Friday, July 9, 2010

Fill In the Blank: LeBron James is a ____.

There are two answers to this question, but let's look at the whole situation for a second first.

First off, money was never going to be an issue for James. He commands a max contract wherever he goes (I mean, Joe Johnson got a max deal in this market), and I imagine he'll get that or close to it in Miami. But he'll likely get at least as much money from endorsements, and possibly a lot more than his basketball salary. Miami, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Cleveland, it wouldn't really matter. James is a nationwide sensation, and between sodas and shoes and razors and fast food and clothing lines and everything else, he'd have garnered serious income regardless of where he played basketball.

If anything, he actually hindered his endorsement brand by going to Miami. He's going to a city that already has an elite basketball talent. The main difference between James and Dwayne Wade is that Wade's already got a ring. And as an elite passer, James is the most likely to find his production drop, specifically with regards to scoring. He'll have to be as good as or better than Magic Johnson to earn more credit than Wade for any future title runs. Not exactly an easy task.

But even still, James was going to make truckloads of cash anywhere he went. So let's get back to the title of this post, and let me give you my first answer.

LeBron James is a child.

I read an article yesterday by Bill Simmons that hearkened back a rumor that went around back in 2008 about LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Chris Paul wanting to work themselves onto the same team. Making a "pact" even. I don't remember hearing the rumor at the time, probably because it sounded so ridiculous, but today it obviously sounds a little more believable. And if it's true, if James' plan all along was to find a way to get on the same team as Bosh and Wade, then he's a child.

He's a child because that would've been impossible with the Cavaliers, and the team and Cleveland deserved to know that right away. This is the city that threw themselves at James, came out in droves to support him, and rooted him on even through playoff loss after playoff loss. James' Cavaliers kept coming up short, but Cavaliers fans were always willing to say, "Next year is our year. Just gotta get rid of ____, or find someone who can ____." If James was always planning on getting together with Wade and Bosh, then he should have used his considerable marketing machine to get the word out that he wouldn't be staying, and he certainly shouldn't have set up last night's ridiculous, narcissistic, anti-climactic ESPN special. There's a way that adults go about things (Michael Jordan's fax saying "I'm back" comes to mind), and LeBron James seems to have gone the other way.

Furthermore, he led on every other team that poured their hearts into every pitch to try to bring James to their town. Wade may have done the same, but everyone in the NBA was 99% sure he'd be back in Miami. So when he announced his intention to stay in Miami, no one was surprised, and realistically, no other NBA team could feel particularly slighted. But the Bulls, Knicks, Nets, and Clippers sent envoys to Ohio to meet with James, to try to sell him on the idea of playing for their franchises. Say what you will about NBA executives, and you can certainly think that the Knicks and Clippers sometimes show some questionable leadership. But these are serious men with serious jobs, and James yanked them around. Wouldn't it have been awesome to hear that Clippers GM Neil Olshey walked out of their meeting a la Al Pacino in Heat (2:40)?

Now, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert didn't exactly act completely mature when he went off about James' "disloyalty," in his open letter to Cavaliers fans. But I do get the sense that he put himself into a better light with a lot of Cleveland basketball fans. And while I think Gilbert is a little bit delusional when he guarantees that Cleveland will win a title before Miami, it's certainly nice to have an owner show that kind of passion. I'd be proud to be a Cavs fan today.

Moving on to answer number two...

LeBron James is a coward.

As I mentioned above, James went to Miami, which regardless of MVP trophies, is Dwayne Wade's team. Wade already has a championship, and Wade figures to be right there with James when it comes to assigning credit for any future championships that the Heat might win. So at most, James will be one of two elite players on an elite team (I don't see Bosh as much more than an All-Star, kind of like Ron Artest or Lamar Odom for the Lakers). And if the team doesn't win, Wade will take nearly as much blame as James.

Cleveland, the only team that anyone thought had a chance to jump in after the Miami rumor gained steam, is also a destination of lessened pressure. While Cleveland fans are rabid, and eager to find a championship team they can embrace, their patience for their native son might have known no bounds. He would have likely benefited from the same hometown mentality that Joe Mauer will get for the Twins, or Cal Ripken for the Orioles (though Ripken did win a championship in his second season). True, the annals of NBA history are defined by champions, but the pressure to win in Cleveland would have been smaller for James.

Look at the other four teams who passionately courted James: the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Knicks and Nets, both of whom will claim New York City as their home soon. Those are three cities with histories of success in sports, and the three biggest media markets in the United States. For comparison, Cleveland and Miami rank 16th and 17th, respectively.

Had James gone to the Clippers, he'd have committed himself to a career-long comparison between himself and Kobe Bryant, a comparison he'd almost surely never win. If James chose to sign with the Bulls, he'd live in the shadow of Michael Jordan, the greatest player of our generation. And had he chosen the Knicks or Nets, he'd be the focal point of basketball in the nation's biggest city, particularly with the Knicks.

And that's exactly why he should've gone to one of those teams. I read a post on Facebook last night that I'll paraphrase here:
We should be happy with LeBron's decision. We're always saying that we wish athletes would just care about winning, and not worry about money or fame or anything else. I say good for him for having his priorities straight.
It was when I read this that I realized that a desire to win isn't what I look for in athletes, at least not on a general level. I didn't like it when Gary Payton and Karl Malone went to the Lakers to try to ride Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant a title. I don't care for athletes who try to latch onto other players to get titles. I like players who say, "I'm the guy other people should be latching onto." James had the opportunity to go to other teams and actually be a king. He had the chance to make his own history, to take his own run at being the best player of all time. Instead, he hitched his wagon to Dwayne Wade's star (and vice versa; they're two of the top five players in basketball).

I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a personal interest in James going to New York. I've liked the Knicks since I was young, and I'd have liked to see them return to glory; James was essentially a free pass to 50 wins, and a healthy Amare Stoudemire makes them a force in the East. But I have to think the NBA would've loved for James to go to the Knicks as well. They're perhaps the most religiously followed team in the NBA, the most widely supported, through good times and (as has been the case recently) bad. Having the Knicks become relevant again would be a boon for basketball. Had LeBron James led the Knicks to an NBA championship, he'd have cemented his place in history. Just one championship. In Miami, he'll need four or five.

I'm not a Cavaliers fan. As the Wizards are my home team, the Cavs were something of a nemesis in the middle of the 2000's, bouncing Washington out of the playoffs three straight seasons. But I feel for Cavs fans like my partner Joe Mandi. I don't think I'd say that this is worse than Art Modell stealing the Browns away to Baltimore, but it's worse than any on-field disappointment the city has ever endured. I can't make myself root for the Cavaliers, but you'd better believe I'll be rooting against the Heat.

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