The clue that LeBron James didn’t have one came twenty-something minutes into what promises to go down as the most over-hyped and over-produced hour in sports television history:
That’s when he called his experience with free agency “real humbling.”
Another 30 minutes of so would pass before “The Decision’s” first authentic moment. It came as Michael Wilbon asked James for reaction to the sight of his erstwhile fans in Cleveland now burning his jersey.
He wore an unmistakable expression of shock. You could see it finally dawn on him, this new reality. A media event born of the power struggle between CAA and Endeavor/William Morris had quickly devolved into one of those old-school wrestling interviews. Apparently, the possibility of jersey-burning hadn’t been addressed in any of the memos. In their zeal to hatch the perfect plan, the King’s minions had underestimated the backlash. Without even having to dye his hair, LeBron James had suddenly become the biggest heel in American sports.
“I can’t get involved in that,” he said. “This is a business.”
You could almost see James’ thoughts, as if they’d been superimposed in neatly lettered in cartoon bubbles over his head: BUT I DID EVERYTHING RIGHT! THEY’RE CHANGING THE RULES ON ME!
In fact, he had followed the script, adhering faithfully to all the customary talking points. He had listened to his mom’s advice. The commercial proceeds of the hour-plus, prime-time special to announce his signing with the Miami Heat would go to various Boys and Girls Clubs. Besides, as he assured his various inquisitors: “It had nothing to do with money.”
Of course. This may be a business, but when it comes to beloved figures skipping town, it never, ever, ever, has anything to do with money. Excuse that digression; I’ve just heard the line too many times before. In fairness to James, he did take less than every available cent.
“I’m not getting a max deal,” he said.
He will play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the three-most coveted free agents of this summer. Apparently, they will all take less than the maximum amount allowed, and about $30 million less than James would’ve been guaranteed for re-upping with his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Finally, he offered what has been (until now) a universally accepted rationale: he just wants to win. “That’s the only reason we play this game,” said James, “to win championships.”
Wanting to win was the excuse when Kobe Bryant staged a summer-long tantrum in 2007. It was the excuse when James walked off the court after Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals without shaking hands with the Orlando Magic. Wanting to win is invoked to explain away all sorts of bad behavior in sports. But it shouldn’t have been required here. After all, free agency was James’ star-spangled right, something he had long planned for and earned.
Still, the response to his decision ranged from jersey-burning in Cleveland (where the owner, who revealed himself as a rank amateur, accused James of “cowardly betrayal”) to standard bad-mouthing in the other jilted cities. But the prevailing take -- even in towns with no dog in this fight -- was general cynicism.
People really wanted him to stay in Cleveland. For some reason, or perhaps a variety of them, they identified with a metropolis that had seen better days, and no championship since 1964. Fans believe that winning confers virtue. But winning in Cleveland would’ve conferred more than winning in Miami with Wade and Bosh.
James' roots in Akron were always a central part of the pitch. James was marketed as a “King” and the “Chosen One,” but at the same time, he was supposed to be something more old-fashioned: the hometown hero. But now his departure comes as a tacit admission that he was not. In fact, the task was bigger than the man.
For each of James’ talking points there was a counter-argument. Sure, he wants to win. But Akron and Cleveland were his heart and his home. How many times did he say that? Then he does an hour of live television -- from the mean streets Greenwich, Ct. no less -- that all but celebrates his hometown’s loss.
Again, free agency is no sin. But hubris of this magnitude is.
As for the money, he’s not exactly leaving $30 million on the table as reported. The Cleveland figure was for six years; his deal in Miami is for five. What’s more, you don’t have to be a financial planner to know there’s no state tax in Florida.
By the way, what was the matter with Chicago? The Bulls roster is more balanced, if less star-laden than Miami. Instead, James conferred regularly with his pals -- despite David Stern’s prohibition against “a free-agent summit,” it appears to have been an everyday telephonic occurrence -- and winds up in South Beach. Fifteen years after he left New York, Pat Riley is still humiliating the Knicks, who don’t need much help in the humiliation department, having dispatched Isiah Thomas in a last-ditch effort to entice James. It’s as if Riley found a way for all the cool kids to be on the same team.
“It’s not about leaving,” said James. “It’s about joining forces.”
They way he spoke of himself and his new teammates, they weren’t ballplayers so much as super-heroes. Of course, everybody knows what turns guys from good to evil in the comic books. It’s never money. It’s hubris.