Saturday, July 10, 2010

LeBron Makes "The Decision"

So LeBron James has made his choice, and it's to spurn his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers (and half a dozen other eager-to-please NBA franchises) to join his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat. It seems like every sportswriter in America has already voiced his or her opinion on his choice, and pretty much every angle has been covered. Some have focused on the basketball end of things, expressing either intrigue or skepticism about the potential of a James-Wade-Bosh triumvirate. Many have accused him of taking the easy way out, electing to follow another established superstar to a championship rather than lead his own team to one. A few have expressed admiration at his willingness to take less money in order to play with his friends and give himself a chance to win. But most, it seems, have focused on his spectacularly ill-conceived decision to reveal his choice via a contrived one hour t.v. special. Whatever you think of LeBron's decision to leave Cleveland for greener pastures in Miami, it's pretty clear that packaging and marketing it as "The Decision" was an unprecedented P.R. debacle. Even LeBron's defenders concede that it was crass and egotistical, and everyone else? Pretty much anyone who wasn't busy savagely eviscerating him for his callousness and egomania was ridiculing "The Decision" as an over-the-top circus or declaring it a further sign of the decline of our culture.

My take? The haters are pretty much right on this one. James has earned his free agency and has a right to play where he likes at this point. I don't have a problem with him choosing to leave his hometown team - though the irony of the fact that the man has one tattoo that says "loyalty" and another that says "330", the area code of his home city of Akron, shouldn't go unremarked upon. Lots of people ultimately decide to leave their hometowns, and it's true that LeBron did not owe it to the people of northeast Ohio to spend the rest of his career there. But I do think he owed it to them to break the news to them with some degree of sensitivity and professionalism. Bill Simmons is pretty much 100% dead-on with his take. To repeat an analogy I've heard a lot of people make - it's fine and well for a guy to decide he wants to break up with his high school sweetheart instead of marrying her. It sucks, and it's painful, but sometimes life is sucky and painful, and a mature adult knows that and doesn't try to escape it. A grown man ends such a relationship by facing the music, being honest, direct, and respectful, not wasting his soon-to-be-ex's time, and allowing her to make a clean break. An immature one does it by stringing her along, making her think she has a chance to save the relationship when she doesn't, not allowing her to move on with her life, and then dumping her anyway. LeBron is clearly an immature man. Worse, he's a callous one. Going on the JumboTron at a sporting event (the analogy's equivalent to LeBron's t.v. special) to talk to your girlfriend is a cheesy and self-indulgent thing to do if you intend to propose to her. Doing it in order to dump her for a younger, more attractive woman? In Simmons' words, an unforgivable stab in the back. LeBron's hometown is going to hate him forever, and in my opinion they have every right to. As for the Cavaliers franchise, whatever LeBron's intentions or opinion of their managerial acumen, he owed it to them to act like a professional and inform them of his decision before anyone else, rather than dragging things out and not informing them of his decision personally. They, too, have every right to pissed at him.

Which is not to justify Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's bitter screed against LeBron. I understand Gilbert's anger, and happen to think that some of the points he makes in the letter are more-or-less accurate (the voodoo curses and Benedict Arnold rhetoric are a bit much). But a 48 year old man, who is the head of the Cavaliers organization and who will be responsible for rebuilding it in the wake of James' departure, cannot afford such childish and intemperate outbursts. Gilbert should have learned by now to keep his emotions in check, as well as how to employ the arts of subtlety and insinuation if he wants to attack someone. If you want to assasinate LeBron's character, fine - he acted like a self-absorbed shithead and pretty clearly set himself up as the villain in this whole drama, so you start with public opinion on your side and plenty of points to attack. But if you slid the knife in gently rather than going the Glenn-Close-In-Fatal-Attraction route, the result would be all the more damning. Release a statement saying that the Cavaliers' organization did everything it could to assist James in bringing a championship to his hometown, and was committed to continuing to do so in the future, but that the "Chosen One" ultimately decided he didn't wish to accept the challenge of leading the team to a title in favor of a different situation in which he could assist another proven title winner and wouldn't face the pressure of being "the man". State that you would have appreciated James telling you his decision face to face, but that you can understand that it was easier for him to do it from afar, where he wouldn't have to confront the disappointment of his hometown fans. Wish him better luck in winning that elusive ring in his new environs than he had in Cleveland, with the caveat that you're going to do everything in your power to make it as difficult as possible for him to achieve it. You imply all the same damning points about James' narcissism, his lack of professionalism, his cowardice, his record of big game failure, and his refusal to accept the mantle of leadership, without losing your dignity or sounding like a psychotic ex-girlfriend in doing so.

But as badly as LeBron James and Dan Gilbert handled themselves, no participant in this train wreck came off worse than ESPN. The network that once billed itself as the first television outlet devoted solely to serious sports journalism pretty much embraced its final transformation into a boot-licking, sycophantic lapdog in the cult of athletic celebrity, with talking heads left and right practically beating each other up in a contest to see who could sniff James' jockstrap the most enthusiastically, while once-respected sportscaster Jim Gray embarrassed himself by serving up softball after softball to LeBron for six excruciatingly drawn-out minutes and a squadron of beaming African-American children served as P.R. props in the background. Sadly, this shitshow pulled pretty good ratings, though pretty much nobody had anything good to say about it.

Now, attention shifts to the hardwood. The Heat's new big three haven't exactly been shy, declaring themselves "arguably the greatest trio in NBA history" (ummm, guys - Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West played together on one team, as did Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Bob Cousy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy. All of those guys are in the Hall of Fame and were voted among the top 50 players of all time - you might need to brush up your NBA history). I'm not convinced they're going to be as dominant as they think, however. Wade and James are both so-so outside shooters who thrive by controlling the ball and taking it to the basket. There's a better than tiny chance their games will clash, and every team they play is going to throw one zone defense after another at them until they stop putting up bricks. As for Bosh, he's put up good numbers in Toronto, but he's yet to prove he can perform for a good team, and he's not exactly a rugged low post-defender. Given that the Heat's starting center right now is the immortal Joel Anthony, that's not a good thing. Rebounding, interior defense, and shot-blocking are pretty much necessary capabilities for a championship team and as of right now the Heat don't have any of them, which might be a bit of a problem when they come up a team with a guy like Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. And the psychological aspect of it all? Sure, everyone's all smiles and pledges to be unselfish now. But when this team hits a bad stretch, and its shots aren't falling, and it's losing games it shouldn't to less talented teams (and it will hit such a stretch - all teams do), that camaraderie will be tested. Even when the team's winning, there could be problems - say Wade goes off for 40 in a key victory, while LeBron has a quiet performance, and come the post game every reporter in the locker room is waiting for a piece of D-Wade while ignoring King James. How is Bron-Bron's obviously planet-sized ego going to handle that? Basketball's a funny game. It's a team sport in which success requires exquisite chemistry and interplay among teammates, but unlike football or soccer, it's a sport in which one dominant player can take over a game by himself. As a result the role of star player requires an odd blend of team-first selflessness and "f-ck it, I'm not letting us lose this game" egotism. Leadership in this sport is getting that mix precisely right. It's a tricky balance, and one which I've only seen a few stars (Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird) ever get right. Not even the best player in the league right now - the detestable Kobe Bryant - gets it, as evidenced by his continuing tendency to ballhog his teams out of games when his game isn't working. I've yet to see any evidence that LeBron James or Dwyane Wade get it. To succeed, they're going to have to. As for Bosh, he was the undisputed star of his team in Toronto. Judging from his forays into the worlds of Twitter and reality television, he clearly he wants a higher profile. How will he handle being relegated to defense-and-rebounding duty, as is likely to happen at times? There are a lot of issues this team needs to work out.

And if they don't do so? If playoff wins don't come as easily as anticipated, if they crap out in the second round against a less-talented but better organized opponent, if injuries or foul trouble take out one of the three legs of the stool and the supporting cast isn't up to the picking up the slack, if LeBron's absurdly hubristic promise to deliver 7+ NBA Championships to Miami proves as difficult to fulfill as his now-abandoned vow to bring a single one to his erstwhile hometown? The ardor that Miami is showing he and his buddies right now won't last, and will be replaced with hostility, or nearly as bad (Miami being the laid-back, front-running, warm weather place that it is), indifference. LeBron more than anyone ought to realize that the adulation of an adoring fanbase can vanish in a flash. In a way, it's strangely appropriate that he chose to sign with Miami, because as several people have already pointed out, if the league's new power trio fails to live up to its billing, the heat will be hotter than ever.

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