Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Once and Future King

LeBron James will play for the Miami Heat in 2010-11, alongside a video-game roster of superstars and for a coach who may leave the club to “spend more time with his family” to be replaced by NBA Coaching Godfather Pat Riley.

Last night The Once and Future “King” announced his choice of team for the next five seasons after a year of utter madness in NBA circles due to his impending free agency. At times during the season – most notably at home in Game 5 of the Eastern Semifinals where he performed listlessly – it seemed as if he was distracted by the choice in front of him: Home; the Opportunity to become a Global Icon; South Beach; Russian Supermodels or Following the footsteps of your boyhood hero.

Each potential location presented its own perks: an Ohio native, James grew up supporting the Cleveland Cavaliers and almost single-handedly brought them back into basketball relevancy. New York City is the single greatest market in the World, allegedly James' favourite city: a city in which he would save basketball by winning, and be worshipped for it forever. In Chicago lay young All-Stars Derrick Rose & Joakim Noah and the potential to bring another “max” free agent. Also, Chicago was Michael Jordan's realm, giving LBJ the chance to emulate his boyhood hero. The New Jersey pitch revolved around young talent and a crazy Russian owner willing to spend big to win; whereas Miami efforts relied heavily on lifestyle (read: Cuban Supermodels and Great Weather) and established superstar Dwyane Wade.

In sixteen words at 9.27pm EST – LeBron told the world “This Fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat”. And with that one sentence, he ripped the heart out of his followers in Cleveland and to a lesser extent, those worldwide. With that one sentence, LeBron's legacy changed forever.

The most quotable media release on Thursday before “The Decision” was “He doesn't want to be 31 with bad knees and no title”. Over the last two seasons it became obvious that LeBron was frustrated at the Cavs' inability to win it all and felt that he needed help to do so. So, Cavalier management bent over backward to surround him with a vast array of “suitable” second bananas and supporting cast to soothe his troubled soul: Mo Williams, a washed-up 37 year old Shaq, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon – each rubber-stamped by James himself. The organisation mortgaged its future on these players and from a basketball-economics standpoint won't recover until Jamison's contract comes off the books in 2012.

In order to keep the best player in the game happy, Cleveland danced to his tune – and this, coupled with the wins, the adoration and the speculation seems only to have fueled James' ego and self-awareness. And what this decision says about LeBron James is that he is overconscious – scared, even – of his own legacy.

It's completely understandable that LeBron wants to win, and win now. But very rarely do superstars – especially players of this era, and those who skipped college even moreseo - win early in their careers. Often it takes years to reach the pinnacle of the NBA: and the most appropriate example is LeBron's childhood hero Michael Jordan. During the late 1980s, Chicago's roster developed slowly to the point where they had matured enough both physically and mentally to win the 1991 NBA championship. They then went on to win six. And it should/would have been eight.

Because LeBron is so aware of his standing (a process not helped by the intense speculation generated by free agency) and so conscious of his legacy, his legacy demands that he wins and wins now. So he placed demands on his front office in order to help him do so, who obliged. Given the constant tinkering and the roster didn't get the growth from within it needed to progress, only a mishmash of stars making coaching exceptionally difficult.

We've also learned that perhaps the most talented player ever doesn't want the responsibility of leading a franchise. That he's departed Cleveland rather than competing with Wade to recruit other free agents to join him in Cleveland is telling – he wants to walk straight into a winner and not bother with the leadership involved in building a team. Only two players have hads that instinctive leadership and it translated into instant pro success: Magic Johnson and Russell. Bird learned quick and early, while for Jordan, Chamberlain, Barry, Hayes, Moses and Erving it all took significantly longer. But given his astounding abilities, whichever team he plays for will always be a contender – and that unwillingness to take his own road implies he is scared to take responsibility for winning a championship himself.

By choosing South Florida LeBron tacitly admitted that he is a follower. And that's OK – he's 24. Very few people are effective leaders at that age and most grow into that role. By signing with the Heat, it also implies that he doesn't want to work at (can't be bothered?) turning into a leader and is content to submit to the preeminence of Dwyane Wade, making him the world's best-ever second banana. Now, this may work well or not, but I get the feeling that the most talented player we've ever seen should be the Leader on his team.

And – let's not forget this – LeBron was undecided until at least Wednesday. After both committed to Miami, Both Bosh and Wade said they had no idea where James would sign and I think that they honestly didn't know. Each just seemed happy that they had each other. The biggest domino was the last to fall. As the market played out, LeBron's options diminished and he found himself painted into a corner where his realistic options became: Rebuild in Cleveland, Create in Chicago, Self-Promote in NYC or Follow in Miami. And he chose follow. No matter what, his legacy will always be tarnished by this: the Greatest should never follow, they should always lead.

There are laudable aspects of James' decision-making process. After Dan Gilbert's puzzling and bewildering email tirade (see here: and the public knowledge that LeBron has not answered or returned his messages for two months, we can credit The Once and Future “King” with foresight. Gilbert's business sense amongst NBA owners is nearly nonpareil, but his quick temper seems to have bested him here. He had every right to be mortified by James' methods, but his rebuttal overshot the mark and it may brand him with the same chalk as some of the NBA's other loopy owners. Just think: Who's going to risk crossing a man like that? No one, better to just avoid the situation altogether.

Public statements have been made by all of James & Bosh confirming their willingness to accept less money to move to Miami – a decision by a Superstar (or three, in this case) for which we've been hoping for years. We love a story of sacrifice, it's built-in to us. Miami's top trio should be applauded for taking less to play together and win: in fact, given the Heat's lack of trade chips to orchestrate a sign-and-trade, it was the only way they could fit all three under the salary cap. LeBron initially comes out well as making a sacrifice for the sake of the team.

But to examine LeBron's a little deeper reveals the real crux. “The Decision” has revealed only the opposite: it's categorically proved LeBron's self-involvement. I don't mean in a basketball sense or even in a team sense: LeBron absolutely should do what's best for himself and his family. But his actions concerning “The Decision” special on ESPN were all at once self-conceited, misguided and cruel. Being an Ohio native, LeBron knows and has experienced the agonies of Cleveland sports fans (look up “The Drive”, “The Shot” and “The Fumble”). But “The Decision” – floated and arranged by his camp – turned what could or should have been a touching farewell into a savage circus. As Bill Simmons wrote (, if you're going to cut the heart out of your hometown, you don't do it in a one-hour television special. Whatever happened to grace, or class? “The Decision” as an idea was so badly conceived that it turned LeBron from “Guy who just wants to win” into “Misguided, Shameless Self-Promoter”.

Cleveland fans are now well-entitled to look upon his last game in the Quicken Loans Arena – his lackadaisical Game 5 against The Celtics – as a harbinger of the cruelty to come.

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