There’s a undercurrent brewing in the corridors of the NBA that is still a whisper. Time will tell if it moves from tabloid speculation to front page sports headlines.
Whether entirely real or even a sliver of truth exists, the sad fact is that LeBron James and his performance and corresponding statements during the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics series opened up a can of worms that will mirror his free agency saga this summer.
This could be the start of “James Gate,” another out of control firestorm that began from a single spark and goes on to engulf not only sport but all media.
At the heart of the matter is this real question: Was a grand conspiracy at play during the Cavs' series with the Celtics?
Or, to phrase it another way: Did LeBron intentionally manipulate the Celtic series for his own personal agenda?
To even consider such bold statements, we have to treat this like a legal case. We have to address motive, opportunity, and outcome.
First, let’s be clear: LeBron has motive—serious motive. It may not be readily apparent but when you add up the pieces, a clear picture begins to form. It’s like one of those photos that is blurry but if you stare at it long enough, you start to see the real image. This might be the case here.
So, the rumors and speculations I’m hearing vary from source to source but they all have a common theme and go something like this:
LeBron wanted out of Cleveland but didn’t know how to do it. He didn’t know how to leave and not look like a jerk, a la Shaq when he bailed on Orlando. In 1996, when Shaq used his free agency to desert the Orlando Magic to go to the Lakers, from Orlando’s perspective, it was the ultimate betrayal. Well, at least until LeBron chose to leave Cleveland.
The key word in that last sentence was chose. This is where the conspiracy theory kindles like the birth of a raging forest fire. LeBron choosing to leave Cleveland was simply impossible. He couldn’t leave his home state, his town, his people. But, what if he HAD to leave?
And, what could possibly be a good enough reason to leave? Well, how about the best team in the NBA losing in the semifinals of the East, another blown season short of the NBA Finals?
The Celtics made the Cavs look like one superstar and a team of players from the local YMCA. I mean, really, when Shaq at 37 is the second best player on a team that supposedly would vie for the title, you’ve got problem.
So, we’ve established serious motive. Now, how to execute the crime—the opportunity.
The Cavs possessed home-court and came into the semi’s looking like the best team in basketball. But, here’s where things got fuzzy.
The Cavs lose Game Two at home. Really? Then, lose Game Three in Boston to go down 2-1. They storm back and take the fourth contest in a dominant fashion. Series back to tied. Already, you couldn’t script a more compelling series. But, the Cavs at this point are in real trouble, any aura of invincibility long lost since Game two.
Now, this all leads to Game Five, or as some of the rumors I’m hearing, the Scene of the Crime. If this was point shaving, this pivotal game would be the one to manipulate.
More than a few people have pointed out to me that LeBron looked like he was in a daze throughout Game Five. I’m talking out of it, like when Barbara Walters interviewed Mike Tyson with Robin Givens back in the 1990s. Comatose and dazed. Seriously.
I watched Game Five and it did, at times, appear that LeBron wasn’t completely present or entirely focused. I attribute it more to frustration than anything. He’s even said something similar in interviews; that missing shots he usually makes, combined with the pressure of Game Five, caused what Charles Barkley likes to refer to as “the sphincter tightening.” I think that’s exactly what happened to LeBron.
But, our conspiracy theorists work overtime on any glimmer of evidence, no matter how remote. They have also noted that Lebron seemed to have an uncommon, almost abnormal, fascination with the scoreboard in Game Five, especially in the second half. Time and time again he was spotted staring up at the monster board hanging over the court. Why was he checking the score or the time-clock so regularly?
I have re-watched some footage and he does seem to do this often, but I don’t get to see LeBron play every night, so I’m not sure if this is normal or something different. A die-hard Cavs fan would be able to tell us this instantly.
But, moving on, just for argument sake, let's say that there is something to this James Gate conspiracy theory. I mean, it does seem to have some merit.
The more I listen to these guys, it is true LeBron lost to the over-the-hill Celtics in the second round. Ouch. I mean, another year the Cavs light up the regular season but lose in the real dance. This has got to wear on a guy like LeBron, being the best he can be but coming up short—I mean way short—season after season. Can you see where this is headed?
And, I have to admit, LeBron did play poorly in arguably the most important game of his career. At best, his timing was terrible. The result and subsequent loss in that pivotal game put the Cavs in a death spiral that they couldn't recover from in Game Six, on Boston’s home court. Wham, bam, series over.
On the surface, it does appear to be the quintessential moment to sandbag or manipulate a game, and thus, a series and, ultimately, a tenure in Cleveland. The reasons start to make sense.
Forevermore, LeBron can always point to the Celtics series as why he moved on. I can hear him saying, “Look, I had no choice. I had to leave. I’m only interested in winning rings and we simply couldn't get over the hump.”
All these conspiracy theory mumblings I want to blow off, laugh at actually, but they scratch at me, like a mosquito bite that gets worse and worse. So, maybe my mind’s running off the road a little but I start to think: Maybe LeBron could have manipulated his play for his own personal gain. Is that really that farfetched?
I shake my head and say yes, that’s preposterous. No way. Personally, to me, it sounds nearly impossible. But, could something really be happening that we aren’t seeing, maybe things occurring behind the scenes, not everything as it appears? No, I’m still not buying it.
And, listen, I wouldn’t have ever believed even a bit of any of this craziness until my faith in what I see, hear, and trust was rocked in the last year.
I mean, who would have ever dreamed that a major, major sports figure could have the most squeaky clean, bordering on boredom, image, and reputation and turn out to be a sex addict, adulterer, and even, if we listen to more rumors and possible slander, a steroid user? You might know who I’m talking about: Tiger Woods.
So, a little doubt has creeped in and there might be some believability to all of this after all.
And, like a crime, there is the benefit factor and it plays on this one. It is so unfortunate but LeBron does have a lot to gain if he leaves Cleveland.
I mean, Shaq deserted the small market Magic for Hollywood, wanting to broaden and extend his image. He felt he’d never transcend being just a basketball star unless he played in a major sports market. So, he went to the Lakers and became a movie star and rapper. How can anyone forget Shazam!
And, LeBron is lightyears ahead of Shaq in marketing. The King is a real brand. Being in a signature market like New York, LA, or even Chicago, gives LeBron everything he wants toward becoming that billion-dollar global icon he talks about all the time. It affords him the ability to be more than sports, with fashion, player representation, and music being just the tips of a massive, Titanic-sized iceberg LeBron dreams of.
Who knows, maybe Jay-Z really has rubbed off on LeBron? But, to sandbag a game? Wow.
Like I said at the start of this article, right now, in the halls of the NBA, this is only a murmur. I hope it stays that way and doesn’t grow like that holiday weekend last November when a whisper of infidelity and a wife beating her husband with a golf club sparked and grew into a roaring, out of control forest fire.
For the NBA’s sake, for LeBron’s, for all of ours, I wish every single one of these rumors flames out like the Cavs just did against the Celtics and heads off into the quiet of summer. But, I’ll believe that when I see it.