The LeBron James Problem? Loyalty, Honor and The Right to Work In The NBA

William JohnsonCorrespondent IIIFebruary 24, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 23:  Carmelo Anthony is introduced as a New York Knick player during a press conference at Madison Square Garden on February 23, 2011 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

When I was in college, I worked truck shifts at a to-remain-nameless company.

Everyday after class I'd go down to the store, put on my grimy work clothes and unload massive semi-trucks full of TVs, washing machines and iPods. It was fun work; the pay was terrible, the hours awful and nothing was guaranteed (hours, money, future), but it gave me the opportunity to make money and study.

But despite how much I enjoyed fooling around with the guys and throwing around TVs for a "living," I never gave it a second thought when a new job offer came that offered more money and more stability.

For the company I worked trucks for, this was part of the business: Work like truck-shifts was mostly temporary work until people found the next best thing.

And so, it goes, is the NBA. The most consistent (and correct) argument often used when describing the NBA and the recent exodus of its superstars is "it's a business." Yet I have fallen victim to a romantic vision of the NBA (as have many others) that goes against our own core sensibilities when it comes to making money, being comfortable and doing what we want to do.

Why is that? Is it even something that can be answered?

Players on the NBA have moved about for a multitude of reasons with varying results, but it seems as though negative attention was only brought on the move if the player had a choice in the manner and his goals were, if not unwholesome, then at least, somewhat cheap.

Take Karl Malone: Here was a guy who played 18 seasons all with one franchise (the Jazz). Then, in what would be his final (and 19th) season, he jumped ship ring-chasing with the Lakers.

Like karma, it seems, he made the Finals (for the third time in his career) and lost in five games.

Many attacked Malone abandoning the franchise he was so loyal to for an endeavour that would pad his impressive resume but would, obviously, mean less wearing another uniform. Others though praised him for trying to get that ring, at any cost, loyalty be damned.

And another group, perhaps small, just saw it as business as usual.

When you add trades, free agency and the ring that is so beneficial/detrimental to a player's legacy, it seems there are a large number of argument, for or against, team loyalty.

But LeBron James may have created a new monster.

Despite my romanticism, something my father and many others call "outdated," what LeBron James did with "The Decision" has been done hundreds of times before.

The problem was just HOW it was done: In a broadcast shown to millions of people, loyalty seemed to be thrown out the door in the most mainstream way possible. Adding to that, it began a trend that has confounded GMs and agents alike as many superstars want to jump on the LeBron wagon.

There was, of course, the Chris Paul rumors almost immediately after "The Decision," which has Paul pretty much ready to go to New York, Orlando or even LA. Then, the Melo saga began it what seemed to be an endless and almost legacy-destroying display of selfish mind-games (and not just by Carmelo Anthony).

That saga ended, finally, but it has caused a ripple effect in the NBA that will simply not go away.

Dwight Howard, a player who has, so far, been loyal to his team by staying with them through thick and thin (signing extensions, not requesting trades) is, unknown to all but Howard, allegedly involved in the same type of LeBron scenario come 2013.

And Paul, though he seemed to have worked out his issues with New Orleans, is surely the subject of future trade/free agency talk.

These two superstars choosing to go somewhere else would not be a problem as, like I've said, it has happened endlessly since free agency began.

But what is troubling is HOW they would go about doing it. Rumor has it DH12 wants to go to an already stacked Laker team while Paul is being pencilled in for New York which, as of today, has two superstars already, much like the Miami Heat.

Thus, the problems for outdated purists like me becomes: When can loyalty be put aside and when does competitiveness and passion become sacrificed for superficial resume boosting?

If I was to think logically, for example, LeBron James was not DISLOYAL to Cleveland at all. He served his contract without question. He never demanded a trade or ask to be released. When it came down to it, he fulfilled the contractual obligations of the Cavaliers.

But LeBron did represent, whether he intended to or not, a new form of team loyalty. Being a homegrown product of Ohio and vowing seemingly lifelong loyalty to the Cavs (even promising a championship) many saw his right to leave as abandonment. This can be argued for days and, logically, I can't argue for that stance despite my "outdated" view of loyalty and honor.

What I can stand behind, though, is the argument that LeBron, and many others, took the easiest path to success...and that this trend, which seems to just be beginning, will lead to not only a destruction of league-wide competitiveness, but the softening of what a superstar is and what their accomplishments actually mean.

When you think of Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, the two titans had to beat each other to get the ring. When you think of the GOAT, Micheal Jordan, you think of the teams he led and the teams he had to beat to get to the ring.

ESPN's Colin Cowherd made a great point on his radio show the other day that though only eight or nine teams have won the title in the last few decades, 18 of 30 teams have competed for the actual trophy.

What happens when that list of 18 is narrowed down to nine or six? Will the ring mean as much as it did to former champions? Will the "business" of the NBA, set up by such emotional constructs as winning, losing and competing, thus become so business-like that every year will be a screenplay with the same expected results?

This brings me back to my own work career. I've worked many jobs and as I sit down now, with an actual career and look back, I didn't show any actual loyalty to my former positions.

But, perhaps, my jobs were different. I never had a job of competition, where I was trying to outdo another person and thus my reward was nation or worldwide prestige.

The NBA, whether stars want to admit it or not, are held up to a certain standard. With the money, the travel, the aches, the pains and the strains on the family come expectations and the legacy of those that came before them.

Fans will always take sports more seriously, perhaps, then a majority of the people that actually play simply because, and this is where the disconnect is, players realize it is a job as well.

Fans don't see it that way. It is easy to forget money and contracts, and our own perspective on work, when we get wrapped up in emotion, which is tied to teams by history and players by expectation.

So I'm willing to let my strict stance on team loyalty go (only 23 players have stayed their entire careers on a team for eight years or longer, 18 of which are active), but not on league-wide competition.

I'll ditch romance and stick to being a purist: The right to free agency is granted, accepted and fine, but the need to stay competitive needs to stay in tact.

What LeBron James did (and what Carmelo did as a result and what Chris Paul and Dwight Howard threaten to do, allegedly) is basically correct but, perhaps, their motives were not.

Will the NBA crumble as a result? Or is my type of fan/historian going the way of the dodo?


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