And today comes the inevitable outrage. LeBum. In an open letter to Cavaliers' fans, majority owner Dan Gilbert absolutely excoriated the "former King," calling his a "cowardly betrayal," and guaranteeing that the Cavs would win an NBA title before LeBron (a proclamation that Harvey Araton of the Times rightly characterized as "foolish"). (Side note: Read the whole letter. It was so obviously written in the heat of the moment and with emotion that it is almost funny to see how absolutely devastated this guy is to have lost LeBron. I cannot imagine how David Stern doesn't fine this guy for this letter). There are reports out of Cleveland of people burning their LeBron jerseys, and of others throwing rocks at a local billboard that displays the suddenly erstwhile hometown hero.
I am not the biggest NBA fan (though I might have become one if LeBron had opted to sign with the Knicks), so my reaction to the whole thing was somewhat muted. But I do keep coming back to two sentiments that run together, and I guess they form my reaction to this whole episode. First, I feel kind of badly for LeBron (calm down, keep reading). Second, this really could not have played out any worse for the NBA.
The frustration of Cavs' fans, the disappointment of Knicks' fans and Bulls' fans, and the general discontent of sports' fans with LeBron's decision is understandable. But it is also not fair. Whatever he did, LeBron could not win. No matter what decision he made, someone was going to be disappointed (a point he made to Jim Gray last night, almost defensively). If he signed with anyone other than the Cavaliers, he was going to be a sell out. A hometown star who deserted his friends and family for a bigger stage. But signing in Cleveland would have made it tougher for him to win a championship (because he was unable to lure other free agents to his team). It also would have increased his overall take, opening him up to criticism that he was really making a purely economical decision. So in making his choice, as he explained it to Jim Gray, he had to at least make sure that he himself would not be disappointed, and the way to do that was to go to the team that was most likely to win a championship, his ultimate goal. With both Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh committed to Miami, the decision had to be an easy one once it was viewed through that lens. And if winning a championship was your ultimate goal, I am not sure any of us would have done anything differently.
Sports figures are routinely criticized, if not worse, for their absolute and myopic pursuit of the highest dollars they can get. There is no loyalty, there is no concept of team, just an all-penetrating desire to maximize cash. LeBron took a different approach. And while he will hardly be on welfare, I have yet to hear anyone talk about the fact that he is putting team and collective excellence ahead of the maximum possible salary. That is an atypical approach for modern-day superstar athletes; perhaps it should be celebrated, not vilified.
Watching LeBron last night, he looked every bit the part of a guy who showed up at his coronation only to regret having to wear the crown. I honestly would not have traded places with him at that moment. He hardly smiled, seemed almost apologetic to Jim Gray for his decision, and copped out behind the fact that his mom had blessed his decision (insert Delonte West joke here), as if that would be enough for the rest of us, too. ESPN's woefully inadequate production didn't help either. This broadcast was thrown together at the last minute, and when James actually announced his decision --- the moment ESPN tells us we have all been waiting for --- you could barely hear him, and there was no reaction from the audience at all. The entire hour ended up being awkward, uncomfortable, and just plain weird. Again, LeBron shoulders some of the blame for this: Kevin Durant didn't agree to a prime time special to announce his signing with Oklahoma City. But LeBron was trying to do something good, i.e., capitalize on ESPN's fascination with this whole saga to sell some airtime for the benefit of one of his charities. But instead it just came off as a self-promoting PR stunt.
I know there are people in the world who deserve a lot more sympathy than a 25 year-old who is already a millionaire many times over. But that's just it. He is only 25 years old. I am not sure I could have handled this level of media scrutiny any better than he did, and I am not sure I would have made a different decision. ESPN and other media outlets made this the biggest sports story of the year because, well because that's what they do, they promote and sell interest in sports. So accusations that LeBron "carefully constructed" this whole process are tongue-in-cheek at best; LeBron could have crawled under a rock for the last two weeks and this still would have been a huge story (he just about did).
Given the money he is guaranteed to make, LeBron really couldn't lose here. But given the microscope he was under, and the millions of people who were going to criticize whatever decision he made, he couldn't really win, either. I think he knew that, and I think that is why he made his decision.
In addition to my (mild) sympathy for LeBron, I cannot see how this whole thing could have played out any worse for the NBA. Three of the league's best players are now concentrated in one market, and on one team. There are only so many times that TNT can make the Heat-Lakers the game of the week. The timing was off too: once Bosh and Wade made their decision, LeBron almost seemed to be falling in line, not leading the charge. The build-up to this whole summer was all about LeBron. But the way it played out made his decision feel a little bit like an afterthought.
The comparisons to the "evil empire" are already underway. And LeBron's near perfect image now has at least a few smudges on it. The Heat will no doubt sell tickets wherever they go, but LeBron was going to sell out arenas wherever he played. I just cannot understand how it helps the NBA to send Team USA out 82 times a year to beat up on lesser teams (I suppose Kobe could take issue with that last sentence, but few others could).
I would have liked to see LeBron in New York (of course), but failing that I really wanted him to stay in Cleveland. It felt like the ending we would have expected out of a cheesy movie. But instead he chose the team that he (rightly) thinks gives him the best chance to win a championship, rather than the team that could and would pay him the most money. Stripping away all the hype that accompanied this whole saga - some of which he created or encouraged, but most of which he did not - I am just not convinced (as many people seem to be) that his decision is worthy of contempt and scorn.