The LeBron Decision: a different view

Whenever anything really controversial and upsetting happens in the mediasphere, I’m tempted to throw out my opinions on it.  Usually, though, I wait.  Because everybody and their cat is opining on it when it first hits, and usually the mob is generating a lot of heat and precious little light.  (This goes for the professional media as well.  No problem of any substance was ever solved on Crossfire.)  So I prefer to sit back and think about the issue(s) before I offer my two cents in this space.

Which is why I haven’t commented on LeBron James’ “Decision.”  Until now, anyway.

To recap, in case you’ve been teaching literacy to isolated tribes in New Guinea for the last month … LeBron James, winner of the last two NBA most valuable player awards, became a free agent on July 1, eligible to sign with any team he wanted.  This has been anticipated for quite awhile, to the point that many NBA teams have been dumping players with big contracts since 2008 in order to have enough space under the salary cap to sign LeBron to the maximum allowable deal.  He met with representatives from six teams, including his then-current one, the Cleveland Cavaliers.  (Also his hometown team, sort of — he’s from Akron.).  Then he arranged with ESPN for a one-hour special to announce what team he’d sign with.  (ESPN, which has been openly speculating about LeBron’s plans since he signed his last contract in 2006, jumped at the chance.)

And on the special, he announced he would sign with the Miami Heat, to play with Dwyane Wade and another recent Heat acquisition, Chris Bosh.

The reaction in Cleveland, and elsewhere, was vitriolic.  Cleveland fans haven’t had a championship team since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964, and were pinning their hopes on the home-region kid to break the streak.  They felt betrayed, and expressed themselves accordingly — as did Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who penned a whiny “open letter” to LeBron that was printed in the local paper (and parodied elsewhere).  Brian Windhorst, an enterprising reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, did some digging and found that the possibility of James, Wade and Bosh getting together on the same squad had been in play for at least four years.  (Do read this article; very instructive.)  Meanwhile, Nike took down a ten-story poster of LeBron in downtown Cleveland, presumably before it could be spattered with rotten produce.

In Miami, naturally, the reaction was different — the press conference introducing the new trio was presented like a high-glitz fashion show, with James, Wade and Bosh parading in their Heat jerseys.  Nationwide, many members of the mass media — including some of the same people who’d left trails of drool talking for months about the LeBron sweepstakes — now condemned him for abandoning the team of his youth for the bright lights of South Beach.  Others speculated on whether the Heat were now prohibitive favorites to win the 2011 NBA title (which probably got a lot of laughs from Laker fans).

And everyone seemed to be leaving one question unasked, though it was endlessly implied: was what LeBron did the right thing to do?

As far as how he did it, the consensus is clearly that it couldn’t have been worse.  Hosting an hour-long self-produced TV show to announce where you’re signing your next contract — and it’s not with the team with which you’ve spent your whole pro career — is insensitive at best, cruel at worst, and narcissistic regardless.  Yes, I know he’s only 25 … but not every 25-year-old is that self-centered, and there’s no reason one has to be.  He stopped the world to make his announcement basically because he could, and because he knew everyone (including the Worldwide Leader in Sports) would go along with it.  That definitely was wrong.

But as to why he did it … I’m not sure, but maybe on at least one level he did do the right thing.  And it may be a lesson for all of us.

The day after the event, Bill Simmons of ESPN.com ran an entire column of fan e-mail he received after LeBron said he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”  (Also a worthy read, if an awfully long one.)  Several of the e-mails dealt with what appear to be LeBron’s main motive for choosing Miami:

(Ron in Chicago:) I think we’re realizing that LeBron was never made up of the same stuff as Kobe or MJ. And the things that we saw him doing in the future were things that we wanted for him, because of his transcendent skills. But in the end, he just didn’t want those things. He was abandoned as a kid, if you see his high school documentary, you see all he wants to do is be a part of something, not be something. He just wants to be a part of a group and be wanted.

(Jake in St. Cloud, WI:) Is it possible that this was more about LeBron deciding that what he wanted most was to have fun? Think about it, he never went to college and has been looked upon as a franchise savior since before he was drafted, now he can live in one of most fun cities in America and play ball with two of his best buddies in the league, and he doesn’t have to carry the franchise every night … if it were me, I’d jump at the chance to get paid to play with two of my best buds in a town where we can have tons of other fun on our days off.

(Alan in Bloomington, IN:) My wife is a psychologist and after watching the documentary about James’ high school years, she is convinced LeBron is trying to recapitulate his high school years with the “five friends” only this time it’s with highly paid peers in Miami.

(Boris in Portland:) At 25 if you had the opportunity to spend the next 5 years with two of your best friends living in South Beach winning NBA championships would you pass that up? I think we overestimate how much this guy thinks about his “legacy.” This is someone who calls his mom on the morning of The Decision, and right after The Decision, for moral support.

(Rene in Boston:) Was that the ultimate Gen Y move? Pick hanging with your friends as a career instead of kicking their butts and laughing with them in the offseason a la Jordan and Sir Charles? Us Gen Xers will never understand.

Not to kill your buzz, Rene in Boston, but I’m firmly Generation X (1964-79, roughly; I was born in ’69), and I think I understand it.  When LeBron signed his first contract with the Cavaliers in 2003, he was represented by a family friend.  He brought along a bunch of his Akron friends with him to Cleveland, and most of them are still part of his inner circle.  (Incidentally, Kevin Garnett, who also came to the NBA straight from high school, did the exact same thing — everyone forgets this now.)  He really is very close to his mom, almost the only family he had growing up.  Several of the letters in the Simmons column compared him to Vincent Chase, the main character in the HBO series Entourage, who came to L.A. to be a big-time movie star and brought his whole social scene with him.  The analogy is not far off.

In that light, the move to Miami makes sense on a level that has nothing t do with wins and losses and championship trophies.  Look at that Windhorst article — James, Wade and Bosh have known each other since they were the first, fourth and fifth picks in the 2003 draft.  They apparently became friends while practicing with the U.S. national team in the lead-up to the 2006 world basketball championship in Japan, and all gained contract extensions that summer that would expire this year.  They got along well, and wanted to work together at their chosen profession; the main question was where.  When LeBron couldn’t convince the other two to come to Ohio (and according to Bosh, he did try), Miami became the only logical site.

See, as fans we care about different things than the athletes we root for.  We talk about wins, championships, “legacy” and “loyalty” (to us, and whatever team we root for).  By and large, we don’t care about athletes’ personal lives unless they slosh over into the police blotter.  If they’re going through a divorce, if their wife is dealing with a difficult pregnancy or their dad is in the hospital, if they’re concerned about a business venture or worried about global warming, there’s a good possibility we’ll never hear about it, or care if we did.  (Dwyane Wade and his wife are splitting up as we speak; odds are this is the first you’ve known about it.)  We don’t, by and large, think about the other things that affect athletes except as they relate to our pleasure and our desires.  In short, we can be narcissistic too.

But athletes have to worry about their own lives, not just what we think.  And what LeBron seemed to regard as most important wasn’t how many titles he won, or what sportswriters would say about him, or even the opinion of those Cleveland fans who booed him at the end of a hard-fought playoff game in May and yet claim he betrayed them in July.  It wasn’t even about money — he signed with the Heat for over $30 million less than the Cavaliers could give him, though since Florida has no income tax he won’t be much worse off.  It was about friendships he’d made and wished to pursue.  It was about being able to work with them every day and party with them at night.

It was about, in a word, community.

In Cleveland, from what I can tell at this distance, he didn’t have any community he didn’t create himself.  For the last several years, thanks in part to the ineptitude of former general manager Danny Ferry, there has been an incredible turnover in the Cavs roster, and longtime coach Mike Brown has been criticized for his inability to run an offense.  And thanks to that letter, we now have a better idea of what Dan Gilbert might be like behind closed doors.  For several years, LeBron James has been expected to be The Franchise, to lead a team of spare parts, role players and the occasional aging ex-star to a title, with little assistance around him and at best uneven support from management, while the sporting hopes of an entire region are dumped on your shoulders.

Think of spending seven years in that pressure cooker.  Starting when you’re still a teenager.  With little hope that things will change.  And a boss who will accuse you of quitting after you’ve lugged his mediocre team to 143 wins and only 46 losses in the last two years.  And then you get a chance to be with your friends, work with them, you can bring your social circle with you (the Heat apparently made a point in their presentation about special deals for Bron’s friends), and all it’ll cost you is a slight pay cut.

Miami offered LeBron the community he was looking for.  Any wonder he said yes?

And I can’t say he was wrong.  Quite the opposite.  I mean, I’ve been saying ever since I started this darn blog that the American church’s #1 problem is that it’s lost sight of what Jesus said were the most important things: loving God and each other.  I’ve been saying that we need a new paradigm, based on relationship rather than organization.  The American church is obsessed with “winning” the “culture war,” with how we’re perceived in the world, with “loyalty” to a creed or denomination or political stance or theological fad or musical style.  We’re fans of the Christian team.  But what if the team’s franchise player — Jesus — isn’t interested in what we’re interested in?

Because I don’t think he is.  Jesus didn’t build a building, start a denomination, get behind a political movement or write a manifesto.  He created a community.  He formed relationships.  He loved His Father, and He loved people.  That’s what’s important to God in the flesh, folks — He proved it by His actions.  If we claim to be following Him, we need to be living like Him to.  And if we aren’t interested in doing what He did, we probably shouldn’t say we’re His people.

In that light, we have no grounds to criticize LeBron James.  Instead, we should be following his example, doing with Heaven and on earth what he’s doing in the NBA.

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