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.