Long-time sportswriter and commentator Frank Deford chose to speak of the Ten Commandments, New York City and a particular native son of Cleveland, Ohio in his weekly radio column on NPR yesterday (January 6th). Ford is one of my favorite sports pundits, mainly because he takes a counter- intuitive approach in his choice and treatment of topics.
I was especially excited to hear the topic because I have been thinking the same thing recently about New York. And that's where the Ten Commandments come in. Deford (and I) think(s) New York and New Yorkers have edited out the commandment not to covet.
New York is constantly guilty of coveting the best professional athlete that is not currently on the roster of a New York team. The attitude is, "We're New York and we deserve the best—always, everyone, everything."
In light of the long term languishing the once mighty New York Knicks of the NBA have been suffering, it is no wonder that the object de covetousness du jour in the Big Apple is someone big, currently shining in red—King James himself, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Knicks have deteriorated to their worst standing in recent history if not franchise history en toto. New Yorkers are not used to having their teams caught in the cellar for multiple seasons, the object of ridicule and derision by the rest of the world (well, except for the Mets at various times in their history). And if there is one thing New Yorkers can't take is being on the bottom, even for a moment.
So it is no surprise that Knicks fans assume the Gotham Gods have set them up for redemption as the man who is arguably the best individual player in the NBA, LeBron James, is about to become a free agent.
And that's why I say it's time for them to pick up the King James Bible and review the commandment they've conveniently (as the Church Lady would scold) chosen to ignore. "Thou shalt not covet." And to depart from King James vernacular, the commandment goes on to make an illustrative but not exhaustive list of things one should be certain not to covet, such as your neighbor's ox and your neighbor's wife.
Covetousness made Moses's Top Ten List because it is a particularly dark and destructive version of the lesser sin of envy and also includes another broken commandment within a commandment in the sense that in order to covet something, one is also making an idol of it.
Yes, this is a sports column and not a sermon, but bear with me for another paragraph. To idolize something is to give it more value in your heart than it deserves and more than other things that should be the focus of your worship, such as people, relationships, God—you know—things like that.
To covet is to want what someone else has. Not something just like it. That actual thing. It is not wanting your neighbor's sister in law or his wife's clone. It is wanting your neighbor's wife (or husband). It is not wanting to go out and buy a red Ferrari just like the one your neighbor has, it is being absolutely and exclusively obsessed with obtaining, by any means necessary, that very Ferrari currently parked under your neighbor's portico.
The longer one obsesses on that which one covets, the more that person becomes consumed by the obsession. And then, things never end well. Neither for the coveter, the coveted, or the holder of the coveted.
So unless or until King James himself steps up and tells New Yorkers to get over themselves, he's Cleveland born and bred and he's going to dedicate his career to getting a championship at least and a dynasty at best for his home town, this ugly foment of covetous lust will only get deeper, darker, and more evil than anything we've seen in sports or otherwise, in the history of humanity.
But of course Mr. James has not said anything like this, or even implied it. Instead he makes himself seen at Yankee games wearing a Yankee cap. He flashes his coy smile whenever the subject is raised in an interview. He doesn't say much. He doesn't say anything really. But that's the problem. He leaves the whole issue up to speculation and debate.
Sure, it's a free country, and a free market, once his contract is up. So why shouldn't he put his services up for auction? In fact, isn't trusting the market, the patriotic thing to do in a capitalist country?
Yes and no. If Cleveland were General Motors and New York were General Electric, sure. Bid out your services, Mr. James and let the best company win. But cities are not companies. And as much as professional sports is a business on the surface, they are so much more than that, so much other than that in their essence that the business aspect is ancillary.
In fact what drives and sustains professional sports is more intrinsically related to family loyalty, civic pride and patriotism, than to business. The only reason sports is a successful business is that it leverages community spirit, roots, and connections in order to generate revenue.
Sentimentalism trumps everything from fashion to finances where pro sports are concerned. I may hate red, but if I live in Cleveland I love Cavalier red and wear it with pride. I spend more than I should on logo wear, and more than the items I purchase are worth, as mere clothing. I don't buy that No. 23 jersey in both home and away colors and also the throwback puke yellow jersey with the fairy-feather on it because I love the way it looks on me, but because I love Cleveland, I love the Cavaliers, and I love the way the Cavaliers make me feel about being from Cleveland and about being myself.
Therefore the absolute necessity of LeBron James renewing his commitment to Cleveland is absolutely clear. It would be true even if James were not a native. Any key player upon whom a franchise has been built has a moral and spiritual obligation to stay with the team that helped one propel his or her career. That person becomes iconic of the city, not just the team representing the city. But when the central player is homegrown, the bond and the severity of breaking it, increases exponentially.
Does this mean that Lebron James must spend his entire career in Cleveland? Not necessarily, but it does mean that he is morally obligated to remain in Cleveland as long as he is needed, and rather than leave town as a free agent, leave in a trade, so the team can replace him with a player or group of players of equivalent value.
Does this mean that the obligation is all one way, that James and others like him are at the mercy of team owners with no recourse? Absolutely not.
A team owner is a steward of the franchise and all the intangibles that create, maintain, and nourish the covenant relationship between the team and its home city. A team owner that acquires and dispatches players like commodities is just as much at fault as the athlete who considers only the personal economic benefits of a contract, rather than the psycho-socio-spiritual value that far transcends how much a player earns over how long, and what happens when the term expires.
Perhaps one reason I am so passionate about this topic and this particular situation is that I grew up in Buffalo. I was in high school when the Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Portland Trailblazers entered the NBA as a triple-birth.
The first game ever played in Braves' history was against the Cavaliers, and won by Buffalo. That was the only game Buffalo would win for a month or more, but it was an expansion year. Nothing mattered except that finally Buffalo had its own NBA team, and Cleveland (as well as Portland) shared our DNA.
Cleveland and Buffalo share a lot more than Lake Erie waterfront. They are similar cities demographically and historically. They've both had glory days, but both, not for the better part of a century. They've both suffered serial frustration with their sports teams, and if you connect the current Browns franchise with the original one until it left for Baltimore (as the NFL has deemed to do) the Browns and the Bills are among the few teams left in the NFL not to have won a Superbowl, despite the decades-worth of "next-years" when everyone was convinced the stars would be aligned to go all the way.
Last year was a year like that for the Cavaliers. They'd come close a few times before but last year it appeared they were unstoppable. And if they had not been from Cleveland or Buffalo, they probably would have been. Instead, the Ghost of Rust Belts past seems to have sabotaged the Cavaliers in ways resembling four consecutive choke-outs committed by the Buffalo Bills in the early 90's.
Further cementing the Cleveland-Buffalo symbiosis is the fact that at the peak of the Buffalo Braves ascent from expansion team to contender, Buffalo's equivalent of LeBron James, Bob McAdoo (Rookie of the Year, multi year Player of the Year, and Hall of Fame honors) along with two other Braves starters, was essentially sold to the Knicks mid-season in the beginning of a strategy to gut the franchise and alienate the fans ala the Cleveland Indians in the film "Major League."
Except this wasn't a movie, as much as Buffalo fans kept pinching themselves hoping against hope that it was, and the ragamuffin crew of motleys remaining in Buffalo did not play above their pay grade as the fictitious Indians did.
But that being said, you can see where I'm coming from on the King James issue. Nothing less than History depends on his staying put, not only for Cleveland, but for those in Buffalo who still feel the pull of the basketball umbilical cord shared with Cleveland and Portland in 1970.
As for the Buffalo-Cleveland choke-out connection, you don't have to spell it out with a jumbo Sharpie. The Cavs had so dominated the NBA all last season it was hard to imagine a scenario in which they would not make the Finals, say nothing of winning once they got there, just as no one could imagine the Bills losing to the Giants, wide right off Scott Norwood's foot.
But like the soldiers of their sister city, the Cavs choked. Lebron James choked most of all.
And as this season tipped off, it began to look as if the window of history had already closed for James and his Cavalier crew. But now, the Cavaliers are gradually rising back to the top of the glass, showing increasing evidence of a dynasty in the making.
But, like everything else in sports, in life, a dynasty is won a game at a time. It is won by learning not to choke, even when the pressure is on and the chips are down.
And it is won by a King.
Democracies are not dynasties. Dynasties are, by definition, royalty. No King James, no crown in Cleveland. It's that simple.
So this is what I expect of Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers organization. I expect them both to begin serious conversation today about how they can find the win/win formula to tie the King's legacy to the Cavaliers and Cleveland.
Now, if after taking his town to the mountain top and coming back with the hardware, Lebron, like Brett Favre, wants to see if he can repeat the feat somewhere else, I say, "Go with God." Once all has been won, he owes neither the Cavaliers nor their fans anything more, and they owe him everything.
But unless or until that happens, King James, you belong in Cleveland. And you covetous curs in New York, don't you dare try to take a bite out of this big red apple.
John Wingspread Howell is a professional speaker, writer, and business consultant originally from Buffalo, currently living in Chicago. He is available to speak for your event or organization about sports or a broad variety of topics involving motivation, personal growth, team building, spirituality and success. Learn More/Schedule an Appearance www.johnwingspreadhowell.com/scheduleanappearance.aspx