One of the strangest events to happen in the NBA this summer, perhaps even more shocking than LeBron James' "decision" to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and play for the Miami Heat with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, was the emergence of the Internet rumor that LeBron's Cavs teammate, Delonte West, had engaged in a physical love affair with LeBron's mother, Gloria James, during the Cavs' playoff run in the 2010 NBA post-season.
The rumor started in May on a sports gossip website and gained traction when former NBA player and Basketball Hall of Famer, Calvin Murphy, claimed in an ESPN radio interview that his "sources in the NBA" told him that the story was "absolutely true".
The story gained even more credibility when ESPN journalist, Bill Simmons, discussed it on his radio show with fellow ESPN contributor and Washington Post journalist, Chuck Klosterman, who stated, “You sort of feel like this [Delonte] West rumor…is true. And that [LeBron] felt sort of like this is something that everybody in their organization knew about and by not telling him, yeah, he had animosity toward the franchise and the organization”.
Simmons responded that "if you look at the way LeBron left and the way he played those last couple games and the fact that you know if you watch this team the last 2-3 years, how tight they were, they all these little rituals. You know, this was like one of the most close-knit NBA teams I think any of us had ever seen. And by the end of that Boston series that was gone". Simmons further concluded, "It does make you wonder...but something happened”.
Fellow ESPN journalist and radio talk show host, Colin Cowherd, further gave credence to the rumor by claiming that the New York media had "staked out LeBron James' mother's house in recent months and was going to run a very embarrassing story" and that "LeBron's people had to go to the New York Post and beg them not to run a story". He went on to claim that the story, along with New York's "relentless media", was a huge factor in LeBron not choosing to play for the New York Knicks, which had been the front-runner in signing LeBron in his free agency prior to the rumor, due the fact that "[LeBron] didn't want to put [his mom] in the spotlight".
Speculation emerged that LeBron found out about the affair prior to Game 4 of the Cavs' Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Boston Celtics. Leading 2-1 in the first three games, the Cavs lost Game 4, with LeBron committing seven turnovers.
In Game 5 held in Cleveland, LeBron's performance further deteriorated, scoring only 15 points on 3-14 shooting and 0-4 three-point shooting, and making his first field goal of the game only in the third quarter. The Cavs went on to lose the game by 32 points, their worst home playoff loss in history.
LeBron's performance rebounded in Game 6, achieving a triple-double. However, he also committed nine turnovers, including a critical one in the fourth quarter when the Cavs were making a run to tie-up the score. His team ended up losing the game to the Celtics by nine points, a stunning defeat for the Cavs who were the favorites to come out of the East having had the best regular-season record in the NBA.
After LeBron made his "decision", many in the sports media as well as the fans, particularly in Cleveland, claimed that LeBron had "quit" in the series, and that he further "quit" on his team and hometown fans when he decided to join the Miami Heat. LeBron's reputation as "King James" decimated practically overnight to "LeQuit", and Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cavs, poured gas into the fire by claiming in an interview with the Associated Press that LeBron had not only quit in every Cavs loss in the Boston series, but had quit the previous year in Game 6 of the Cavs' Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic, resulting in the Cavs losing the series and the end of their championship hopes.
Now this rumor has been strongly denied by LeBron's camp, with his lawyer sending a "cease and desist" letter to the sports gossip website that originally reported the story, stating that the rumor is "categorically false", "despicable", and "per se defamatory". However, it is understandable for LeBron and his mother to want to deny this story, even if it was true, given the explosiveness and embarrassing nature of the revelations.
If the rumors are true, however, it would go a long way in explaining LeBron's subpar performances half-way into the Celtics series, as well as why he decided to leave to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.
It's not unreasonable for LeBron's performance to drop off like it did if he found out about his mother's affair with Delonte West prior to Game 4 of the series. Even in the strongest and most iron-willed of competitive athletes, there is a certain "breaking point" in which extraneous circumstances would affect their performance.
Take Michael Jordan, for instance. If say his father, James Jordan Sr., was murdered during the Bulls' NBA Finals series against the Phoenix Suns in 1993 rather than later in the summer, it can be surmised that such a tragedy would affect even the performance of Jordan, considered possibly the most competitive player ever to compete in the NBA. Given that Jordan quit professional basketball altogether after his father's death, only to return nearly two years later, it would not be far-fetched to think that Jordan might have "quit", or at least delivered a lesser performance, in the series against the Suns.
Now this is not to compare the gravity of Jordan's tragedy to LeBron's situation with his mother, but only to serve as an example that it can be understandable when certain personal situations cause distractions and a lack of focus on the court.
A similar situation happened to the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Prior to the 2003-04 season, Kobe was arrested for sexual assault against a Colorado hotel employee. The subsequent media circus and legal hearings continued throughout the season, which ended when the Lakers lost the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons in five games, despite having acquired perennial All-Stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the team in the off-season. That year, Kobe's performance fell off dramatically, averaging six less points per game from the previous season, and dropping his rebounding average by nearly 1.5 per game, despite playing in 17 less games.
In terms of LeBron wanting to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat after finding out about his mother's affair, that is also understandable. Given that Delonte West was still part of the Cavs' roster when he made his decision, it's not surprising that LeBron would not want to return to the team with a teammate that violated such an "unbreakable code" between a group that considered themselves "brothers". The act is so grotesque and repulsive that even for LeBron and Delonte to discuss it openly between themselves would have been absurd.
As Chuck Klosterman had speculated, the rumor was something that the entire Cavaliers organization was aware of, but did not inform LeBron, and for this reason LeBron "had animosity toward the franchise and the organization".
If it's true that his other teammates and even the Cavs front office knew about the situation, and not only didn't tell LeBron, but didn't try to prevent it, then LeBron would have every right to feel betrayed and angry at the team. Imagine if in your group of friends that one of your crew was sleeping with your mom, and everyone knew but you. Would you still want to be friends with that group, especially if the offender was still part of the circle?
Some of LeBron's detractors might point out that LeBron's mom gave birth to him when she was just 16 years old, and therefore would have only been 34 years old when LeBron entered the league. This would make her younger than some of the players in the NBA at the time, including Karl Malone and Gary Payton, and around the same age as Rick Fox. Given that she was a single woman, never having been married, it's not inconceivable that LeBron would have noticed if she was attracted to players in the league, and should have been at least somewhat prepared for this situation.
They would also stress that the relationship was consensual, and therefore LeBron's mom was just as "guilty" as West for the affair, and that she too did not inform him of her relationship with his teammate. They would also bring up that West is married, and therefore Gloria James is a "homewrecker" and took part with West in adultery.
Now these are all fair assumptions and Gloria James should not be given a "free pass" in this situation. However, even though one expects more from a parent, it does seem much worse that a fellow player would participate in such an tryst, since being a NBA star would practically guarantee far more "options" and opportunities for sexual affairs than one could expect for a 41 year-old single mother, and thus the targeting a teammate's mom seems deliberate and unnecessary.
In considering not only the affair, but the circumstances in which LeBron found out about the affair, it should alter how we view both LeBron's performance against the Celtics in the playoffs and his choice to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. And while not commending or excusing his actions, should the rumors be true, LeBron would deserve some more understanding, and perhaps sympathy, for his "decision".
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