncan has spent most of his career as the league's best big man, more skilled than an older Shaquille O'Neal and a three-time NBA champion before Dwight Howard turned 22.
The '91 finals, with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson squaring off, would qualify if not for Magic being in his final full season while M.J. was in his prime.
For a legitimate comparison to the potential Durant-James matchup,we go back to the 1980s, when Larry Bird and Magic were the lead characters in the NBA's rebirth. They played different positions, but their similar size allowed them to occasionally match up.
And before that, we have to go back to the 1960s, when titans Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain twice met in the finals.
In short, a Heat victory delivers an NBA finals with the best possible subplot.
Durant, all of 23, is unlike any player we have ever seen. He has Duncan's wingspan, Kobe's athleticism, Reggie Miller's long-range shooting accuracy and Bird's ability to rebound -- all while remaining as unassuming as a bowl of ice cream.
James, 27, also is unlike any player we have ever seen. He has a point guard's quickness, a small forward's all-around game and a power forward's brute strength.
Both are capable of playing any of the five positions.
James, though, carries more baggage than any other player in the league. "King James" was a self-proclaimed star while in high school. He then made the ill-advised decision, upon becoming a free agent, to announce his next destination on national TV -- spurning the Cleveland Cavaliers of his native Ohio for the glitz and glamour of Miami.
Upon introduction in South Beach, there was that unforgettable pyrotechnics display -- celebrating the galactic convergence of All-Stars James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- during which LeBron made the ill-advised vow that will haunt him unless he retires with a bag full of championship rings.
Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven.
Having theoretically rigged the game in favor of Miami, James was promising championships. LeBron and the fortified Heat, suddenly the NBA's biggest celebrities, were going to win more titles than Bird's Celtics or Magic's Lakers or Jordan's Bulls.
Durant, meanwhile, was content in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder was in the midst of a dramatic turnaround, assembling a winner without fireworks or promises. It was done with an old-fashioned plan, through drafting and trading.
The Heat was recruited for immediate greatness, the Thunder assembled for enduring excellence.
Having these teams, featuring these two players, in the finals is perfect casting, a possibility too delicious for any basketball fan to reject.
That is, any fan except those who want to see LeBron and the Heat eliminated this weekend. In which instance the finals immediately become anticlimactic.