“Where’s your crown, King Nothing?” —Metallica
One could make an argument that Cleveland’s second round exit at the hands of the Celtics in this year’s playoffs, and particularly the nature in which they exited, hurt the Man who Would Be King's image.
I say “could” cause it’s not much of an argument if practically everyone agrees with you.
It’s almost a given that LeBron James has never had to face a similar situation in his career up to this point. Until this year, there were always excuses made for his inability to translate his team's regular season success into titles. Not this year. This one is on LeBron.
If LeBron were just another really good basketball player forced in a situation like the one he has in Cleveland —come on, no team with Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams as your No. 2 and No. 3 options is going to win a title —it would make sense to use this year’s free agency to get the hell out of town as fast as possible.
However, LeBron isn’t your common or garden variety All-Star. His aspirations extend beyond basketball. He wants to be a global icon and the world’s first billionaire athlete.
Being such an icon requires more than on-court success. Michael Jordan, David Beckham, Roger Federer et al —these guys aren’t icons just because they’re ridiculously good at their sports (in fact, I would argue that Beckham isn’t actually that good at soccer), it’s because they’re as good (or better) at marketing and selling themselves as a product as they are at their respective sports.
I took a few marketing courses in my first year of university, and one of the most important things I learned was “Image Is Everything.”
For an athlete to enter iconic status in our modern, consumer-driven world, their image has to be one that can sell to consumers, and, more importantly, hold up once the proverbial light is shone onto it.
Why did Tiger Woods suffer such a dramatic fall from grace when all the tales of his infidelity came out?
It sure as hell wasn’t just because he was a celebrity who was getting a little bit on the side. It was because he and his marketers had worked so hard to portray an image of him as this clean-cut husband and family man.
Once that was shot out of the water, there went any hope of him being remembered as a true icon of golf.
When all is said and done, we’ll be remembering him as one of the greatest golfers of all time, if not maybe the greatest. But not as an icon.
Golf isn’t my area of expertise, so correct me if I’m wrong. I consider it a successful game when I return after nine holes with at least half the balls I started with, and I cheat so much on my score it’s practically irrelevant anyway.
While a playoff loss hardly hits LeBron’s image in the way that Tiger’s ladies hurt his, he’s still undoubtedly taken a hit.
Which brings us to the 2010 Free Agency.
I’m not speculating on whether he leaves or not, or even where he goes. All I will say is that if he leaves, it will be a far bigger hit to his image.
Losing is one thing. But everyone hates quitters. Almost as much as they hate disloyalty.
For LeBron to leave Cleveland for greener pastures right now, he will be setting himself up to be charged with both.
Some of his more sympathetic critics are comparing him to Kevin Garnett, who saw his prime wasted on a series of crappy Timberwolves teams but stayed on out of loyalty (cause you tell me why else he would have stayed).
There’s a difference.
KG stayed in Minnesota for twelve seasons where he won a grand total of three playoff series. He took a team with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell —Latrell Effing Sprewell —to the Western Conference Finals.
And that was the best team he ever played on before he finally gave in and asked for a trade. But that was, once again, after giving his all for twelve seasons while the front office did all they could to screw him over.
LeBron has spent seven seasons in Cleveland since his rookie year. He’s made the Conference Finals twice and the NBA Finals once. While he’s certainly not had the greatest of teammates, he’s generally been in a better situation than what KG was in in Minnesota.
Had he been able to draw a bit more out of himself in Game Five and his teammates in Game Six of the Boston series, that would have been three Conference Finals with a team more suited to take on Orlando.
In short, while it’s not a perfect situation, it’s a workable one. With a more competent front office and coaching staff, it could be even better.
To leave now for New York, Chicago, or Miami… it would basically be the equivalent of taking a dump on the city of Cleveland and the entire Cavaliers organization. While this may not matter much to him personally, it won’t make him look any better. In fact, it makes him look like a complete arsehole.
Again, not the kind of image a guy aspiring to iconic status wants. I am basically a nobody. The closest I’ve ever gotten to LeBron James was at a Cavs/Warriors game a few years ago where I was a couple of rows back. I don’t know anybody who has his ear. Nonetheless, here’s my advice to him.
Stay in Cleveland, but take a three-year deal.
Three years gives the Cavs time to upgrade the roster, starting with trying to trade Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams. Take expiring contracts if necessary (in fact, with Carmelo, Yao Ming and David West among others all off contract next year, that might actually be a good idea) and build a team which can give the Man Who Would Be King a genuine shot at a ring.
In three years, LeBron will be 28. Assuming he doesn’t have any career-killing injuries between now and then, he will have spent ten years with the Cavaliers.
If he has a ring (or two or three) by then, he has no reason to leave.
If he’s still ringless, he can at least genuinely say that “look, I busted my arse doing all I could to win in Cleveland. I didn’t get the help I needed. You can all see that. I’m only going to get slower and less athletic from here —I probably have a few more years max at my peak when I can genuinely contend for a title.
"You can’t begrudge me wanting to go to a situation where I can in now,” before going to another team.
And no one would.
We, the people, have certain expectations for our sporting heroes. If you don’t like your job and we decide to leave for greener pastures, no one would criticize you for it.
Unfortunately, with athletes, particularly in team sports, there is still a certain idea that they should be loyal to the team as much as possible. Having spent more than half my life around Rugby League, a professional sport which is still steeped in such amateur ethos, I see it all the time.
And while the NBA may be the epitome of the modern, hyper-professional sporting league, fans still demand a certain amount of loyalty from their players. If you doubt me, just watch any game when Vince Carter returns to Toronto or Stephen Jackson returns to the Oracle Arena and hear the booing.
That’s not to say we hate our players who leave or are forced to do so —I don’t know any Timberwolves fans who hate KG, for one. We just expect them to leave knowing they did the best they could for our team while they were one of us.
No one can argue that LeBron truly did the best he could in that Boston series. For him to leave now would not only be an insult to the Cavaliers organization and the city of Cleveland. It would be taking a dump on his own image.
As my old marketing instructor told us that hot, sweaty March day with the air conditioning in the lecture theatre busted and the hot, large-breasted girl next to me removed her top in all it’s glory (OK, the heat may have caused me to hallucinate and/or daydream a bit as well), image is everything.
And that wasn’t a daydream or hallucination.