LeBron James and the Decision of a Lifetime

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LeBron James and the Decision of a Lifetime
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Like almost every sports fan in America, I was tuned and interested in “The Decision” that basketball phenom LeBron James would make regarding his basketball future. 

Last Thursday evening at 9 P.M. EST, from a Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut, LeBron James announced his intention to sign with the Miami Heat.  He will be joining Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, signaling a shift in NBA power from North to South and from West to East. 

“The Decision”, as LeBron James’s management team termed it, has brought a great deal of attention to the NBA and to the relatively small market found in Miami (which is, if anything, a football city).  Nearly 10 million people tuned into ESPN to watch the awkward hour-long broadcast, more viewers than watched the actual NBA finals when LeBron and his former Cavaliers played San Antonio some years ago.

Because of the manner in which his decision to play for Miami was revealed—in the form of an hour-long broadcast from Connecticut in which few people, if any, knew what James’ intentions were—public response to his departure from Cleveland has been decidedly, even vehemently, negative.  He has been called a coward, and it has been said that he has committed an act of betrayal.  Only in Miami has his decision been welcomed warmly.  The bitterness and disillusionment of the Cleveland fanbase is spilling into the public domain with a passionate intensity. 

It is nearly unbelievable that a single person’s decision to play sports in one place over another has generated this much interest and debate.  Hereafter, we will discuss and unpack James’ decision to play for Miami, the manner in which that decision was revealed, and public assessments of James’ ability and personhood. 

 

The Decision Itself

Criticism of James’ decision has run the gamut from accusing him of flagrant cowardice to “taking the easy way” to win a championship.  Those who defend or justify James’ decision return to largely professional lines: he chose to work with a better team of players, he went to a market where his skills can flourish in the presence of other elite athletes, and so on. 

It is notable that both James’ supporters and detractors cite the same facts for justifying their positions.  On one hand, James’ decision to go play with Bosh and Wade is one that reveals the extent to which is not a real champion. On the other, it shows that he made a smart move in terms of his potential to win championships and play on a dominant team. 

As the dominant teams of the 2000’s continue to age and fade, space for other winners continues to grow.  It is astonishing to reflect on the fact that the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs (three teams of the 30 in the NBA) make up the majority of the league’s Champions in the last 10 years. 

If one had to predict what team would rise in the next 10 to dominance in the way that the Spurs and Lakers have, the good money is almost certainly on Miami now, with some notable attention going to the Bulls and the Magic.  Miami, even if they win no championships, will be an impossible team to ignore in the coming decade. 

Throughout this past year’s playoffs, sports commentators often noted that James was not only the dominant player on his team, but the one who simultaneously made those around him better. 

Would anyone have heard of his other teammates were it not for James?  Would they have been all-stars?  In all likelihood, no. 

But if James could make his Cavaliers squad better with each passing year—and make a group of mostly middling players into a playoff-ready squad each season—then one can safely assume that the Heat will be a rare joy to watch from night to night in the coming years.  

For those who argue that basketball is about team chemistry and not individual play, then one cannot claim that LeBron made a decision that disregards this fundamental truism of the sport.   In point of fact, he went to a team that possesses players that he believes he can coexist with peacefully and play alongside for a long time to come.  Time will tell whether that comes to fruition. 

In the interim, he has joined a core of players with whom he does have a strong sense of social chemistry, and that is more than can be said than the rapport he had with his former teammates.  

One facet of James’ interview that has received a great deal of attention was his unusual remark that he would no longer feel the pressure to score 30 points during every game.  It was astonishing for a number of reasons, though most keenly for what it says about his thoughts on his former teammates and how he wants to function on the basketball court.   

Has anyone heard of a superstar athlete at his level claiming that he felt relieved at not having to put points on the board in order to see his team to victory?  Has there ever been an elite athlete who has not wanted to shine in individual games or embraced the pressure of scoring a game-high 50 points in a clutch situation?  How could James not want that, given that he is one of the brightest stars of the basketball universe? 

It is difficult to believe that it is not in James’ nature to want to win.  He made the decision to go to Miami precisely to be a champion.  No, the answer must stem from the intensive pressure a superstar must feel when playing on a team of otherwise average talent.  James had to produce, night after night, plying his trade in the presence of players who were great in January but lackluster in the playoffs.  However, when his team played without fire or lost without a fight, it was only James who took the blame for it. 

Sure, Mo Williams might shoot 2-for-14 from the floor during a playoff game, but it was James who was criticized for his lack of leadership.  Yes, Anderson Varejao and his Sideshow Bob haircut played defense like a house of cards, but why wasn’t James covering both ends of the floor with god-like tenacity on every shot?  Fine, Shaquille O’Neal no longer runs like the Diesel of yore, but James should have been crashing the boards like a monster for 48 minutes. 

The reality is that after seven years, the Cleveland Cavaliers made less-than-stellar management decisions and failed to put any sort of quality athletes around their star forward.  They overpaid for players mentioned previously, failed to capitalize on free agency, and rarely found answers to the problems they encountered on the court.   The extent to which this is true will be shown next year in James’s absence. 

Can anyone imagine Mo Williams consistently driving the lane or watching Varejao defend in the paint with any kind of meaningful intensity?  Of course not.  Their skill levels were massively inflated in the presence of their once and former King.  In his absence, undoubtedly, they will recede like an evening tide. 

And this too must have weighed on LeBron James.  It is surprising that no one else is referring to the fact that James implicitly insulted his entire former team during the broadcast, effectively noting that they are not a team of winners without his 30-points-a-game talents. 

Then again, even if this was another reflection of James’s arrogance, it is also fundamentally accurate.  His former teammates owe him more than he owes them, having made them wealthy all-stars with long-term contracts and a great deal of fame. 

 

The Manner in Which the Decision Was Announced

There is one reason that sports fans might be plausibly annoyed with LeBron James regarding his decision to go to Miami, and that is the manner in which the announcement came.  It can be argued easily that LeBron should have informed his past employer sooner rather than later, that he baited too many suitors, and that an hour-long broadcast was the pinnacle of selfishness. 

And all of that is true.  A friend of mine remarked that this would be like an employee faxing his resignation to his boss because the employee was too scared to go into the office.  And given Dan Gilbert’s public embolism about James’s decision to leave Cleveland, perhaps that might seem unreasonable. 

At the same time, James took the most public, viewable, easily watchable way to announce the decision.  One can hardly call someone audacious and cowardly in the same sentence.  Except, somehow, James managed to pull it off.  He looked decidedly uncomfortable in his starring role sitting opposite Jim Gray, wearing an outfit that screams State Farm Agent more than Biggest Superstar in America.  His answers to Gray’s questions seemed to dislocate himself from his present situation.  He spoke of himself as if he were another person, as if the LeBron James who was moving to Miami was some form of ossified super-being found in the far reaches of the known universe. 

As importantly, James didn’t seem like he was enjoying himself.  This wasn’t a crazed and rambling Ron Artest interview or a Q and A with Latrell “I Have to Feed My Kids” Sprewell.  He looked like a man forced to be where he was, keeping his emotions in check.  And it seemed like he knew that he was, minute by minute, dismembering Cleveland’s internal organs and putting its pride to rest. 

And we can blame him all we want for being the most confoundedly arrogant and disappointing soul that ever walked the face of the earth.  We can call him the emperor enjoying his new clothes or the King Midas of the basketball realm, dominating headlines with the absurdity of the announcement and the discomforting decision he took. 

My only response is: we bought into it.  We can be as annoyed as we wish to be, but the level of our annoyance is merely a measure of our unstoppable dedication (or addiction) to sports celebrity. 

There wouldn’t be a discussion about LeBron James’s decision to go to Miami if we didn’t care so much.  By last count, 9.95 million Americans tuned into ESPN to watch the broadcast, an insane number for an off-season event on a cable network. 

And to the extent that all consumers are easily manipulated by savvy marketing and promotion, we bought in.  I’m not even certain how it was that I had learned about “The Decision” being broadcast on ESPN but I know that I read about it on Facebook, heard about it on the radio, seen it mentioned on television, and talked about it with friends. 

Discussion about “The Decision” was everywhere, and we were the conduits along which information about it spread.  We fed the fire even as we allowed its creation, stoked its flames, and watched it pour out over the thick forests of our social networking media sites.  We can hardly complain that Jim Gray delivered a terrible interview and asked absurdly ill-fitting questions.  We watched.  And we will continue to watch the next time.   

 

Responses to James’ Decision

It is unusual to reflect on the fact that, at the time of his decision to leave Cleveland, LeBron James was not contractually obligated to his hometown team—that he was, in the most literal sense, a free agent and (even more surprisingly) technically unemployed.  He had exhausted his professional commitments to the city, having brought in an estimated quarter of a billion dollars in revenue and having revived a once-defunct franchise.

Judging by the public response to James’s decision to leave Cleveland, one would imagine that he had shot a dozen people in a large bank robbery while high out of his mind or that he was the one responsible for the current oil spill in the Gulf.  Especially in Northeast Ohio, the reaction to James’s departure has been stunning, as the city has washed its memory of his presence.  There were a few public burnings of his jersey and the large murals in his image were quickly taken down.  To what, again, were we all bearing witness?   

Of course, even as these very same Clevelanders were disowning and disavowing James, they made his presence and imprint in the national consciousness that much larger.  They have slammed him for his cowardice and because he abandoned them.  Consequently, his name has been kept in the news for the last week without cease, and he will likely remain in the spotlight until the season comes around.   

Referring to LeBron James’ decision as an act of cowardice seems to me to be somewhat strange.  It doesn’t seem clear to me how his decision was cowardly (though it can be easily argued that the manner in which the decision was revealed was hardly meritous).  No, James’s decision to go to Miami in pursuit of a ring or two is one that piles on the pressure to win.  He now has no excuse and if his teams continue to lose, his legacy will be in serious doubt. 

The decision to announce his departure from the Cavaliers on ESPN near the network’s Connecticut headquarters was a dubious one at best.  Scott Van Pelt (incidentally, an ESPN employee) made the observation that the decision to go with an awkward, hour-long broadcast seemed like one made by a group of 25-year-old guys than one that had the guidance and foresight of an experienced media manager. 

Dan Gilbert, histrionic owner of the Cavaliers, responded to James’s decision like a man left at the altar, staking unseemly and embarrassing claims against James.  One wonders, after reading his open letter to Cavaliers fans, why Gilbert was so persistent in attempting to convince James to stay with his hometown team in the first place.  Was it because of James’ monetary worth to the franchise and the fact that, in the marquis player’s absence, the Cavaliers are worth about as much as a 1999 Kia Sophia? 

Gilbert had to react the way he did.  Ultimately, he was the one responsible for retaining LeBron James’ services.  It is Gilbert’s responsibility to build a playoff-ready team, not James’. It is Gilbert’s responsibility to provide the financial capital to acquire players of a high caliber. 

Simultaneously, we have to seriously wonder what basketball star would willingly sign with the Cavaliers after Gilbert’s outburst.  Who would be willing to join a team whose owner accused its premier player of tanking games after seven years of truly elite basketball? 

Gilbert’s rage sounds like so much sputter when we remember that the Cavaliers’ well-being as a team rested on his shoulders.  Gilbert was forced to stake a claim that he would stick it out with the Cavaliers: moving quickly in that way forced us to forget for a moment that Dan Gilbert is himself a mediocre owner who didn’t do enough to impress on James that a championship would be coming soon.  If he couldn’t create a team that could win a championship with LeBron James, what is he going to do in the absence of his former star player?   

Very soon, within say, the span of a year, Gilbert’s head will be on a plate and the people of Cleveland will be feasting. 

But one does feel a strong sympathy for the people of Cleveland and Akron even as one might be somewhat put off by the vehemence with which they’ve decided to erase James from the collective memory of their foundering sports culture.  The image of Cleveland fans burning James’ jerseys in the streets and tearing down the iconic mural of him in the downtown area seems alarming and drastic even for the most ardent sports city.  The American Midwest is not the place where one expects to see scenes of such indignity.

At the same time, LeBron James represented one of the few sources of positivity for a region hard beset by economic and cultural woes.  James really was a lifeline for that city and his absence will be felt keenly, not simply for the economic vacuum that will follow in his wake, but for what he represented for the possibility of redemption.  James really was a kind of Midwestern messiah, and the over-the-top reaction to his departure is reflective of the depths of the city’s dependence on him. 

Gilbert’s reaction—which concurrently mirrors and distorts the heartbreak of the Cleveland fanbase—was hardly one of integrity or grace. But when we consider the financial problems that arise from LeBron James’s departure, the response in Cleveland takes on a different light. 

To a city like Cleveland, which has few if any national treasures and hardly any revenue-generating institutions, LeBron James leaving his team is like the President deciding that a more fitting place to house the nation’s Capitol would be somewhere outside of D.C.  The city’s importance, its status as a place of interest, hinges entirely upon an individual’s place there. 

This is also to say that the Cleveland Cavaliers are poor investors, placing all of their precious eggs into a particularly talented basket. 

The Lakers are a quintessential championship team not just because they have a superstar in Kobe Bryant or a mastermind like Phil Jackson guiding the ship. No, it is because all of their players can play at a high level when necessary.

Derek Fisher might be a 35-year-old slowpoke, but he can sink a three in a clutch situation like few others. 

Ron Artest might be a crazy, combustible man, but there are few who play defense with the aggressiveness and passion that he does. 

When Bryant was down and out this season with the flu, sure, the Lakers weren’t a championship team, but they continued to win games and found ways to overcome the obstacle of losing their star player. 

In other words, the Lakers had spread their athletic capital around to a greater degree than most other teams. 

The same is true of the Celtics, and that’s why a team of thirty-plus fading stars put on such a tremendous show until the end of the postseason.  Where the Magic had to rely solely on Dwight Howard, and the Heat could only realistically depend on Dwayne Wade down the stretch, the Celtics could pass to any given starter on any given night and stand a chance for putting in a basket.   

Sports commentators have used this opportunity to call James’ greatness into question as well.  Reggie Miller staked the unusual claim that he will never mention Michael Jordan and LeBron James in the same sentence ever again. 

Many sports commentators have remarked previously on comparisons between Jordan and James and have said that Jordan is the greater competitor between the two. Of that, there can be almost no doubt.  Michael Jordan is perhaps the most competitive person in human history—one would only have to watch his Hall of Fame induction speech to see that. 

But making comparisons between Jordan and James is an exercise in futility, and not simply because they are markedly different players from different eras.  If, let’s say, the best versions of Michael Jordan’s Bulls were to play LeBron James’s Cavaliers in a basketball game, and one had to rank each of the five players on both teams from best to worst, one would probably have Michael Jordan at the top and LeBron coming in at (a close) second.  Thereafter, the next four players would undoubtedly be Bulls.  The bottom four would invariably be Cavaliers. 

LeBron James didn’t have a Scottie Pippen or a Dennis Rodman to keep the level of play high in tough games.  Hell, LeBron James didn’t even have a Tony Kukoc in Cleveland.  It is hard to remember that Michael Jordan had Phil Jackson as a coach, and though the former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown got short shrift after the 2010 season concluded, the latter is certainly not comparable to the former.  And Jordan, as impressive as he has always been on the court, was not a champion until he had a solid supporting cast around him. 

We forget that when Jordan played the game, instant gratification wasn’t a factor in a player’s considerations.  The phrase “win now mentality” wasn’t part of sports vernacular.  It is strange to think that in Jordan’s time, we lived in an era of greater patience than we do now. 

As Kevin Garnett pointed out, if LeBron James waited in Cleveland for a championship, he might have been there forever—thirty five years old, knees giving out, arthritis in his wrists, and no ring to show for it.  And Garnett would know, having saddled the majority of his career to the Timberwolves, a squad that failed to do exactly what the Cavaliers have failed to do for the better part of a decade. 

Which is to say all comparisons between Jordan and James are worthless.  Jordan never had to consider moving to another city to play for another team because the one he helped to build around himself was solid.  We forget that in Jordan’s absence, the same Bulls team still managed to get to the playoffs.  Would anyone stake a bet on the 2010-2011 Cavaliers making the playoffs? 

 

The Future

When the dust settles—if it settles—from LeBron James’s decision to play for the Miami Heat, there will be a great deal of excitement about the upcoming basketball season and a lot of interest in James’s future. 

To be sure, the Miami Heat are the big winners in this particular off-season but the reality is that the NBA is the organization with the most to gain.  James’s mere nod toward Miami has revived ticket sales there in a way that has been largely unknown since the Heat won a championship ring in 2006. 

And once the season gets underway, the manner in which the decision was made and the way in which it was revealed will be largely forgotten.  We sports lovers are quick to forgive: we wanted Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant to return to their winning ways immediately following the revelation of their massive indiscretions.  We disregard the fact that David Ortiz was a steroid junkie during his best baseball-playing years (those in which the Red Sox won two World Series rings) and cheer him on when he rises out of the general mediocrity of his present-day ability.  We clear our memories of Michael Jordan’s arrogance and Randy Moss’ inimical behavior in the warm glow of their excellence.   

LeBron James will be a well-loved sports figure again very soon.  Maybe not in Cleveland, maybe not in all of Ohio, but to the residents of the other forty-nine states who embrace excellence over all else, he will be adored.  He will be a champion.  And if he wins multiple rings with his team, his decision will have been revealed to be the right one.  

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