The LeBron Decision

LeBron James hanging up his Cavs jersey

It isn’t often that a player is accused of being selfish for taking less money in order to win championships. It isn’t often that a player is accused of being self-aggrandizing for holding a special that donates all proceeds to charity. It isn’t often that a player is accused of letting an entire city down after pretty much single-handedly leading his team to consecutive 60-win seasons.

But then again, LeBron James isn’t a normal basketball player, so comparing him to what “often” happens probably doesn’t make much sense.

There was something undeniably disappointing about the way LeBron’s decision played out yesterday. Maybe it was because of the slow, gradual, yet inevitable way it all played out: It went from possibly Miami, to probably Miami, to almost certainly Miami. By the time LeBron actually sat down for his interminable interview with Jim Gray, the outcome was all but certain, even if everyone was hoping that LeBron would justify our collective denial.

But it’s hard to see it being as disappointing if the gradually leaking information had all indicated that LeBron would return to Cleveland, or even that he would go to New York. No, there was something uniquely disappointing about LeBron signing with Miami, just one day after Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh announced their plans to play in South Beach.

So why, exactly, was this so disappointing? Was LeBron’s behavior really “selfish”? Did he really “betray” the city of Cleveland?

On some level, this kind of question is ridiculous. What LeBron did was actually a rare act of selflessness in sports: He took less money to play for a better team. For all the criticism athletes get for saying “it’s about winning” right before they sign the biggest contract that gets offered to them, it ought to be refreshing when three players actually forego salary so they can increase their chances of winning.

As for the question of “betrayal,” there seems to be more credence there. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the city of Cleveland. Last October, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia, two pitchers Indians fans had watched come into their own, started Game 1 of the World Series… for other teams. Thirteen years ago Art Modell moved their football team to another city. Oh, and the city itself is a piece of shit and their river sometimes catches fire.

At the same time, it’s ridiculously unfair to make LeBron James the sole instantiation of hope for an entire city. Yes, LeBron is from Akron,* and yes, the city would have probably loved him more than any other. But it’s also not like LeBron didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. The guy gave his team seven phenomenal years—years, it should be noted, that were NOT spent building anything close to a decent supporting cast for the best player in a generation. Saying LeBron ought to resign with the Cavaliers because the city of Cleveland needed him is like saying a guy should stay with his fucked up girlfriend because she threatens to kill herself if he leaves her.**

*Although the whole “Hometown Boy” angle is probably overstated. Akron is 40 miles from Cleveland, and LeBron James grew up rooting for the Bulls, not the Cavs.

**Really, Dan Gilbert’s reaction was more selfish by eons than anything LeBron did. Why on Earth is LeBron obligated to resign with your team? Because of all the hard work you did to pair him with a great coach? Because of all the great teammates you gave him? Because you were lucky enough to win the lottery in 2003? Because he happened to be born in the same state as your team? To call someone “selfish” because he chose to work for a different employer is ridiculous. I can understand why fans do it— to them, LeBron is an idol, not an employee—but Gilbert’s reaction is a shameless exploitation of that feeling. He knows damn well that this is how free agency works. It’s possible that LeBron owes something to Cleveland’s fans, but he doesn’t owe Dan Gilbert shit.

Of course, it would have been nice to see LeBron stay in Cleveland and win there. It would have more perfectly embodied the image we had of the one-team star—an image that Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan,* and even Kobe Bryant (kind of) have perpetuated. But it’s not as if a big star leaving via free agency is unprecedented: Shaq did it, Mark Messier did it, Wayne Gretzky, Kareem, and Ken Griffey Jr. all orchestrated/demanded their own trades, etc. It’s never ideal, but it’s not exactly a death sentence.

*What? Jordan played for the Wizards? When? I don’t believe you.

And yet something about last night was uniquely disappointing. But if it’s not LeBron’s alleged selfishness or his mythical obligation to the city of Cleveland, then what was it? Really, it was the callous way LeBron used last night to manipulate his own image and, even worse, his own legacy.

One thing that may have slipped under the radar during the horrifically dull interview with Jim Gray was how LeBron kept referring to “my team.” It took me a while to realize that LeBron wasn’t talking about the Heat or the Cavs when he referred to this team; rather, he was referring to the “team” of advisers and friends with whom he had consulted on The Decision. Even though LeBron was announcing his intent to join the Heat, the team he never left was Team LeBron.

Now, normally, I don’t have that much of a problem with an athlete or a public figure controlling his image. I even appreciated, as Tim explained yesterday, how well-aware LeBron seemed of his role in the public: Featuring “The Decision” on ESPN wasn’t the shameless self-promotion that people accused him of; it was a knowing acceptance of his role. But while promoting Team LeBron is a fine way to answer a question everyone is asking, it’s an awful reason to alter the landscape of the NBA.

And yet Team LeBron, even more than the Heat, was the real winner last night, because the Heat may not win, but LeBron’s decision was calculated so that Team LeBron ultimately can’t lose. Last night Will Leitch echoed a popular sentiment when he wrote, “LeBron James… will never be the same,” indicating that irreparable harm was done to LeBron’s image. And yet what’s really scary about LeBron’s decision is that it didn’t really do irreparable harm to LeBron’s image.

Because right now, everyone realizes that Team LeBron made the safe choice. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a supporting cast. Kareem had Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson (and later, Magic had Kareem in his supporting cast). Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen. Shaq had Kobe. Kobe had Pau Gasol and Ron Artest. LeBron’s never really had anyone of that caliber, and he’s entitled to have a decent team built around him.

But this is not building a team around LeBron—this is how you construct a roster in video games. On the Heat, Dwyane Wade is not part of a “supporting cast.” Wade was the MVP of a Finals already. If anything, LeBron is part of Wade’s “supporting cast.”

LeBron claims he chose Miami because he wants to win, but if he just wanted to win, he could have signed with Chicago. Or he could have tried to bring someone with him to Cleveland or New York. By joining an All-Star and a Superstar in Miami, though, LeBron ensured something that he couldn’t have ensured anywhere else: The Heat will never be LeBron’s Team. They may be the Three MiAmigos (or whatever stupid nickname sticks), or they may be Wade’s Team, but they will never be LeBron’s team. As a result, if the team loses, it will never be solely on LeBron’s shoulders, as the Cavs loss this year was. Which means Team LeBron is safe: Even if LeBron loses, he doesn’t lose.

On the other hand, though, if the expected happens and the Heat ultimately become the best team in the East and a formidable dynasty, then Team LeBron gets the credit. It was LeBron, after all, who refused to chase the money or the glory or the endorsements. Instead, he chose to chase wins, the highest goal an athlete can chase. People have short memories in sports. In a few years, we won’t remember that LeBron made the safe choice. They’ll remember that LeBron sacrificed ego for wins.

Today, though, we know that wins are not enough, that plenty of athletes win, but that truly special ones chase greatness. And chasing greatness isn’t as simple as chasing a lot of wins (which the Heat will now almost certainly get). Chasing greatness means risking a failure that is your own, not one you share with a mini-Dream Team of Olympic Gold Medalists. Now, though, we know that Team LeBron has picked an option in which he can never truly fail. Which means that he’ll never really succeed.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by soulmerchant on July 9, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    LeBron’s childhood fandom of the Bulls aside, it’s misleading to suggest that Cleveland is *not* the major sports market for basically every Akronite.


    • Posted by John S on July 9, 2010 at 1:00 PM

      Well, I just think the whole “Hometown Kid” angle only flows in one direction, since it’s not really like LeBron ever dreamed of playing for the Cavs the way, say, Joe Mauer dreamed of playing for the Twins.


  2. Posted by Douglas on July 9, 2010 at 1:23 PM

    Great article. It’s nice to see someone rebel against a typically moralistic media narrative with really no reasonable basis. Having said that, I take issue with two points:

    “What LeBron did was actually a rare act of selflessness in sports: He took less money to play for a better team.”

    You acknowledge this later, but I think the real act of selflessness would have been accepting much, much less money from Cleveland in order to bring in better players (even if you doubt Cleveland’s ability to execute that task, I still think with enough money they could have done it–they did make the playoffs). To me, moving to a team that offers you less money but a better chance of winning is simply a tradeoff, and is as self-interested as any other move.

    This brings me to your second point (which I only slightly disagree with), which is that the Heat will never be LeBron’s team. If this is true, and LeBron himself believes that, then his move was selfless because he sacrificed glory. But I’m not sure that the Heat never will be LeBron’s team, and I’m fairly confident that LeBron believes the opposite…after a few seasons of leading the team in a variety of stats, hitting most of the buzzer beaters, and earning the most time on the highlight reel LeBron could easily become the team leader. I’m not saying that it’s likely to happen, but it might: the Lakers weren’t Kobe’s team at the time of his first championship because of Shaq’s substantial role, but they certainly are now. I think because of LeBron’s relative dominance it’s very likely that this type of shift could occur even with Bosh and Wade still on the roster, which itself can’t be taken for granted.


    • Posted by John S on July 9, 2010 at 2:08 PM

      To your first point: It’s certainly true that what LeBron wasn’t the MOST selfless thing he could have done, but I do think it’s something we generally praise in athletes. It’s also worth noting that LeBron did (reportedly) try to lure Bosh to Cleveland (via a sign-and-trade, which would have paid Bosh more than he will get in Miami), and that Bosh said no.

      As for your second point, I think I definitely disagree. You mention the Lakers becoming Kobe’s team, but that didn’t happen until after Shaq left. Right now, the Heat are Wade’s team. He gets grandfathered in. I don’t think there’s any real reason to think that LeBron will hit “most of the buzzer beaters,” or that he will dominate more than Wade does. If anything, LeBron’s style is more conducive to being a secondary player than Wade’s is. Even if LeBron does outplay Wade significantly, though, I think it’ll be an A-Rod/Jeter situation: LeBron may mean more to the team, but Wade will always mean more to the fans.


  3. Posted by Douglas on July 9, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    You seem to arrive at my point in your second paragraph. If LeBron means significantly more to the team, then it is, in essence, LeBron’s team. Even if the fans prefer Wade, the rest of the world won’t care. But don’t misunderstand me–I’m not saying that I think LeBron will completely overshadow Wade…but fans have very short memories and once the media falls back in love with LeBron it wouldn’t surprise me (although again, it’s more a possibility than a probability) if we started seeing articles about the dynasty of King James, with Bosh and Wade as legendary role players. Wade certainly has the advantage now because he was already on the Heat, but imagine if Wade and Bosh had moved to Cleveland. Would anybody be talking about a trio? I don’t think so–the same players would be seen as LeBron’s new entourage*, if you will.

    *A reference to HBO’s hit show Entourage, a story about a prominent young man named Entourage, or as his friends call him, “E”, who travels through town with his friends in a closely-knit group or, if you will, a retinue.


  4. Posted by Darcy on July 9, 2010 at 4:12 PM

    It hasn’t been determined that Lebron will be taking home less money in reality than he would have with teams like New York or Chicago (where he would have been the undoubtable team leader immediately). After all, there is no state tax in Florida so even by accepting less, he might make out just as well.

    Further, I think it’s somewhat misleading to include Gretzky in the list of athletes that moved through free agency or as you suggest “orchestrated/demanded their own trades.” Gretzky’s trade was orchestrated by an agreement between his own team and the Kings. He agreed to go along with the trade but was hardly an orchestrator. The man wept in his departing press conference for the fans of Edmonton as he thanked them profusely. And this was “after” he had delivered that city multiple championships.


  5. Posted by Matt Rutchik on July 10, 2010 at 12:20 AM

    There will be plenty of endorsements in Miami; maybe not a billion dollars over the length of the contract (New York), but not much less.

    Darcy, the NBA salary is only a small portion of the money LeBron signed to yesterday. The media in New York and Chicago is vastly larger than Miami.

    Lebron does lose, if the Miami Heat loses.

    The supporting cast Chicago, asides from Derrick Rose, is not that much better than Cleveland. Though, as your list of examples demonstrate, it has only taken one additional all-star caliber player in the past. Right now, however, the amount of competitive teams in the NBA is high. The Celtics, for example, demonstrated this past year that a team does not have to finish first or second to go to the finals. Oklahoma City, an 8 seed, played a competitive six game series against the Lakers.

    The Heat is Wades team right now. Which can change with one Finals MVP award. Was the 2006 Heat Shaq’s team, Wade’s team, or Shaq and Wade’s team before the 0-2 finals comeback against the Lakers?

    You said nothing explicitly about the change in power dynamics this NBA offseason established. Not only can players demand a max contract, but a shopping list of teams will offer the contract and groups of players can get together to decide what is best for them as a whole.

    Of course LeBron Jame’s decision was selfish. Making a decision that is in your own self-interest is selfish. You can rationalize, as you did: James took less money to play for a better team. Even though Jame’s stated reason is different than yours (he wants to win a championship), the Miami market will more than make up the NBA salary difference from Cleveland. I think this particular statement of yours is one of a blindsighted Yankee’s fan.


    • Posted by Tim on July 10, 2010 at 12:34 AM

      A few things:

      1. I would like to see a realistic breakdown of how LeBron could have earned however many hundreds of millions of dollars in NYC that he couldn’t anywhere else. He was gonna make a lot of advertising money regardless.

      2. To say the supporting cast in Chicago “aside from Derrick Rose is not that much better than Cleveland” is as inaccurate as it is inane. It’s like saying the supporting cast in Miami, aside from Wade, isn’t much better than it is in Cleveland. Furthermore, the supporting cast in Chicago, even aside from Rose, is still much better than Cleveland’s. With Rose, Deng, James, Boozer, and Noah, the Bulls would have been better than next year’s Heat. The only team LeBron could have joined that would have fit even better is probably the Thunder, but they didn’t have the cap room.

      3. The Heat are Wade’s team now and in perpetuity. Tony Parker’s winning the 2007 Finals MVP did not change Duncan’s ownership of the Spurs in the same way Pau Gasol’s winning this year’s Finals MVP (as he deserved) wouldn’t have shifted LA from being Kobe’s team.

      4. The 0-2 comeback was against the Mavericks, as it were.

      5. I think we need to realize the uniqueness of this off-season. The only reason LeBron, Wade, and Bosh could all join the same team is because so many different teams cleared ridiculous amounts of cap space in the desperate hope to lure one or more to their team. Once enough teams cleared space for LeBron, it became a race to see who could clear enough space for two max deals, then three, and so on (well, not to four). Plus, there was the idea that if you missed out on LeBron, there were still consolation prizes in Wade, Bosh, Stoudemire, etc. Next year, even aside from all the collective bargaining nonsense, will be different; you won’t see as many teams clearing cap space to quixotically pursue Carmelo Anthony.


      • Posted by Matt Rutchik on July 10, 2010 at 8:47 PM

        There is more space in Manhattan for advertisement. For Donlan’s interview with James, the entire side of a building was painted.

        I said Cleveland, not Miami. Antawn Jamison for Carlos Boozer, Vajero/Hickson (whoever starts) for Deng, and Shaq for Noah are even enough balances. Mo Williams for Derrick Rose is uneven. The Deng balance may also seem unfair. Note that Deng and James both play SF. Deng would probably have been traded, if James joined the team. His salary is too much for someone coming off the bench. Plus, he is a streaky player. Further, like most Duke players, he has been a disappointment in the NBA. (NB Boozer was a second round choice, with little expectation around him. For every Boozer there are a handful of Sheldon Williams.)

        The dynamic between LeBron and Wade is different than Kobe and Gasol, and Parker and Duncan. Gasol and Parker are extremely good players, but they are not Kobe or Duncan. LeBron is a better player than Wade. Yes, Miami is Wades team right now.

        The only reason? You may think so.


    • Posted by John S on July 10, 2010 at 12:55 AM

      Yeah, Tim responded to most of the points, but I just want to expand on Point #1: I think the idea that going to a bigger media market would mean so much extra money for LeBron James is just really stupid and hard to defend. Presumably, it is based on the idea that it would open more endorsement opportunities. But, um, which endorsement opportunities were closed to LeBron James in Cleveland? Were there really PR men and ad execs sitting around in Madison Avenue offices (or wherever they sit in these post-Mad Men days) thinking, “Well, gee, that LeBron guy is pretty good, too bad he’s languishing in obscurity in Cleveland.” I mean, are there really people who didn’t know who LeBron James was when he played in Cleveland, but WOULD know if he moved to New York (or Chicago, or Miami)? It’s true that New York has more fans than Cleveland, but it’s not like the only people buying LeBron’s shoes and jerseys and whathaveyou are Cavs fans. These people are (or were) fans of LeBron, and that’s why he commands advertising money. LeBron James already makes more in endorsements by far than anyone else in the NBA, and (I believe) more than anyone in sports save Tiger.

      For someone like Chris Bosh, the market obviously matters. I imagine the reason he didn’t mind sacrificing salary to play in Miami is that the number of endorsements he can now command is going to skyrocket. But LeBron doesn’t need a big market to thrive financially.


  6. […] don’t want to be put in the position of defending LeBron James. As I’ve said, I’m not happy about his decision—it’s basically a sports tragedy. So while I generally agree with those criticizing him, I […]


  7. […] don’t want to be put in the position of defending LeBron James. As I’ve said, I’m not happy about his decision—it’s basically a sports tragedy. So while I generally agree with those criticizing him, I […]


  8. I Really liked this post. I forwarded it to my bf. Thanks for sharing


  9. […] 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 issue, on the whole, is very good by the […]


  10. […] that piece that reads “so long as he doesn’t curiously choose Miami”). John S defended The Decision even after it took place while Tim expressed disappointment in LeBron’s view of championships. John wondered why […]


  11. […] of this makes me hate The Decision even more. This reaction is precisely what I feared would happen when back in 2010—the fury would die down, the anger would subside, and in a few years, we’d all go back to […]


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