The dust has settled, at least in most places besides Northeastern Ohio.
LeBron James chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and to sign a contract with the Miami Heat. ESPN chose to hold a one-hour special about “the decision.” The owner of the Cavs threw a hissyfit and published a stunningly petty response to LeBron’s decision to go to Miami. Pretty much everyone came across as something of an asshole, except for Pat Riley, who got all three of the players he wanted in Miami without seeming greedy or manipulative or pompous.
I’ve been thinking about all the hoopla for a bit now, and didn’t want to write anything at first about it because it was all so overblown. What is there to say? LeBron shouldn’t have gone on television to leave the Cavs – it’s not that he did something wrong in leaving, it’s just that he showed no class in broadcasting that choice in the way he did. ESPN certainly should not have broadcast the special – it wasn’t journalism and it wasn’t entertainment. It was boring. Jim Gray should be ashamed, because as the guy who first came up with the idea of the show and then conducted the interview, he…well, he just kind of sucked.
Sheesh – it’s all been said. (And yet here I go…)
The most interesting character in all of this, to me, is the Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert. Gilbert feels betrayed and feels that LeBron owed it to the Cavs and Cavs’ fans to remain a Cavalier. I’m not sure why this would be, though I can see why Gilbert is angry. He paid LeBron a lot of money and while the team had a great deal of success in the regular season – having he best record in the league the last two years – they have not won a championship and have only advanced to the Finals once, where they lost to the Spurs. They’ve struggled to get by the Celtics and their “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. They’ve even struggled to get by Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic. Basketball-wise, they haven’t made good on the promise of LeBron’s talent. But then again, they really haven’t had that good of a team. One good player – one great player – doesn’t win championships at this point in time.
Gilbert’s anger, though, seems to be about more than LeBron’s commitment to winning. For years, it seems, Gilbert has sought to satisfy every one of LeBron’s whims and wishes – from big things like signing certain players and hiring certain coaches to smaller things like changing the color of the seats in the stadium because LeBron didn’t like them. This aspect of Gilbert’s pique, which his General Manager Chris Grant mentioned the day after LeBron’s signing, seems more than silly. It’s petty.
Gilbert seems to have suggested that because he gave LeBron everything he wanted then LeBron owes it to him to stay. I think it’s fair to say that this is never a good strategy when it comes to keeping a relationship together: “I built you a new house! I bought you a new car! A new dress! I changed my hairstyle/my clothes/my friends for you! You owe me – you can’t leave! Wait, wait, I can change more!” Besides pathetic, this complaint betrays a line of thinking that we might want to spend a moment on.
When LeBron expressed his displeasure with the color of the seats in the stadium, Gilbert – along with then-GM Danny Ferry – should have responded very simply. “We’re sorry that you don’t like the seats, LeBron. We sell out most games. When people sit in them, can you tell what color they are? Are you having trouble concentrating? Your teammates haven’t expressed the same concern. Do you think we should hire a sports psychologist to deal with this problem of yours?” And then they should have hit back hard: “What does the color of the seats have to do with what goes on on the basketball court? Did you ever go to the old Boston Garden? Ugliest stadium ever. They won an awful lot of games there, though, and more championships than anyone else. I don’t think the color of the seats is the problem.”
I don’t want to call Gilbert, in his role as the owner of the team, the equivalent of LeBron’s father. However, as any parent knows, “no” is a very crucial thing to say to children because it helps to set limits and boundaries and helps children learn to focus on what is important. Gilbert should have helped LeBron focus on what was important for him to improve as a basketball player, as a teammate, and as a leader of the franchise.
The thing that really surprises me is the level of support that Gilbert has received from Cavs fans. I recognize that they feel “hurt” and can imagine that having to watch that show was a painful experience for any fan of the team (or for anyone else for that matter). Getting jilted live on television isn’t really what anyone wants to go through. As I said earler, the television program was stunningly classless and revealed a striking immaturity on LeBron’s part. But I don’t understand the notion that LeBron “owes” the Cavs anything. Why would he?
He was an employee of the company and he received compensation for his work. Sure, he was paid a lot of money, but if the company couldn’t afford it then they shouldn’t have paid it. When LeBron’s contract ran out, he became free to put himself on the open market, field a series of offers for his services, and then make a decision as to where he wanted to work next. He didn’t have a noncompete clause. He could go wherever he wanted. After all, he could have signed with the Lakers for a small amount of money if he had wanted. But he wanted a major contract and that limited the amount of teams that could afford to pay him, because of the salary cap in the NBA. He didn’t choose Miami for the money – Cleveland was the team who could pay him the most. Instead, he chose to go where he thought he would have the best chance to win soonest.
Cavs fans bought his shirt, they bought tickets to the games, they cheered for him. Uh-huh. So? That money isn’t LeBron’s. It’s the NBA’s and more to the point, the Cavaliers’. (Only a portion of merchandise sales goes to players.) Sure, LeBron was paid a lot of money by Dan Gilbert to play basketball for his team, but fans are sadly naïve if they believe anything other than that the tickets they buy or the shirts they buy or the television package they pay for somehow goes directly to LeBron. It goes to the owner. The owner pays the players. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that Gilbert did not pay LeBron more than he was making from LeBron. If he wasn’t making a profit, or getting serious tax breaks from the losses he was incurring – and therefore benefiting financially from his ownership of the team – then Gilbert wouldn’t own the Cavs.
Bitch if you want about LeBron “owing” you something, but it’s Gilbert who owes fans something, not the player. Players play and get paid for doing so. We hope they try their best, that they practice hard, that they study and prepare appropriately, and that they perform to their abilities during games. But some of that is in their control and some of it isn’t. More to the point, they are employees of a company who are paid for their work. What they owe the company is determined by the company, not by fans or customers of that company. When your iPhone service doesn’t work well, do you get mad at Steve Jobs or at Joe Schmoe at the factory? If the company was unhappy with LeBron, then they should have fired him. But they were happy with his services, or at least acted accordingly in continuing to pay him his salary. They just weren’t happy that he decided to change what company he wanted to work for. And that’s just too bad for them. That’s what it means to have your contract end and become a free agent. It’s not a plantation (even if there is a white owner and black worker).
One last complaint: “He was one of us,” many fans have said. Well, he is from Akron, but LeBron hasn’t been “one of us” since he was anointed “King James” on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler. I’m from Boston, and still identify as someone from there, but I don’t owe it to anyone to choose to live and work there. He might be from Northeastern Ohio, and he may plan to live there part of the year and after he retires, but lots of people leave their hometowns for employment opportunities. It’s pretty damn small-minded to think that this person has to stay in town or else he has betrayed everyone and everything.
I don’t know whether LeBron will enjoy success in Miami, as an individual or as a member of the team. There are still lots of good teams out there and winning takes place on the court, not during the offseason. What I do know is that you can’t slag him for going. It’s what he wants and what he earned through his hard work and his achievements.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to root for him. LET’S GO CELTICS!
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