LeBron James: welcome to the Punk Hall of Fame

Let’s say you’re a guy and you’ve been involved with a woman. Long-term, committed, exclusive relationship. Several years together. You loved her dearly through the years and she’s simply gaga over you, for reasons none of your friends fully understand. But now, now you’ve realized that it isn’t going to work any longer. Maybe you have different priorities. Maybe you want kids and she doesn’t. Maybe the fire has died in the bedroom. Maybe you’ve grown apart and your life together just doesn’t satisfy you anymore.

Whatever the reason, you realize that the relationship has to end. For better or worse you have a right to be happy and she shouldn’t have to live with a guy who sees her as something he’s settling for. You have all kinds of misgivings, but you’ve thought about it long and hard and, while it’s going to hurt like hell, it’s the right thing to do.

Now you have to figure out the best way to break up. You know that face-to-face is what she deserves. But a telephone call would be easier on you, providing you with some distance from the pain. An e-mail would be easier still. And you know that sometimes kids even break up with a text message.

Finally, you figure out what to do. “Honey, flip on Lifetime at 9pm Eastern. I have something I want to tell you.” When she tunes in, you announce to her, and to an audience of millions, that you’re dumping her and marrying a sexy Cubana chick from South Florida.

That’s exactly what happened last night, folks. Metaphorically speaking.

I have no problems with LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, I’d probably have criticized him had he decided to stay. Pro sports is a business, and when you’re gifted with all-planet talent the likes of which nobody has ever seen before, you need to be in the game for one reason: to win. We see athletes all the time signing for the big dollars with teams that have zero chance of ever winning a damn thing (you know, like Joe Johnson just did), and when that happens there’s no reason for you or me or anyone else to ever take them seriously again. They passed up the chance to be a competitor and instead chose to be an entertainer, taking the man’s cash and putting on a show that most nights is the moral equivalent of the WWE. Sure, you’re playing, but you’re playing for eighth. You’re not even one of the top losers.

Good for you. Now, pass me the remote.

Let’s be clear: LeBron tried. He threw his heart and soul into trying to win a title for his hometown. Up until the Celtics series, anyway. By the end, he had proven conclusively that he couldn’t get the job done…by himself. While it’s not fair to characterize Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Delonte “New Daddy” West, a way-over-the-hill Shaq and Sideshow Andy Varejao as a second-rate pickup squad, it’s also unreasonable to look at the supporting cast that Cavs management provided Bron and conclude that he should have won with it. If he had, it would have been one of the most epic accomplishments in American professional sports history.

Lately the picture has gotten even bleaker. When you looked at where the franchise is talent-wise today, and where it seemed likely to be in the coming years, it was hard to see how things were going to get much better. With LeBron, the team is always going to be too good to land a top draft pick. It doesn’t have the chips you need to trade for that top-tier sidekick. And as this free agency period made brutally clear, ain’t nobody coming to Cleveland of their own free will. Not Amar’e. Not Boozer. Chris Bosh wasn’t going to Cleveland even if they guaranteed him $120M and threw in a pony. The sad truth is that Cleveland isn’t a destination. It’s the place you go when you don’t have options. I don’t say this to be mean. I have wonderful friends from that neck of the woods, and I know what it is myself to grow up in and love a place that’s not exactly everybody’s idea of a killer Plan A. Ain’t no free agents dying to go to Winston-Salem, NC, either.

So whatever we may say – and we’re going to have things to say, aren’t we? – let’s at least admit that this relationship didn’t fail because LeBron James didn’t try. He was in love. Madly in love. And he gave his heart unconditionally for almost seven years.

But. They say that crisis reveals character. When the end came, LeBron taught us a lot about the man he really is inside. You watched the man for seven years, watched his passion for the game and his obvious love of his community. You watched his ability to elevate his teammates, making them better than they’d ever be without him. And you’d have been justified in concluding, probably, that he’s a class act. Smart business guy, too. There’s a lot there to admire, as athletes go. He didn’t act like an entitled prima donna, at least not where the public could see it.

But when it came time to move on, he behaved not just in the worst way imaginable, he behaved in a way that was worse than you could have imagined. He didn’t break up face to face, like a man. He didn’t call her. He didn’t even opt for an e-mail or text message. No. He used his status and his leverage as The Chosen One® to dump her on television.

This would be indefensibly gutless and immature under any circumstances, but let’s remember that this particular girlfriend hasn’t exactly been lucky in love. Willie Mays broke her heart. John Elway used to take some kind of perverse glee in dragging her out in front of all her friends every year around the holidays and treating her like a public urinal. And what Art Modell did to her…well, it’s a good thing he got out of town where her brothers couldn’t get their hands on him, isn’t it?

A lot of people have a unkind words for LeBron James right about now. Drew Magary went nuclear on him at Deadspin the other day. Cleveland fans burned his laundry. And Cavs owner Dan Gilbert went positively Alanis Morissette. (If you haven’t seen this full statement yet, you owe it to yourself. It’s the damnedest flamethrower I’ve ever seen from a sports executive.)

I’m personally not going to get emotional about it, but I can’t really find much in Magary’s rant to quibble with. As for Gilbert, well, he had seven years to give Bron what he needed and for whatever reason he wasn’t able to get the job done. I understand that he’s mad and that he feels betrayed, but I also get that he’s a multi-millionaire who just lost more money than most of us will ever see. When all is said and done, much of the responsibility for James leaving lies with the failures of the owner and the people he put in charge of personnel and basketball operations. I’m sure Gilbert hopes that his unprecedented display of righteous outrage will cause everyone to lose sight of that fact.

In the final analysis, there are a couple of things I’ll remember about what we saw on ESPN last night. First, it was arguably the most despicable public relations gaffe we’ve ever seen from an athlete. We don’t need to wait until his playing days are over. LeBron James goes into the Punk Hall of Fame today.

Second, I can’t help feeling heartbroken for the jilted girlfriend. I imagine a woman, sitting on a slightly worn couch in a living room that could use a fresh a coat of paint. She’s not the prettiest girl in the world and she doesn’t live in a sexy neighborhood like South Beach. But she has a great heart and she damned sure deserves better than she’s gotten from the men in her life. She’s staring at the TV set, shellshocked, sobbing uncontrollably as the man she’s given everything to matter-of-factly explains to the world why another woman is better for him than she is.

She can’t help wondering – didn’t I at least deserve a phone call?

14 replies »

  1. That Gilbert letter was hysterical. They were reading it on the radio last night with The Imperial March playing in the background. I nearly drove off the road at one point.

    On a slightly different subject, I was thinking about James’ decision to leave Cleveland last night, and it occurred to me we witnessed a sign of a generation gap. It’s one thing to leave Cleveland for a team that has a better chance to win, but it’s another thing to head to Miami to play with one of the best five players in the sport.

    A lot of people are saying this move could weaken LBJ’s legacy, that he couldn’t win without teaming with a nearly as great player. I doubt we’d ever see Jordan pull a move like that in his prime. While we’ve seen great players team up in the past (Shaqtus and Kobe, for example), but I can’t think of one of the sport’s Top 3 talents leaving his hometown to play with another Top 3.

    Instead, LBJ has chosen to put winning as a team ahead of himself. Sure, last night’s special (which I did not watch, I confess) was an exercise in narcissism, but think about it. He’s passing up more money with Cleveland, the world’s marketing capital in New York and global marketing in the Nets and their Russian billionaire owner. He’s also risking personal glory because there’s a strong chance he won’t be The Man in Miami, just one of many Men. That, along with thinking he’s the center of the universe, struck me as strong Millennial traits.

  2. this is such a great piece! i laughed out loud in my staid office at “Chris Bosh wasn’t going to Cleveland even if they guaranteed him $120M and threw in a pony.” you rock, sam smith. keep it going!

  3. Nah, she won’t need therapy. Maybe a beer–or two.

    You’re right of course about sports being a business and the goal is winning. After I wrote my piece last night, I was getting ready to go to sleep and I put it to myself this way, “What if I were REALLY the best at what I did? Would I be willing to work for a company that just couldn’t figure out how to be succesful at promoting what you’re doing? [Actually, I went through that, but I digress.] Would you stay? Should you stay? What if other companies wanted you to come work for them?” I get it–I really do.

    The problem in Cleveland is that the guys that own the teams can’t put the package together. Sometimes it ALMOST happens–the Cavs in the past couple of years, the Indians in 1995-97. Then it all falls apart. We do not have a model for good sustainablility. Dan Gilbert? He’s thinking about his casinos. The Dolans (owners of the Indians)? Junior is getting into local politics and wants to be the first Cuyahoga County Exec.

    Character? Sure, he always came off as a good guy (until the end of the playoffs when he seemed like a quitter). But our adulation must have gone to his head. Telling quote from last night, “‘I didn’t want to make an emotional decision, I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what would make him happy,’ James said.” When a guy starts talking about himself in the third person he’s either A) Royal, B) Too big for his britches, or C) Can’t take responsibility for saying the word “I” in conjunction with what he’s doing.

    The problem with the “woman sitting on the couch” analogy is that it’s too simple. Yeah, she shoulda seen it comin’, I’ll grant you that. Trust me, she did (even if she was in denial). She knows she’s not sexy in a string-bikini and mojito kind of way. But to go other places with this comparison runs into blaming the victim: “She shoulda lost weight, gotten liposuction and implants, bought a new wardrobe, found better friends, and figured out how to make him happier.” On the other hand, she could have cut bait earlier.

  4. How do “winning as a team” and “thinking he’s the center of the universe” line up in his head, do you think? Is the team aspect primarily a pragmatic means to an end – a championship ring for himself?

  5. Russ and neat: thanks for the kind words. I actually thought about this one before I started writing. Usually I shoot first and aim later… 🙂

    Tom: I think there’s a good argument to made on the Millennial character issue, and if you’re in a charitable mood you can point to all kinds of evidence that Bron has ALWAYS had a team-first game, and that having to be the always-on-go-to guy is very much not who he is instinctively.

    That said, we saw last night that there’s some baggage that comes with the man. I’m not sure that his baggage is of a generational nature, though – every gen (especially X and the Boomers) have all kinds of narcissistic asshats wandering around.

    In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We’ll see over the next couple of years how much of the team-first thing is talk and how much is reality. In order for Miami to work, LBJ is really going to have to be the facilitator, not the alpha-dog scorer. And a lot is going to hinge on Bosh, as well, a guy who has talent but who, at this point, also has way more attitude than he’s earned on the floor.

  6. Cat: the jilted woman metaphor isn’t perfect, to be sure. If I were her friend, I’d get her behind closed doors and tell her she needed to get serious about insisting on her worth and stop giving her heart and soul to, well, sports teams. If that’s how you evaluate your worth, you’re going to get Elwayed every time.

  7. Great piece Sam; spot on.

    As far as announcing his decision, he should have said a couple of days before that he would be moving to another team and then do his hour-long Vitamin Water commercial if he was that hard up for cash. [Edit: He actually donated all proceeds to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. ]

    But as for how he made his decision, I would have done the same thing. Basically, Wade got a bunch of the top free agents (Bosh, James, Joe Johnson and himself) together and figured out whether they would want to play together and if so, where they would want to go. The SC Monitor has a great take on the piece:

    “Players discussing their futures, of course, is nothing new. But the idea of a backroom cabal pulling the strings, outside the purview of coaches, general managers, and the league commissioner, worries many analysts. Currently, the league has no mechanism to address what some critics call player collusion – which is illegal for owners – and commissioner David Stern did not step in to thwart the cooked-up Miami plan… From the perspective of big-league athletes, James, Bosh, and Wade have become a dribblers’ liberation front – a small band of superstars expressing solidarity and freedom from being chess pieces (albeit highly paid ones) for general managers and coaches to move around.”

    But now their combined salaries would suck up all the salary cap for the team and they’d have a supporting staff of a bunch of no-names. What they could of done (and got everyone’s hackles raised) was jointly decide to sign at 1/2 or 3/4 of the max salary so they could surround themselves with decent talent. James has already turned down a higher salary from Cleveland, it wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch. But if the other guys did it too – talk about collusion… 🙂

  8. Glad you figured out that I was the one listed as “anonymous.”

    Djerrid: One of the more intresting comments on Talk of the Nation was “if the owners made this kind of agreement, they’d be charged with collusion.” I’m glad you quoted the Monitor piece on that.

    Sure, you can buy a championship team, it’s happened before in Miami: the Florida Marlins. They brought in a bunch of great payers and won the ’97 Series (yep, against Cleveland). Then they traded away almost every good player.

    But this is a new paradigm. Maybe we can convince them to take turns with different teams. . . .