In Defense of LeBron and “The Decision”

What ever happened to LeBron James?

Remember old LeBron? You know, Cute, Innocent LeBron? The LeBron who covered up his tattoos when he played on national television for his high school team while appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated? The LeBron who was ruled ineligible because he accepted all those gifts and then allowed to play because the game was supposed to be on TV?

Yeah, where’d that selfless LeBron go?

I am personally offended by this new, egocentric LeBron James. Betrayed, even. I was all set to spend my Thursday night enriching myself with a thorough rereading of The Brothers Karamazov between commercials of a CSI: rerun.

Now? Now I have to sit down and watch LeBron for 10 minutes on “The Decision.” I have to. I can’t not watch. It’s an ESPN special with a snazzy title. It’s like The Bachelor or American Idol or the presentation of the Heisman Trophy; you can’t not watch just because you find the circumstances surrounding it so deplorable.

But honestly, why are we all surprised by LeBron’s self-promotion? Isn’t this good P.R.? Am I wrong in thinking that securing a ratings bonanza for a sports network on an otherwise mundane Thursday night is a smart move? What else would ESPN air Thursday at 9? The MLS Game of the Week? WNBA Basketball? Tape-delay footage of the 2009 World Series of Poker?

The real answer is “World Cup Primetime Special.” Description: “Previewing the title match in South Africa.” Airtime: 120 minutes. Great, now that we have to postpone the preview of a match that doesn’t take place for three more days, soccer will NEVER catch on in the States! Thanks a lot, LeBron.

LeBron’s move to make his free-agent decision–you know, the one for which franchises have been preparing for two years now–in the same manner most pretty good high school seniors make their innocuous college choices has been viewed as sickeningly egotistical. It is not. Actually, “The Decision” may just be the smartest move he’s ever made.

“The vacuous star for our vacuous times,” says Adrian Wojnarowski, who is so proud of a line that simultaneously indicts LeBron and modern American culture that he uses it both as an introduction and a conclusion. There’s a lesson here, kids: If you can’t prove your point, restating it is often just as good.

“Unfortunately, after struggling with the rest of the process, James tacked on a tacky ending guaranteed to have the nation rolling its eyes,” writes Mark Heisler of the LA Times, “selling the announcement to ESPN, turning it from a news event to a one-hour TV special.”

Does Heisler realize that any veritable “news event” these days is much more than a one-hour TV special. Was Mark around for the Tiger Woods thing, when it was all anyone talked about for a month? Oh, he’s too young.

“[W]hy take the weekend to think about the most important decision of your young life if a network executive has already booked you for 9 p.m. Thursday?” asks Mike Wise in a Washington Post column that manages to use the word “unseemly” twice in three paragraphs. Why indeed, Mike? Unless of course, LeBron already made that decision a few days ago and then alerted ESPN and instigated it all from his end…. Nah.*

*Man, and I like Wojnarowski and Wise.

The real forerunner in the LeBash of LeBron is Scott Soshnick from Bloomberg, who of course views free agency, as any NBA fan does, through the prism of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Among the things Soshnick’s column argues are the following:

  • “It isn’t enough for James, the grand prize in the NBA’s free-agent frenzy, aka the Summer of LeBron, to issue a statement announcing his decision where to play.” (Of course it’s not enough! It was barely enough for me when I announced which college I would go to! Fans have been waiting two years for this, and you expect a tweet? A fax?)
  • LeBron “began tantalizing teams via Twitter.” (Did you see that LeBron tweet last night when he said, “Hey guys, I’m totally signing with the Clippers…PSYCH!”? That was crazy! Oh wait, LeBron’s tweets have been decidedly uninformative. That Soshnick points to the fact that LeBron doesn’t follow anyone on Twitter as a sign of his selfishness is both hilarious and remarkably out-of-touch.)
  • LeBron doesn’t compare to Michael Jordan’s selfless “I’m back” fax (Yeah, LeBron would have done a much better service to himself and the league if he retired in his prime, forced his way onto a Double-A minor-league baseball team for which he was woefully unqualified, and then came back to the NBA 18 months later)
  • “In Beijing, [Kobe] Bryant showed up at the beach volleyball venue to watch Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, who could teach James and the rest of basketball’s best a little something about teamwork, togetherness and, in the end, triumph.” Because Misty May-Treanor would never do something as nakedly self-promotional as agree to appear on a celebrity dance television show, only to rupture her Achilles heel during training, basically ending her volleyball career. She would never do that. Never, in a million years. She is the paragon of teamwork, togetherness, and triumph because she won a gold medal in a two-person sport. Which LeBron James also did, but in a five-person sport. In the same Olympics. See?
  • “Maybe he should follow fellow All-NBA First Team player Kevin Durant, who yesterday tweeted that he’d agreed to a five- year extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Surely the league’s top scorer could have snagged a few minutes of face time on ESPN.” Here’s how Kevin Durant tried to snag face time on ESPN:

KD: Hey ESPN, I have an announcement to make.

ESPN: Really? What?

KD: I signed somewhere.

ESPN: You’re not a free agent.

KD: Yeah, but I signed a contract with a team.

ESPN: So you’re saying you re-signed with the Thunder? Since that’s the only team you can sign with?

KD: …Maybe…

ESPN: And?

KD: Can I be on SportsNation with Michelle Beadle?

ESPN: (Click)

  • “This is about one man’s insatiable desire for attention, as if that somehow aids his goal of winning multiple championships and becoming a billionaire.” First of all, it certainly aids his goal of becoming a billionaire. Second, does sending a fax or a tweet help LeBron win a championship? Does “The Decision” hurt his chances? Are his future teammates going to think, “Man, LeBron thinks he’s so much better than us! I’m fine with the fact that he is making over 30 percent of our payroll this season, with how his impending free agency was hyped more than anything else in this sport in several seasons, and that his jersey now outsells mine. What really gets me, what really grinds my gears, is how he did that ESPN special. Not cool, man”? Has Scott Soshnick ever once played a team sport in his life?

Seriously, J.A. Adande of ESPN is the only one who’s got a clue, essentially because he pointed out that everyone will be watching “The Decision” (and that Kobe pulled the same crap six years ago). I will, too, and the 10 minutes I spend watching it will more or less equal the time I spent watching the NBA Finals.* LeBron isn’t creating hype here; he’s responding to it (h/t to John for that phrasing). It isn’t as if nobody is interested in where he will go. Every casual fan of the NBA is on pins and needles today, and LeBron is just doing what any good showman would.** The NBA is not like the NFL, where there already exists a surplus of off-season information, and LeBron’s decision is not Brett Favre’s because it is much more significant. Where LeBron chooses to go will fundamentally shift the power of the NBA in a way no single football or baseball player ever could. The NBA feeds off star power, and LeBron has unfathomably built his beyond where it was before in spite of a horrendous playoff performance.***

*Note to all people I’m friends with on Facebook and follow on Twitter: I get it. Your next big life decision is going to be an ESPN one-hour special. That’s a hilarious joke that doesn’t in any way ignore the fact that everyone is dying to know where LeBron is going even before ESPN picked it up. Well-played.

**Some people have even criticized LeBron and ESPN for trafficking too much in “entertainment.” What does that E stand for again? And what is the purpose of sports?

***Caveat: LeBron did have a bad postseason, with the byproduct that most people now think LeBron cannot win a championship with the Cavs as currently constructed, even though they were the favorites to win it each of the last two years. LeBron, then, hasn’t done nearly as good a job obscuring his playoff failures as Chris Bosh, who has somehow marketed himself as the perfect companion to LeBron/Dwyane Wade who is still somehow worth a maximum contract despite the fact that he has won a grand total of three playoff games in his career. Not series, games! During the course of his next contract, Darko Milicic will make roughly $6.67 million for every playoff game Chris Bosh has ever won. Chris Bosh couldn’t even get the Raptors to the playoffs last season, just like he couldn’t get Georgia Tech to the NCAA Tournament as a star freshman. And we’re killing LeBron for not winning a title yet? And this doesn’t even mention that Bosh is the one who tantalized teams on Twitter, Bosh is the one who completely alienated his former team by pining for free agency while the season was still going on, and Bosh is the one who had a documentary crew around to film his free agency.****

****Who in their right mind would watch a documentary about Chris Bosh’s free agency?

This, of course, is NOT a change in LeBron’s personality. He is, after all, the athlete who claimed status as a “global icon” and the world’s first billionaire athlete as goals of his–right next to the banality of winning an NBA championship (something done every year by 14 guys). And what LeBron has done with “The Decision,” so long as he doesn’t curiously choose Miami,* is raise the stakes on himself even higher. I wrote last December that one of the things I was most excited for this decade was the career arc of LeBron James; and sometime around 9:10 tonight, it gets a hell of a lot more interesting. In making his decision a readily consumable television event–with the potential to be a “Where were you when LeBron signed with __?” moment–LeBron saddles himself with even more pressure to come through. He can’t not win a title with whatever team fills that blank. What would have been a disappointment without “The Decision” becomes a laughingstock with it. LeBron isn’t just making a decision tonight; he’s laying the groundwork for what is to become his legacy.

*Choosing to team up with Wade and Bosh in Miami appears to be antithetical to everything LeBron has done so far during his free agency.

Is it arrogant? Of course. But is it unjustified arrogance? It’s hard to be from the athlete on SI as a junior in high school, from the guy teams have been blowing up themselves to get for two full seasons. LeBron James isn’t playing by the rules that govern normal athletes; that’s because he isn’t one.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on July 8, 2010 at 5:45 PM

    It’s ridiculous how short peoples’ memories are w/r/t LeBron. Not only did people think a subpar playoff performance meant LeBron is incapable of winning a championship in Cleveland, but now people think this one-hour special is going to define LeBron’s legacy. Really, the next five years are going to determine how people remember this one hour. If LeBron goes to Miami and that trio becomes an impenetrable dynasty, then people will remember this as the time LeBron sacrificed his ego for the sake of winning and greatness. If LeBron goes to Miami and underachieves, it will be remembered as the time LeBron shied away from the spotlight to be a role player on Wade’s Heat. If LeBron stays in Cleveland and wins, this will be remembered as the time LeBron became a hero in Cleveland. If he stays and loses, it will be remembered as the time he turned down a chance to win in favor of loyalty.

    I’m pretty sure it won’t be remembered, though, as the time self-promotion and vanity vanquished all that was good and right with the sports world.

    Reply

  2. […] Aught Lang Syne « In Defense of LeBron and “The Decision” […]

    Reply

  3. […] (justifiably so, it seems). We, of course, psychoanalyzed LeBron’s Decision weeks ago, when Tim defended it before it happened, John S defended it after it happened, and Tim took issue with one thing LeBron said. (The GQ […]

    Reply

  4. […] We sure do, as it was a popular topic of conversation for us last summer. Tim started it out by defending The Decision (although he’d like to point out the significant caveat within that piece that reads […]

    Reply

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