I told myself I wouldn’t watch it. This was the Thursday before last, when Mrs. Supermarket went off to get some culture. Possibly this meant yogurt. I’m still fuzzy on the details. Anyway, I decided to do what any sensible man in the Eagle Rock area would do sans wife. I headed to the Oinkster for dinner. And what’s on both flat-screen plasmas? That’s right, The Decision, LeBron’s masturbatory TV special in which he spent an hour telling Cleveland the myriad was in which it could go fuck itself.
In a box, with a fox, etc.
I told myself I wouldn’t write this. After all, Bill Simmons expertly picked it over, both before and after. There wasn’t much I could bring to the table after that. But then a friend who doesn’t follow basketball wondered what the big deal was. I realized that no one explained this to confused non-basketball fans forced to watch their friends/spouses/S.O.s/love slaves/casual acquaintances act like the Easter Bunny had just raped Jesus Christ on a very special episode of The Kardashians.
This all starts with LeBron James. A native son of Akron, Ohio, he came out of high school straight to the NBA. The hype was that he had the potential to become the greatest of all time, a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Because Frank Capra was writing LeBron’s story, the Cleveland Cavaliers (the only pro basketball team in Ohio) got the rights to draft him, and they did. LeBron didn’t disappoint. He was the single best player in the NBA for several seasons but his teams had the nasty habit of getting beaten in the playoffs by teams with worse records.
And Teen Wolf dunked on him one time.
He also carefully managed his public image. He came off as a fun-loving guy who cared about his friends. A nice guy. A good guy. He was the polar opposite of Kobe Bryant, who we all suspect killed a hooker at least one time.
This summer, LeBron’s contract came up. He would be eligible to play wherever he liked, although according to league rules, the Cavs could pay him $30 million more than any other team. As Stephen Colbert brilliantly pointed out, this would finally answer the question: “Will anyone live in Cleveland for 30 million dollars?” Anyway, the persistent rumor was that during the Beijing Olympics, several members of the US Men’s Basketball Team, including LeBron, Dwyane (pronounced “Dwayne”) Wade and Chris Bosh made a pledge to all play together in 2010 when their contracts were up. As free agency began, all three guys played the cards close to the chest, but each signed with Wade’s team, Miami. First Wade re-signed, then Bosh went over, then LeBron announced his intentions on his special The Decision.
What’s so wrong with this? The man has the right to play where he likes, and it’s not like he was winning a title with Cleveland. After all, he went into the playoffs with the best record in the league only to be dismantled by the Lazarus-like Boston Celtics. I will attempt to explain why LeBron is not only a giant douchebag, but managed to do harm to himself, his former team, the league and the sport.
The most obvious target is the hour-long special in which he announced his decision (Called, with Bayian imagination: The Decision). This is the easy target, because best case scenario, it’s just sort of d-baggy. No other player has a special to announce their decision. They send out a tweet, maybe a press release. An hour to say one sentence is excessive no matter how you slice it. Then, imagine you’re a Cleveland fan. The only way a special makes any kind of sense is if LeBron is announcing his intention to stay with Cleveland, have a teary moment where he thanks his fans and his family and possibly God and then lays out his plan to win a title. Self-aggrandizing? Sure. But sports fans eat that up. Cleveland fans would love him, and the rest of us would at least admire the heft of his testicles. But by announcing his intention to leave, he’s essentially breaking up with the city in the most public and destructive way possible. Ever been dumped? Ever dumped someone? It’s better to do that shit in private, even if it means you’re more likely to get stabbed. He even announced the Decision in the most obnoxious way possible, saying he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” Apparently, he wasn’t taking his reputation. He’d just set that on fire. The point of this is that LeBron showed himself to be the exact opposite of what he had been pretending to be. Chuck Klosterman said that celebrities are only damaged by scandals that contradict the image they’ve given us. Charles Barkley gets pulled over for drunk driving while trying to find a specific hooker and no one cares, because that’s Charles. Had Tiger Woods just been honest that he was a walking erection there would have been no scandal. LeBron was supposed to be a nice guy, instead we saw a guy who referred to himself in the third person, and as “King” James. This wasn’t a nice guy. This was an out of control narcissist.
The special’s damage was supposed to be mitigated by the fact that the proceeds would be donated to charity. They were, although the figure keeps changing. Feels like a bit of a payoff, doesn’t it? Don’t hate me, baby, just buy something nice for yourself. Which Cleveland might be able to do if the money had gone to Ohio-based charities.
The special aired on July 8, which is a full week after free agency began. Why does this matter? Because this meant that Cleveland, who had already extended the max offer to LeBron, had to wait to see if he’d take it before they knew how much they could spend on other players. Meanwhile, no one wanted to sign with Cleveland because they didn’t know if LeBron was staying. By the time LeBron announced that he was leaving – and the Cavs found out when we did, by watching the special – none of the quality free agents were still around to pursue. LeBron was leaving his team and had made sure they couldn’t sign anyone to replace him. The league has a rule in place to help with dick moves like this, called the sign-and-trade. This means that a player who wants to leave will sign with his original team and get traded to the team he wants to go to, and the original team will get something in return. Not only did LeBron not do this, he managed to take it a step further. Imagine if after Vader killed Obi-Wan, he turned around and force-choked Han. He totally could have done it, but the simple fact remains: Vader is not as big a douche as LeBron James.
Besides, everyone knows Vader played for the Pistons.
Okay, so he left a bad team, what’s the big deal? LeBron helped insure that Cleveland couldn’t land the best guys even while playing there. His contract had an opt-out clause, meaning that for three years, he could have left at any time. Free agents were aware, and leery of this. They didn’t want to have to play in Cleveland if it meant LeBron was jumping ship. And before we start this revisionist history that Cleveland was a hopeless team, let’s remember that they had the best record in the NBA for two seasons in a row. It’s not like they were the Clippers.
Now there are other reasons what he did was especially dickish to Cleveland, and it was even worse because LeBron was a native son, but I don’t feel qualified to discuss it. I’m a Laker fan. That means I have the good fortune to follow the best franchise in NBA history. I don’t really understand Cleveland’s pain. They have my empathy, if not my sympathy.
But let’s move on to what this means to the game itself. As I said, LeBron had a chance to eclipse Michael Jordan as the consensus Greatest Player of All Time. This sort of thing matters to sports fans. There’s nothing we like more than arguing about the relative greatness of players. Where a player ranks in the pantheon is not an answerable question, but that doesn’t stop us from getting drunk and trying. As sports fans, we like it when players do something that other players couldn’t, like when Kobe went off for 82 points, or when Rondo posted 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. This helps us frame the debate and come up with new evidence about a player’s greatness.
What matters most of all is being the best player on the best team. Michael Jordan will always be greater than Scottie Pippen, despite the fact that they won the same amount of championships and both men were integral in every one of them. When having Greatest Player of All Time conversations, only players that were the best player on their team are eligible. Dwyane (remember, it’s pronounced “Dwayne”) Wade won a championship in 2006. By joining him in Miami, LeBron has conceded that he will never win one without Wade. No matter how many they win together, Wade will always have one more, which makes Wade a Greater Player. Wade has won without LeBron. LeBron has not won without Wade. The fact that this doesn’t seem to bother LeBron baffles the basketball fan. You see, we love basketball. If we had the chance to be the Greatest of All Time, we would strangle a pregnant nun for the chance. Because of this, we love the players that clearly strive for greatness. It’s why men like Magic, Michael and Larry are still worshiped in their cities and hated elsewhere. When LeBron went to Miami, he took his name out of the debate. He went from being the next Michael Jordan to the next Scottie Pippen. Pippen was a great player, but he will never, ever be mentioned as the greatest. Neither will LeBron and he doesn’t seem to care.
There is hope. When LeBron was being an asshole on TV, Kevin Durant, the superstar of the OKC Thunder quietly signed a five year extension with his team. There’s no opt out clause: he’s there for five years unless they trade him. He announced this, explaining that the team had been loyal to him and he wanted to be loyal to them.
There still are good guys out there. They just don’t make spectacles of themselves.