The worst moment of my life as a sports fan was the Super Bowl XLII loss of the Patriots to the Giants, ending their chance at immortality and a perfect season and being considered the greatest team of all time. It is something I will never forget and will stick with me in some fashion for the rest of my days as a sports fan. What has happened these last few days in the events surrounding LeBron James is possibly worse.
As much of an albatross as the 18-1 record the Patriots ended up with in 2007 is, at least they wanted it and went after it with all that they had. The quest and the journey wore them down and they ran into a team that was just a little bit better than them on that day. But they tried, and it’s something I can take some comfort in. LeBron James, in signing with the Miami Heat and joining with Dewayne Wade and Chris Bosh, decided to forego greatness and an attempt at immortaility. That is what is most disappointing to me about this whole thing.
The writing was on the wall for a while that LeBron was leaving Cleveland for greener pastures when it looked like he mailed it in against the Celtics in the 2nd round of the playoffs. As that series unfolded, he seemed to accept defeat; resigned to it. And then all of the media buzz began to build about his free agency which had been building for two plus years. Teams like the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls, the New Jersey Nets, the Los Angelos Clippers, and the Miami Heat gutted their rosters in order to cleap cap space and put themselves in position to sign LeBron and have a shot at some of the other big name free agents that were hitting the market this summer. Everybody knew there were going to be some big losers when the dust settled and players made their decisions on which teams to join. Nobody thought that the entire country, even the city of Miami, would end up losing in this equation, and LeBron perhaps most of all.
LeBron was always free to go wherever he decided. I do not begrudge him leaving Cleveland in the least. The Cavs tried to do right by him for seven seasons, but they totally botched their situation and in doing so unwittingly helped to grease the rails in getting lebron out of town. They were always trying to bring in veteran talent and disparate pieces to make it more appealing to LeBron to stay, figuring they could hit the jackpot one of these years, find the right combination, and win a title in the process. But it never worked. Lebron never played with a bona fide All-Star teammate (and no, Mo Williams does not count). They had countless opportunities to really make a bold move and they either made the wrong bold move or decided to play it safe and it always ended up backfiring on them. They could have swapped Wally Szczerbiak’s expiring contract last year for an elite player at the deadline but they decided they were happy with their team as it was at that time. In the offseason, after getting unceremoniously dumped in the Eastern Conference Finals by Orlando in 6 games, they traded for Shaq, who never really fit their team offensively. This year, at the trade deadline, they had a chance to acquire Amare Stoudemire, but backed off of that because it would have cost them J.J. Hickson, a promising young player, but still an unproven commodity. Instead, they made the safer move of dealing for Antawn Jamison. That didn’t pan out either. They also didn’t do themselves any favors by continuing to employ incompetent Mike Brown as the head coach, someone LeBron clearly didn’t respect in the end.
If you want an example of how to build around a young, talented star, look at Oklahoma City and what they have done with Kevin Durant. They assembled cheap, young talent around him that he could grow with and grow attached to, giving him motivation to stay there and hopefully realize the potnential they have as a team. The day before Lebron made his big televised decision, Durant very quietly inked a 5-year extension with the Thunder.
So while LeBron was free to leave Cleveland, and no one can or should blame him for doing so, I think there are several things to find fault with in his leaving of the Cavs.
First of all, the Cavs organization and its fans deserved better treatment from LeBron. Yes, he gave them seven years of his career to the city and didn’t necessarily owe them anything, but they paid him, accomodated him and his friends (they hired one of his buddies to work in the organization and built their new practice facility at a specific location with his travel needs in mind). He should have been upfront in saying that he was probably leaving instead of putting on this show and making the Cavs fans hold out for hope he might stay. And the hour long “Decision” special was like nothing I have ever seen before. It was a continuous middle finger to the people of Cleveland. This is shocking to me considering that LeBron is from Akron, OH and was a young impressionable ten year old at the time that Art Modell moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore. This is a city that has not had a championship team in any sport since 1964. And he was aware of that. Or at least I thought he was. Because for him to make such a public display of his leaving Cleveland for Miami, he either didn’t realize what he was doing to the fans there or he just didn’t care.
Second, there was a famous article in ESPN The Magazine where LeBron talked about being a “global icon.” Apparently he has decided to shun that life and instead pursue the glitz and glamor and lifestyle of South Beach. Does that mean that the Heat won’t be great with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh as the Miami Thrice? By no means. I totally expect them to win at least two titles. But LeBron has traded in the chance at immortality for the chance of winning now on D-Wade’s team. No matter what happens, LeBron as long as they are teammates, LeBron will always have one less ring than Wade. And even if they win titles together, it will be said of LeBron that he never won anything without D-Wade playing beside him. Or, rather, playing beside D-Wade maybe.
And this is what is so disappointing to me about his decision. It makes it look like LeBron just doesn’t have that “killer” mentality. That ambition to go for a 19-0. He seems content to ride the coat tails of D-Wade and share the spotlight with Bosh. For whatever reason, he didn’t relish the opportunity of playing in New York or Chicago, bigger stages to showcase his talents and bigger stages to bring success and acclaim. Win multiple titles in Chicago in shadow of Jordan? You’re a legend. Bring the Knicks a title for the first time since the early 70s? Restore a once-great franchise to prominence in the league? Do it all in the biggest market in the country on the biggest stage, Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball? Immortality. Win multiple titles in Miami on D-Wade’s team? You can be one of the best, but not genuinely in the conversation for the best of all time.
Also, he and Bosh and Wade can talk all they want to about going to Miami to win multiple championships, but part of that rings hollow and insincere to me. If LeBron wanted to maximize his championship potential, the right play was Chicago, not Miami. The opportunity for more titles was in Chicago, where they have a young star PG in the making in Derrick Rose and a defensive presense, rebounding force, dirty jobs guy in Joakim Noah, right out of the Anderson Varajeo mold. Plus, they added Carlos Boozer. As great as Wade and Bosh are, Wade is 28 and it is an old 28 in NBA years because of his style of play. Wade is an undersized SG who attacks the rim, sometimes with reckless abandon. He’s a bulkier version of Allen Iverson. While electric, those players are like NFL running backs. Eventually the tread on the tires wears thin and their careers are not anywheres near as long as we hope and expect. In the end, LeBron chose to play with his buddies and take the (hopefully) quick fix in getting a title.
As fans, we buy into hyperbole because we always want to believe that the stars we are seeing play today are greater than the stars we were watching years ago. We always want to see the Next Big Thing, and hope and believe it will be the Biggest Ever. Jordan would never have done this. Bird never would have done this. Heck, even Kobe wouldn’t do this. They would have viewed D-Wade as competition, not someone they could hitch their wagon to. Perhaps it’s as simple as the AAU aspect of high school hoops makes these guys friends instead of competitors now. I don’t like to throw around the “dumb jock” angle either, but James came straight from high school to the pros, never seeking any kind of higher learning.
Regardless of the reasons for this decision, Lebron has cast the mold of what his NBA career is going to look like now. It may be a great piece of work when it is all said and done. But it won’t be as great as it could have been. And that is disappointing.