Tuesday, July 15, 2014

LeBron Makes Another Wrong Decision

By Brad Oremland

I respect LeBron James as an athlete. He's the best basketball player in the world, and one of the best ever.

I do not like LeBron James. Sure, I've defended him, but James represents something that's really wrong with sports. LeBron James is all about image. He's a promoter first and an athlete second. He's a brand name first and a human being second.

LeBron lost a lot of fans with The Decision. Everyone knows that, even his supporters. People didn't like the never-ending public dance in the media. Many were put off when instead of a press conference, James stretched his announcement into an hour-long TV special. People who hated ESPN's handling of the event (it took 28 minutes to reveal that he'd chosen Miami) blamed LeBron as a co-conspirator. Some fans resented the choice to leave Cleveland. Everyone hated the phrase "take my talents to South Beach."

But what bothered me most was how unsportsmanlike LeBron's choice was. He chose to join a team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh explicitly because he thought it would be easy to win championships with them. We admire winners because they elevate their teams to greatness, not because they migrate towards the greatness of others. James had to deal with Michael Jordan comparisons from the time he was in high school, and that was never fair. But never did LeBron fall as far short of Jordan as when he signed with the Heat. Jordan worked hard to turn the Chicago Bulls into a contender. James left his hometown team, the city that had drafted and celebrated him, to take less money on a team stacked with talent. LeBron didn't overcome adversity; he avoided it.

Perhaps more than anything, fans were offended that James chose the team where he thought it would be easiest to win a championship. A commenter on one of my old articles wrote that by signing with the Heat, LeBron was "chasing glory in a way that cheapens the entire game." Putting so many stars on one team didn't turn the Heat into the Harlem Globetrotters, and the rest of the league into the Washington Generals, but it was against the spirit of competition.

I get the sense that most fans are behind LeBron's return to Cleveland. He grew up nearby, and he began his pro career with the Cavs, and so returning to Cleveland undoes some of the nastiness that surrounded The Decision. The King's return to Ohio doesn't really move me in either direction, but I think it demonstrates that he still doesn't get it.

LeBron isn't just returning to Cleveland now; he's also leaving Miami. Sure, his roots in Ohio go back further, but let's not pretend no one's getting hurt: King James is once again leaving a city that adored him. Miami embraced LeBron James when the rest of the country was still reeling from the tastelessness of The Decision. James is ditching his friend Dwyane Wade, and his other Miami teammates, to rejoin a Cleveland roster that includes exactly one former teammate, Anderson Varejao. If this is supposed to demonstrate loyalty, we've had a misunderstanding.

Compared to the awfulness of his last switch, this is a comparably classy exit, but there are a lot of people — and in particular a lot of young people — who have supported James with the Miami Heat specifically. Returning to Cleveland also means leaving Miami behind. It's not a crime, but I have trouble praising the one without balancing the other. One city celebrates, another mourns.

But most fans don't see it that way, and going back to Cleveland is a great P.R. move for LeBron. Cavaliers fans seem to have forgiven James almost unanimously. The same people who burned his jerseys four years ago are buying them now. The biggest turnaround has come from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. Deadspin published a funny edited version of Gilbert's furious Comic Sans rant, updated to reflect the prodigal son's return to the Rust Belt.

James is hardly making a sacrifice, though. The Cavaliers offered him the most money, and they're stocked with top draft picks. The Heat were a great team last year, but they've clearly stopped trending upward. Wade has trouble staying healthy, and he and Bosh have both lost a step. James probably has a better chance of winning multiple rings in Cleveland than he would have in Miami. And there's that P.R. angle. Many fans regarded LeBron's championships with the Heat as tainted: the phony product of an alliance designed to control the sport and remove the drama from title runs. If James wins a ring with the Cavs, it will do more for his legacy than another two titles in Miami. He's got almost nothing to lose with this move, but a lot to gain.

None of this means James isn't happy to return to Cleveland. But for a figure who hasn't had a sincere public moment in four years, it's hard to take him at face value now. LeBron hasn't deepened his crimes by returning to Cleveland, but he hasn't atoned for them, either.

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