The reactions to LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat have, well, varied. Sure, there are all those lounging on the beach in Florida enthralled with the choice, hopeful for the onslaught that James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh are likely to provide, but for each one of those, there’s a fan in Cleveland contemplating his or her suicide. And for those who fall into the second category, you’ve got to lay off the guy.
The man who is seen as representative of the city’s collective disgust is Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who hasn’t exactly kept quite about his feelings for the “self-proclaimed former king.” In what has been a most childish display of a misguided sense of superiority, Gilbert has exposed himself with a lengthy letter to fans that chided LeBron’s choice and foolishly declared that his team would win an NBA title before LeBron — a note that screamed immaturity in every way, down to the Comic Sans typeface that he chose to use.
But Gilbert didn’t stop there. In a move he must’ve thought was incredibly clever on his part (or, more likely, one of his brown-nosing assistants suggested it to him), the owner of the Fathead company reduced the price of the remaining LeBron cutouts from $99.99 to $17.41, symbolic of the birth year of Benedict Arnold — the most notable traitor in the history of this country. That’ll show LeBron, right?
But this massive about-face with regard to LeBron’s standing in the city is entirely unwarranted and a tad bit nauseating. The collective opinion is that LeBron, by “defecting” to Miami, stabbed a stake through the heart of “his” city, crippling the basketball team for years to come — and that he was wrong to do that. I ask you, however, why is that wrong?
The whole nature of free agency — the reason we have it — is to benefit the players. There’s a reason the Player’s Association grapples tooth and nail with the league and its owners every few years to squeeze everything possible out of a new collective bargaining agreement under the threat of lockout. The players need to have their freedoms. There was a time when players were unconditionally bound to their teams for their entire careers (barring trade) with no power at all. Is that what you’d rather have? Puppets playing with no true free will? I really doubt it. And I’m sure Cleveland fans will agree that not having LeBron is better than not having any basketball at all — which is what would happen if the league and owners stood pat on abolishing or limiting free agency next year.
So the following holds true: LeBron’s decision was completely legitimate. He exercised his freedom to change teams to try and win a championship.
Cleveland fans will argue the details, though. For one, “Gilbert and the team did everything they could to put together a championship-caliber team to help LeBron.” As much as everyone would like that to be true, Mo Williams is not a difference-maker. 38-year-old Shaquille O’Neal is not a difference-maker. And Antawn Jamison is not a difference-maker. Cleveland could have done many more things (including using Wally Szczerbiak’s massive expiring contract for talent) to try for the Larry O’Brien trophy in lieu of signing washed-up big men.
Next, Cleveland will argue: “Ohio is his home. He’s destined to win his championship here. We drafted him, so he should repay us.” The most obvious quibble with this argument is that players hardly win for their home teams. Was Kobe Bryant destined to win titles for the 76ers? Was Larry Bird destined to win titles for the Pacers? Was Magic Johnson destined to win titles for the Pistons? The answer is no. As for his being drafted to the Cavaliers, the only reason this is so is because the team sucked enough to get good lottery odds the year before and got lucky with four ping-pong balls. It’s not like they knew some secret about the kid that would have made any other team pass on him. He was one of the biggest players to ever enter the league. He doesn’t owe the city anything. The fans may very well have supported him, but support isn’t everything. Brian Scalabrine might be overwhelmingly supported in Boston, but it doesn’t mean he’s getting everything he wants out of his career.
The one argument that has any worth with regard to LeBron’s decision was the suggestion that his choice to announce the team on live television was a massive slap to the face. While this holds some degree of merit, the fact remains that the proceeds of the telecast went to charity and gave the Boys and Girls Clubs of America a heck of a lot of publicity as the host for the announcement. Is it so wrong that he thought of a way to leverage his incredible fame into a charitable cause? I think not. As for the analogies that this was like having your girlfriend dump you in front of the whole school, it’s not really the same thing. This moment was hyped for literally two years before it actually came to fruition. It’s not like no one would have known about it if he hadn’t announced it on TV. It would have stung just as much to read the news in print in the local newspaper or on ESPN’s BottomLine or to hear it coming out of Stan Verrett or Scott Van Pelt’s mouth. In fact, at least the guy had the guts to confront the audience himself.
In the end, LeBron took less money to go have fun, play with his friends, and situate himself to win a championship. He wasn’t consciously thinking, “How can I screw over the city that got me started in this league?,” he was making a basketball, business, and life decision. And the fact that you loathe him for it now, Cleveland, makes it much more obvious that his talent was being wasted on a city that can’t appreciate the impending success of one of its own.