Monthly Archives: July 2010

LeBron James: To Judge Or Not To Judge?

LeBron James’s decision to sign with the Miami Heat has engendered all manner of hostile and negative reactions. He’s been blasted from all sides, not only for his decision, but also for “The Decision.” Now that the dust has settled, the question remains: is this criticism fair?

Some people, including Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert and famed Boston homer Bill Simmons, criticize LeBron’s choice as “cowardly” or as taking the path of least resistance. They complain that it’s a cop out for someone actively contending for the title of “greatest ever” to cast his lot with two other superstars. There may be something to this. LeBron James has often seemed to be chasing the shadows of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Jordan, who himself spent the early part of his career as a touted young star unable to win the big one, was unquestionably the alpha dog of his team, if not the league. Kobe Bryant is a man known for wanting the ball in his hands when the game is on the line, and for taking over when he feels the responsibility to secure a win is squarely on his shoulders. LeBron James, by contrast, is the man who passed to his teammate at the close of the opener in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, rather than take the final shot himself. By making this move, LeBron James seems to be admitting, whether explicitly or implicitly, that he does not want to be that kind of a take-control player on the kind of team that’s been built around him.

It’s not that LeBron didn’t have options. Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ organization seemed to bend over backwards time and time again to give LeBron the support that he wanted without bringing in any contributor who could possibly outshine him, a strategy that had not been enough to bring a championship to Cleveland. Even if LeBron decided that he did not want to play in Ohio, there were many other places he could have gone and still been “the man.” As many sportswriters and commentators have noted, the Bulls seemed like a squad almost tailor-made for LeBron. Chicago had complementary talents who would have given him a better supporting cast on a team where he would still clearly be the best player of the lot. The Knicks brought in Amare Stoudemire to create opportunities and matchups for LeBron, and with a formidable war chest, they seemed ready, willing, and able to bring in the people that James wanted to play with. Even a dark horse like the Nets or the Clippers would have clearly kept LeBron as the brightest star of the bunch. James could have taken a more dominant role with any of these squads than the role he’ll assume on the Heat. Instead of being the lone diamond on a gold setting, he’ll just be one of many charms on the same bracelet.

But why does LeBron have to be Jordan or Kobe? He’s certainly done nothing to try to stop the comparisons, but who says there’s only one way to become one of the greats? Magic Johnson was as much a facilitator as he was the top dog. Tim Duncan may not draw the same comparisons to former legends as LeBron does, but he’s enjoyed enormous success in this league and done so with a team-first mentality. At a time when basketball players are frequently criticized for having a me-first point of view, what’s wrong with an athlete who would rather be part of a collection of great players than be the front-running star? Does it really make LeBron something less if he sees himself more in the mold of Magic or Duncan than Jordan or Kobe?

That’s not to mention the fact that so many of the guys LeBron is competing with for the imaginary of title of best basketball player ever had some pretty significant help. I won’t embarrass myself by trying to dig too deeply into NBA history, but just looking back at the stars who rose to prominence in my lifetime reveals a trend. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Tim Duncan has had David Robinson, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli. To wit, LeBron’s rival, Kobe Bryant, is as good an example as anyone. His first trio of titles came with the help of Shaquille O’Neal. After Shaq’s departure, the media and sportswriters criticized Kobe immensely for trying to take the Lakers on his back and carry the team all by himself. It took a long time, and healthy dose of support from guys like Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza, and Ron Artest before he reached another pair of NBA Championships.

Look at the other recent championship teams. Kevin Garnett struggled to win a title for years before he joined up with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Even LeBron’s new teammate Dwayne Wade, won his championship with Shaq carrying a hefty portion of the load. We could argue about how those supporting casts stack up against the powerhouse LeBron is signing up with, but the fact remains – none of the great ones of the last twenty years or so did it alone, and LeBron should not be judged harshly for attempting to follow in these well-worn footsteps.

Still, even if you do not look down on LeBron personally for the path he believes will lead him to greatness, there’s something to be said for the idea of disliking his choice because it’s bad for the NBA. If three superstars and the ever-increasing stable of solid players the Heat seem to be amassing really do create an unstoppable force in professional basketball, it could be a pretty dull stretch in the NBA if you’re not from Miami. Dominance is great, at least at first, but when the outcome is hardly ever in doubt, it makes it much more difficult to maintain your interest as a fan. In the words of Futurama’s pitch-perfect parody of “The Twilight Zone” entitled “The Scary Door”: “A casino where I’m winning? That car must’ve killed me; I must be in heaven! Wait…a casino where I always win? That’s boring. I must really be in hell!” What keeps us watching sports is the thrill of competition, and if one team is head and shoulders above the rest of the league, there isn’t any.

What’s more, there’s something kind of disappointing when one team wins because they have a grossly disproportionate share of the talent pool which they have acquired through free agency, rather than built from the ground up. We like to see the struggle before the success. We like to see a team succeed because it has developed a system to bring new players into the fold and help them live up to their potential. We like to see a coach work with what he has, and use chemistry and strategy to make the whole worth more than the sum of its parts. Free agency certainly has its place, but it’s a different beast entirely when one team is able to collect three of the biggest stars in the league, not to mention a solid supporting cast who are willing to take a paycut because of a desire to latch onto that freight train of talent. It seems almost like cheating, a conceit rather than something earned. At the very least, it seems less compelling. One of the reasons I have a hard time maintaining an interest in baseball is that without a salary cap, teams like the Yankees can indiscriminately snatch up a lopsided portion of the best talent in baseball and cruise to the championship. Sure, there’s some merit to simply seeing the game played well regardless of the outcome, but when you’re pretty sure who’s going to win, what’s the point? If that’s the setup, you might as well save yourself some money and go see the Harlem Globetrotters instead.

Nevertheless, basketball has had no shortage of dynasties and it’s hard to say that the league is any worse for wear on account of certain teams enjoying sustained success. Again, only looking at the NBA during my lifetime, the Lakers just won back to back championships and made their third consecutive finals appearance. The ratings for the most recent Game 7 were the best the NBA’s had since 1998. Earlier in the decade, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers made four consecutive finals appearances and won three championships in a row. Their last run at the title had better ratings than any of the NBA Finals that followed until this very year. Jordan’s Bulls won six titles in seven years and reigned at a time where the NBA and basketball as a whole had some of its biggest success, both here and abroad. Sure, even if you’re completely neutral about LeBron James himself, there may still be room to criticize his decision and the ensuing fallout as something that just makes the NBA less interesting. The actual effect the new Miami Heat will have on the game as a whole remains to be seen, and if nothing else, they have the defending champion Lakers to worry about. Still, if past is prologue, any dominance they enjoy will not make the league any less popular, or for that matter, profitable.

Even so, much of the criticism does not come from LeBron James in relation to the league as a whole or his place in basketball history, but instead from the fact that LeBron left his home state and legions of his fans with it. This begs the question – what does LeBron James owe to Cleveland and the state of Ohio? Certainly, the area that supported him on the path that led him to the NBA, and the fans that cheered him on during his time with the Cavaliers deserved something back. To that end, he gave back to the team and to the area for seven years. He gave them seven years of having a superstar player, bringing the attention and excitement that comes with that marquee name. He gave them seven years where a team that had barely been in the conversation became regular contenders. He gave them seven years of a homegrown hero grabbing the focus of a national audience and drawing it back to the place he grew up. It was good fortune that LeBron ended up playing in Ohio in the first place. It was luck that he even had the chance to give back to the area in such a significant way. Seven years seems like a fair tour of duty.

In the Jewish tradition, seven years is often considered a “cycle.” You may recall that Joseph predicted seven years of plenty and seven years of famine in Egypt. Every seven years, the Torah requires that the farmer let his land lie fallow and rely on God’s bounty to sustain him. Without giving any credence to Jesse Jackson’s ridiculous statement comparing Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert to a plantation owner, another aspect of the significance of this seven year time period in Judaism is that those who had committed to work were required to be released from their commitments after seven years. LeBron gave those seven years to Ohio and to the Cavaliers and, in my view, earned the right to seek his fortunes elsewhere.

That’s not to say I have no sympathy for the people in Cleveland and in the rest of Ohio who feel betrayed by LeBron leaving the area. James’s departure is symbolic of a city, battered as much as any by the economic crisis, watching homegrown talent leave the area for greener pastures time and time again. LeBron was a native son. Cleveland cannot compete with the flash and flair of Miami, or the bright lights of New York City, but its citizens had “loyalty” “community” and “home” on their side. It turns out that wasn’t enough, a fact which is understandably devastating.

But is it LeBron’s responsibility to carry not only his team, but his city, and his state? I don’t believe so. How much is he expected to sacrifice his own personal goals and ambitions in his chosen profession? He gave them seven of the best years the franchise has ever had. He brought an unprecedented share of the national spotlight and business to the area. He’s paid his dues to the place where he grew up, and like many of us, he’s onto the next adventure somewhere else. Some sadness and feeling of betrayal is understandable and fair, but does he deserve this scorn and vitriol? Should his fame and status as an economic boon to the area shackle him from making a decision he thinks will make him more fulfilled as an athlete and perhaps as a person? These are questions without an objective answer, but I think not.

What’s more, LeBron based this decision, at least partially, on three things we love to see in our athletes: a desire to win, an emphasis on friendship and camaraderie with teammates, and a sacrifice of the chance to receive more money in pursuit of those twin goals. By all accounts, LeBron picked the team that gives him the best chance to win. If anything, he has been criticized for putting himself in a situation where winning will be too easy. But isn’t that what we want from our sports stars? A goal to win above all else? Isn’t their burning desire to lift the championship trophy a major part of what makes us admire them? LeBron wants to win. He’s had more pressure to win than most NBA players will ever experience. Now he’s putting himself in what he thinks is the best position to do just that. I find it difficult to fault him for making a decision on the basis of what we hope is the reason every athlete plays the game – the chance to win it all.

It’s especially difficult to fault him for that decision when another reason he chose Miami was to play basketball with two of his good friends. As members of the 2008 Olympic team, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh bonded. They developed a connection strong enough that they wanted to play together more frequently than the mere handful of times every couple of years that the American national team competes. Isn’t this what we wanted from the basketball players we sent to Beijing? The complaint about the 2004 Olympic team is that it consisted of a mish-mashed group of individual stars who could not come together or play as a group. Well, in addition to reclaiming the gold medal, the players on our national team did come together to form a more cohesive whole, and as a consequence, some of those players developed a chemistry that they wanted to bring back to the NBA. They enjoyed the camaraderie with their teammates so much that they wanted to play alongside them all the time. How can we fault LeBron for this rationale anymore than we can fault him for wanting to win?

Beyond that, he left millions of dollars on the table to achieve both these things. If there’s one constant knock against athletes, it’s that they’re more concerned with money than anything else. From Alex Rodriguez’s ridiculous contract to play for the Texas Rangers, to Albert Haynesworth’s unprecedented contract with the Washington Redskins (which, I might add, apparently does not give him sufficient motivation to play in a new defensive scheme), to the numerous other athletes who have simply and straight-forwardly left their home teams for the biggest paycheck. LeBron gave up the possibility of receiving his biggest paycheck, not only with Cleveland who by league rule could offer him more money than any other team, but even with Miami. James, Wade, and Bosh all took less money than they would have otherwise received for the chance to play together, for the ability to bring in solid talent around them, and to give themselves the best opportunity to win.

This runs entirely counter to the persistent and often realized stereotype about athletes. Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, we should not be applauding too loudly for a superstar accepting that while he could secure a ninety-five million dollar contract, eighty-million will do just fine, but it’s an increasingly unusual occurrence in the world of sports, where an athlete’s salary is less about increasing buying power and more about respect.  For once, it wasn’t all about the money. For once, the goals of winning and camaraderie were more important than greed. Perhaps this should be a more frequent occurrence in the sports world, but the reality is that it is an increasingly rare event. By making his decision on these grounds, LeBron James set a good example for what the thousands if not millions of young people who idolize him should value in sports, and maybe even in life.

So if we should not criticize LeBron James for choosing a different path toward greatness, if we cannot clearly say that his decision hurts the NBA or the game of basketball, if he fairly returned the favor to his home state, and if he based his decision on values that we admire in athletes, is there really room to judge him? The answer is a resounding yes. All these rationales point to a simple fact – the reason to judge LeBron James harshly is not because of his decision in and of itself. He made a fair choice for the right reasons. Rather, it’s because of the classless and disrespectful manner in which he made it. The disgusting display in the lead up to “The Decision” was as distasteful and self-involved as anything I’ve seen in sports.

The build up to LeBron’s first crack at free agency grew more and more shameful as time went on. As early as 2007 LeBron was making subtle rumblings about where he might end up after his contract expired. He loved playing the game, and I don’t mean basketball. He loved assuring people that his New York gear only served to represent his favorite baseball team, the Yankees, always adding a wink and a nod. He loved dropping hints and clues about which way he was leaning, setting off media frenzies and serving as a distraction for his team. Long before he was a genuine free agent, he was publicly dipping his toe in the water for everyone to see, and it disrespected the teammates he played with, the organization he played for, and the fans who supported him.

As many have pointed out, LeBron James never had the chance to enjoy the college recruiting process. For all of his talent and hype, he never got to have coach after coach call him, flatter him, tell them how much he would mean to the team, and try to do everything in their power to win his approval. He reveled in that courtship process. It took him until the ripe old age of twenty-five to get there, but by god, he was going to make up for lost time. He had legends of basketball line up for an audience with “The Chosen One.” He enjoyed visits from businessmen, rap stars, and billionaires, all trying to woo him. He soaked up the attention, the flattery, the sycophantic love.

This parade of graveling is only rendered all the more disgusting if, in fact, the rumor is true that he, Wade, and Bosh had already planned this outcome long in advance. If LeBron knew where he was going and still took part in this elaborate dog and pony show where everyone tried to win his affections, it only reinforces the idea that this entire exercise only served to boost LeBron’s apparently gargantuan ego and need for attention. Worse, it may have all been an excuse to spy on other teams and pick the brains of opposing coaches and owners. Why put on this elaborate production for a foregone conclusion? The forgiving part of me says that maybe he wanted to give the other teams a fair shake, to see if anyone could change his mind. The cynical part of me says that he did not want to deprive himself of a single second of this moment in the sun.

Which brings us to “The Decision.” The very idea of having a ninety-minute special to make a thirty-second announcement is ludicrous. LeBron wanted to have his national signing day moment. This is the closest he could come to having hats with the names of his suitors lined up on a table in front of him. I have little sympathy for someone as rich and famous and idolized as LeBron James needing to make up for lost pampering. The entire exercise was a joke.

Shame on ESPN for their part in all of this. The network has veered much more toward entertainment than news in recent years, but this takes the cake. They sat idly by and let LeBron James dictate the terms of his performance. His own setup. His own interviewer. Pre-selected questions that were as challenging and hard-hitting as a summer breeze. This is journalism? The desire to scoop the rest of the media was enough for ESPN to allow LeBron and company to rob them of their dwindling journalistic integrity. The pride of having LeBron select their network as the platform where he would make his announcement was enough for them to turn it into a pedestal. For at least one night, ESPN became the worldwide leader in spectacle rather than sports.

And LeBron ate it up. He wants to be loved. He wants to be embraced. Everything about that special was coldly calculated to make him seem as warm and real as possible, and that’s why it rang so very false. It all felt completely rehearsed. LeBron himself seemed like a nervous actor trying to remember his lines. He looked visibly and uncomfortably self-aware. Though we cannot always put our fingers on why exactly, most of us have a sense for when something feels disingenuous. When LeBron spoke about how he was “humbled” by this trumped up recruiting process, he set off all the alarm bells, and the entire ordeal officially became a farce. Welcoming an elaborate cavalcade of millionaires and billionaires to hock their wares for you is not the behavior of someone who is humble. Going on national television to announce where you are going to work is not the behavior of someone who is humble. Demanding a ninety-minute television special devoted to yourself is not the behavior of someone who is humble.

Some people have said that all of this is mitigated by the fact that LeBron donated all the proceeds from the show to charity and that he did the special from a Boys and Girls Club. I beg to differ. LeBron should be as ashamed for wrapping up his self-centered flight of fancy in the guise of charity as anything else. LeBron is not a poor man. He could just as easily have donated part of his salary, or even done an ad for one of the television special’s many eager sponsors in order to raise the money for charity. In this way, he could have raised the same funds without insulting the organizations he’s trying to help, not to mention the intelligence of the viewers, by pretending that this whole charade was about anything other than him and him alone. It was a ploy, and a fairly transparent one at that.

Part of what bothers me is the way in which he made the specific announcement. “I am taking my talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat.” Who would say something like that? I recently engaged in the weirdness that is the interviewing process for a summer job out of law school. If someone had asked me where I was working this summer and I started my answer with “I’m taking my talents to…” I would rightfully expect them to immediately look at me with disdain, or at least cluck a note of disapproval. Now maybe there’s a difference between a random law student and a basketball superstar, but who would use those arrogant words to make that announcement? The only way he could make himself sound more egotistical and self-important is if he changed the word “talents” to “greatness” or “basketball immortality.”

That’s what bothers many if not most people about this entire, lengthy process – the self-importance. Despite my prior compliment about LeBron James making his decision without regard to money, he has the stated goal of becoming a billionaire. This is his aim not because of the money; he already has more than he likely knows what to do with. It’s about the prestige, it’s about the status, it’s about using the money as a signal to say, “I am an important person, and you should respect me and pay attention to me.”

That’s why LeBron couldn’t announce he was joining the Heat at the same time as Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. That’s why LeBron needed an hour and half-long special to make a thirty-second announcement. What may be the worst part of all of this is that it will happen again. In sports, the contracts and the antics that surround them are not about financial security; they’re about one-upping the competition. The next big free agent is going to want to do the same thing, except with an even longer special, and a bigger buildup, and cuter kids in the background, and questions that are even softer! It’s a race to the top and a race to the bottom at the same time.

I can support LeBron James for charting his own path to basketball greatness, but I cannot support him for cutting a new path toward oblivious narcissism at a time when athletes need no further excuse to be self-centered. I can defend the effect his choice will have on the NBA as a whole, but I cannot defend the style in which he made it, nor the effect it will have on his colleagues who will not only try to emulate him, but also to top him. I can sit here and justify him turning his back on his hometown, but I cannot justify him ripping their heart out on national television. I can praise LeBron for putting the values of winning and friendship over money, but I cannot praise him for then turning around and demonstrating that he has a greater concern for his carefully crafted “brand,” not to mention his need to be liked and courted, than the fans and the underprivileged whose mantle he disingenuously takes up. LeBron James made a fair, reasonable, and imminently justifiable decision about what to do with his future. He just made that decision in what was possibly the worst, most distasteful, and most dishonorable manner imaginable. For that, he deserves to be judged, and he will be.

Posted in Sports | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments