Thursday, July 5, 2012

LeBron: The Decision - 2 Years Later

As triple zeros hit the clock in game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals, I was overjoyed for LeBron James.  After everything that was said about him and the well documented roller coaster his last two years had been, it was amazing to see the best player of his generation ascend to the throne as an NBA Champion.  His name leaves behind Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing as guys who never won a title.  His name is now followed by one word, champion.

As great as that joy was, my unfortunate hypothesis was discovered to be true.  Regardless of what this man accomplishes, the anti-LeBron James faction is so blinded by their distaste of him that they fail to give credit where it is due.  The narrative no longer was that he didn’t have a ring; it became “he only has one” or “he’ll never be Jordan”, which are lazy and misguided statements.  No, he isn’t Michael Jordan.  He’s LeBron James, the first and only that we will ever see.  Why is there a need for comparison?  Why will there always be the anger, hatred and vitriolic statements hurled in his direction?  Is it society that wants to tear down those more successful than ourselves?  Is it the sports media’s insatiable desire to anoint the next “insert name here” in every sport?  Or did it all turn based on one small “decision”?  I wanted to take some time to dissect a few of these questions, address “The Decision” and see if I can figure out just what is it about LeBron James that has a vocal segment of people so angry at this man.

The Decision

On the evening of July 8, 2010, ESPN aired a one hour special entitled “The Decision”.  Watched by nearly 10 million viewers, a captivated nation sat by while waiting for Cleveland Cavaliers star and icon LeBron James to announce where he would be playing basketball for the next few years.  It was the end, a culmination, of nearly two years of rumor and speculation.  There were cities openly wooing James and fans seemed fine with it.  Yet, there we were, waiting to see what the conclusion would be.  Everyone seemed to have an opinion, and few of them outside of Cleveland wanted him to stay.  After 28 minutes of hype and lead up, James announced his decision:

                “In this fall, this is very tough, in this fall I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.  That was the conclusion I woke up with this morning.  Like I said before, I feel like it's going to give me the best opportunity to win and to win for multiple years, and not only just to win in the regular season or just to win five games in a row or three games in a row, I want to be able to win championships. And I feel like I can compete down there.”

We all know what happened next.  Jerseys were burned.  The Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, went off.  LeBron’s name was cursed and vilified across the media and message boards throughout the internet.  The welcome party (which we’ll address later).  The hate percolated throughout the season, and despite leading the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals, the joy and elation spilled over as they lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games.  The words “take my talents to…” became a punch line, despite LeBron not being the first to use it.  These are all things we know but let’s dig deeper into this night, the television special itself and the possible factors beneath the surface that led to his decision to leave Cleveland for South Beach…along with a few side notes as we take this journey.

- Charity

There is one aspect of the television special that gets wildly overlooked, because the focus is so shifted to LeBron himself.  The most important aspect is that the money raised from advertising during the special was donated to charity, specifically the Boys and Girls Club.  The proceeds raised, which were reportedly in excess of $2 million, have helped 59 Boys and Girls Clubs across the nation.  Digging even deeper, James arranged for $500,000 in Hewlett Packard computers and $500,000 in Nike gear to be donated.  While being called selfish and immature, James showed the most selfless of acts by donating these funds to a charity that helps changes the lives of children.  It showed the character of a man, who was being inaccurately portrayed in the media as a selfish villain, as a philanthropic person who has the sense to help others when he doesn’t have to.  This aspect of the story was swept under the rug because it didn’t work with the biased narrative the media wanted you to believe, nor was it one you wanted to acknowledge.

- Jim Gray, Interviewer

The next aspect of it that is pushed aside is that this entire spectacle was not conceived by LeBron James.  The entire concept was brought to him and his management by interviewer Jim Gray.  While so many want to point the finger at LeBron and accuse him of “wanting to be in the spotlight”, it was not orchestrated by him.  The story was told to the Sporting News as well as detailed in the book, “ESPN: Those Guys Have All The Fun”.  As he tells it, Gray approached LeBron’s business partner Maverick Carter at an NBA Finals game that summer.  Initially a request for the first interview, Gray expanded the idea to be a one hour network special announcing the decision and answering all questions surrounding it.  Carter immediately conceived the idea to possibly donate the money to charity and things grew from there.  As easy as it is to point the blame on LeBron, and while needing to shoulder some of the responsibility for the execution of it all, he is not the main culprit.  He was more preoccupied with deciding what to do with the future of his playing days and where to take his family.  Where to announce this was probably last on the list of important decisions.  Gray himself describes LeBron as “pensive” during the interview and everyone could sense a discomfort, whether the decision itself or format of it, there was a clear uneasiness in the situation.

I have to ask; how else would you like him to do it?  Let’s admit the truth.  There was no easy or “right” way for him to leave Cleveland.  Regardless of where it was, he was going to get blasted for leaving the franchise that drafted him.  Let’s play a little game of “If LeBron went to”, where I will list a discussed destination and then come up with the likely anti-LeBron response:

New York

- He doesn’t care about small markets

New Jersey

- He doesn’t care about small markets and is afraid of the spotlight of the Knicks


- He’s comparing himself to Michael Jordan (a topic we’ll get into later)


- He can’t win a title by himself


- He’s afraid of the big market spotlight

This was a no win situation no matter whether he stayed or went.  The naysayers, while completely disregarding seven seasons of dominance, were going to attack whatever he did.  He’d be accused of “teasing” other cities if he stayed and accused of being a “traitor” if he left.  No matter what, he was not going to be viewed positively at the end.

- Alternate Ways to Make the Announcement

I always hear that making the decision in this way was the worst thing he could do.  It was “self-serving”, “cocky” and as a friend described it earlier today, “Hollywood”.  I have still yet to have someone give me an effective alternative to it, though.  Ignore the millions donated to charity and the nearly 10 million viewers.  Please just give me a legitimate way he could have left Cleveland and not get destroyed in the media.  Here is the fact of the matter, we live in a 24/7 media cycle.  There is nothing anymore that isn’t consumed in a million different ways, so controlling the announcement of the biggest free agent in the history of sports was a virtual impossibility.  They did everything they could to insure that it wasn’t leaked because it could look bad, and yes, even worse than it did.  Consider the alternatives:

- Announce it via fax the way Michael Jordan did when he returned from playing baseball

Obviously this wasn’t going to happen as the fax machine is a dead technology.  It also would have been perceived as insensitive, cold and cowardly way to leave Cleveland.

- Announce it via Twitter the way Kevin Durant did when he signed an extension with the Thunder.

Again, this would have been perceived as insensitive, cold and cowardly.  Let’s also add in that Durant is not the global icon and brand that LeBron is.  He never has been, nor will he ever be.  Regardless of how great he may become, LeBron’s brand will always be bigger.

- Announce it at a press conference the way most others have in the past.

This one touches on his global appeal as a press conference just doesn’t seem like enough, and also would not be much different than the television special.

So I ask you, what other way could this decision be announced?  The Gray interview was a controlled scenario, but the best part of the night was the questions he answered from the group at ESPN right after.  He answered and addressed every question the world was wondering.  When the interview was over, there was nothing left to wonder except for the on court product.  We got his reasoning behind it, at least the part he wanted to share with the world.  We got his reaction to the people of Cleveland burning his jersey and cursing his name.  There was not one thing left to ask him.  While the format itself may not have been executed flawlessly, it was one of the few ways to do it.  It’s not like the man could walk the streets of Cleveland to thank and explain his decision to the fans.  He did it the best way he could.  It’s time to stop bringing it up and attacking him for it.

- The Welcome Party

Before moving on to the possible and speculative factors of the actual decision, I have to address the wildly overhyped welcome party.  As you can tell from the video attached earlier, the Miami Heat organization and fans were justifiably excited to have teamed up LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  They were able to join three of the top talents from the 2003 NBA draft.  In an absolutely stacked draft class, they have 3 of the top five picks on one team.  They had every right to be excited about their future.  At the 3:33 mark of the video, the naysayers and anti-LeBron faction latched on to his phrase:

                “Not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7…”

Immediately he was jumped on for guaranteeing 8 championships, which is a complete inaccuracy.  They were talking about the reason he came down was to win championships.  Isn’t that why everyone plays professional sports, to be the best in your field?  Why is it wrong to have that goal?  It wasn’t a guarantee.  It was said with a smile on his face, as Wade and Bosh laughed along.  The crowd was pumped up and cheering every word they said.  What he did was a classic professional wrestling, “cheap pop”.  He was playing to his crowd.  This broadcast was intended for the Miami/South Florida audience.  It was not broadcast nationally, until ESPN snagged it and rain with their anti-LeBron narrative.  Any good performer knows that’s how you get the fans on your side.  Honestly, do you really think The Rock is excited to be back in every town he visits?  No, he’s playing to the crowd.  It was an off the cuff statement of a goal, but in no way a guarantee.  Let it go…

- Speculative Reasons He Left

There is absolutely no way to figure out exactly what drove LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.  However, I think there are so many factors that we can look back on and possibly figure out what brought us to that moment.  It’s easier to look back on it and see what may have contributed to the decision.

- Lack of talent around him

LeBron made the best out of a bad situation for seven years in Cleveland.  At no point did the front office bring him any considerable talent to help put him “over the top” and be a championship team.  Let’s just take a quick look at the starting lineup for the 2006-07 Cavaliers, the team in which LeBron single-handedly carried to an NBA Finals appearance:

Larry Hughes – Point Guard

Sasha Pavlovic – Shooting Guard

Zydrunas Ilgauskas – Center

Drew Gooden – Power Forward

LeBron James – Small Forward

Now I ask you, who in the league could carry that group to an NBA title?  There is not one All-Star on that team outside of James, yet somehow they won 50 games and appeared in the NBA Finals.  Things did not get better after that.  The front office routinely brought in players who disappeared in the playoffs (Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison) or stars who were clearly past their prime (Shaquille O’Neal).  The rest of the rosters were filled with “never-will-be’s”.  It’s beyond ridiculous to think that he could use the poorly constructed team that his management provided and take them to a title.  There was literally no help and when a great defense (Boston) held him at bay, daring others to beat them, they lost.  Simple as that.  LeBron was accused of quitting on this team in his last game as a Cavalier.  I’ve got to tell you, if I quit on a team and put up a triple double, I’m pretty good.  Fact is he didn’t quit on his team.  They just weren’t good enough to win.  That roster was not meant to win a title, despite what you may think.

- Loyalty

Right after the decision, the word I heard all too often was “loyalty”.  “LeBron wasn’t loyal to the city, fans and franchise that had always supported him.”  Fans always beg for loyalty, but let’s be honest here.  There is no such thing as loyalty in professional sports.  By nature, the only people who are loyal are the fans.  Teams move and couldn’t care less about the city and fans they left behind (looking at you Oklahoma City).  Players leave via free agency.  General Managers trade players they previously committed to.  Why isn’t anyone up in arms at the Atlanta Hawks for committing to Joe Johnson two years ago and then shipping him off?  There is no loyalty to the players or to the fans. The only thing franchises are loyalty to are the profits.  The moment you are not deemed as a good investment, the team has the right to ship you off, whether you like it or not.

The Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert blasted LeBron for being disloyal.  This is the same owner who traded 12 year vet, and career long fan favorite, Zydrunas Ilgauskas during LeBron’s last season in Cleveland.  Loyalty?  Give me a break.  Rewarding the fans with loyalty?  You mean the same fans who seconds after the announcement were burning his jersey?  Clearly not the type of fans I want at my back if they’ll resort to such ridiculous tactics.  I truly believe that LeBron did not feel good about the people he was surrounded by.  Let’s look at a few things:

- Dan Gilbert was not the man who drafted LeBron out of high school.  He purchased the team two years after LeBron was there, knowing that he had an international superstar.  Was Gilbert ever truly loyal to LeBron or just padding his wallet?  If he could send out a letter within hours of LeBron leaving, is it possible that he was the type of owner LeBron did not feel comfortable playing for?  I truly believe there is a lot to this story that we’ll never know.  I do wonder if Gilbert so vehemently believes that LeBron “quit” on his team, why would he want him back.

- There was a rumor that point guard Delonte West had some sort of physical relationship with LeBron’s mother.  While there has never been proof either way, it’s the type of thing that could absolutely fracture a team and force LeBron to leave.  If that is the type of character guy they bring in, why would you stay?  I truly believe that LeBron needs a sense of family on his team.  If you check out the film More Than a Game, you will see an only child without a father that truly feels blessed to have his teammates around him.  There is a visual brotherhood as you see these guys grow up as boys to the men they are now.  Let’s not forget that LeBron fired his original agent only to hire his lifelong friends to run his empire.  If there is any possibility that the West accusation is true, that could conceivably cut LeBron to the core and give him an internal desire to surround himself with guys he knows and trusts (i.e. – one of his best friends Dwyane Wade).  I’m not a psychologist so it’s all speculation, but putting myself in his shoes, I would leave just as fast.

- There is also the Cleveland versus Akron dynamic that plays a part.  While Cleveland adopted LeBron as their native son, he is actually from Akron, which is 39 miles away.  He has spoken before about being treated poorly by the people of Cleveland when growing up and looked down upon since he was from Akron.  Once he became successful, the dynamic changed, but I don’t think that feeling of belittlement ever left him.  It’s a dynamic I haven’t fully began to understand, but I can see it being something of a way to stick it to the people of Cleveland, almost a way of saying “I wasn’t good enough for you before, now you’re not good enough for me”.  Do I think vengeance and payback were a driving force in his decision?  No, probably not but there could have been a small part pulling him away from Cleveland due to this.  Although, he thanked the good people of Akron in a full page ad…and not Cleveland…

- The Conclusion on the Decision

In the end, was LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland the right one?  You tell me:

- NBA Championship

- NBA Finals MVP

- NBA regular season MVP (should have been twice)

- 2 NBA Finals appearances

- 104-44 Regular season record (.704 winning percentage)

- 30-14 Playoff record (.682 winning percentage)

I might be crazy, but that is an impressive résumé for only two seasons with a team.

Look, if LeBron had stayed in Cleveland and never won a title, most would view him as a great player who couldn’t get it done.  I don’t believe that.  Rings do not define individual greatness.  They are a symbol of team greatness.  If you believe that Charles Barkley and Karl Malone are not two of the greatest players ever to walk on the court because neither has a ring, you do not have a clear perspective.  They achieved as much individually as possible, but due to other circumstances (team depth, the 90’s Bulls, etc.), they were never able to get that ring.  There seems to be a prevalent thought that players win championships on their own, which is the furthest thing from the truth.  Michael Jordan won 6 titles, but had a great supporting cast around him.  Dennis Rodman is arguably the best defender and rebounder in basketball history.  Scottie Pippen was one of the top 50 basketball players ever, and led the Bulls to 55 wins while MJ was playing baseball.  Steve Kerr is the all-time leader in three point shooting percentage.  He was surrounded by talent.  Kobe Bryant has 5 titles, but had Shaquille O’Neal carrying him for three.  He had Robert Horry (who has 7 titles) knocking down game winners and playing insanely good defense.  Point is no one wins them alone.  Championship teams may have one star that stands above the others, but without other Hall of Famers and All-Stars, those guys are ringless.  Some players were blessed by competent General Managers who know how to draft and bring in the right free agents (San Antonio, Boston and LA come to mind).  Some were cursed with ownership and General Managers who bring in the wrong type of coach, players and destroy their cap flexibility with poor contracts.  LeBron gave the Cavaliers seven years to get it right and they never did.  Just look at the draft history in Cleveland during James’ tenure and it screams incompetence.  In 2004 alone they could have picked up Josh Smith, Al Jefferson or Jameer Nelson in the first round.  Instead they went with Luke Jackson, who is out of league after playing a total of 37 games.  There is an impressive ineptitude by the front office in Cleveland.

Right now we are in a world that measures success in sports by championships won.  I have to ask which is worse, playing a majority of a career in one city and leaving at the end to chase one ring (Barkley - Houston, Malone - LA) or leaving in your prime to chase more than one?  I think it is more desperate to chase one at the end of a career than the possibility of multiple titles in your prime.  Either way, you are striving to reach the same goal, to be part of a team that will always be considered the best.  No one can ever take a championship away, no matter what.

In examining The Decision, it has come quite clear that no matter what decision he made and in whatever manner he made it, the anti-LeBron faction was simply going to pounce.  Their minds were made up, for whatever reason, and needed something to latch on to so their voice could be heard.  Despite that, I still haven’t found a legitimate reason for the level of hatred.  He’s a guy who plays the game the way it should be played.  He doesn’t get into trouble off the court.  So what could it be?

Could it be that LeBron’s continued greatness challenges what we believe, that Michael Jordan was the greatest player ever?

Could it be that LeBron’s pedestal has the chance to grow past Jordan’s and take the throne as greatest to ever play?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of LeBron: The Decision - 2 Years Later entitled “The Jordan Conundrum”…

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