When the Face of the Franchise Frowns

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A few days after the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers said he wanted his franchise to take the next postseason step, ostensibly the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron James was asked if he agreed.

"Do you feel the same sense of urgency that Dan Gilbert does, 'If a tree's not growing it's dying?' "

"No," LeBron said, tersely.

So is it wrong, he was essentially asked, to raise the ante like that for a young team?

"He has his own opinion," LeBron said. "I play for my teammates. We go out there and we work hard and the coaching staff tries to put us in the best position to win ballgames. You can't go and contemplate on what other people say."

Even if it's the owner?


Washington, it turns out, isn't the only pro basketball team with long-term concerns.

Try appeasing a moody, 22-year-old multinational conglomerate. Try begging your homegrown meal ticket -- Akron's own, who brought back the fans and legitimacy -- not to exercise an opt-out clause in his contract in the summer of 2009. Try convincing the kid that Cleveland should always be Bron-Bron's nesting place.

Besides winning a championship, keeping a franchise player happy and making him believe he should spend the most productive years of his career in your city has become the primary goal of many teams. In a league in which stars have more leverage than any other major team sport, Cleveland's problem is a window into the NBA's dilemma -- and Washington's.

Gilbert Arenas can leave in the summer of 2008 if he does not sign a three-year extension with the Wizards this summer. For better or worse, every statement or move by the organization is made with the thought, "How do we get this guy to re-sign?"

I asked Arenas last month what he thought the Wizards had to do to appease his wishes. He wouldn't campaign for the Wizards to acquire certain players, but he did say, "If you want a championship, you got to get a championship team."

He added: "I know this might not sound right, but the championship teams treat themselves like champions. You go into Miami's locker room, I'm like, 'Wow, what the hell is this?' Everything from their game-day meals for their players to every state-of-the-art thing you can imagine. As a player, why would you want to leave the locker room? I could sit there all day.

"We've been doing a better job, but it comes down to this: You treat your players like champions, they want to be champions," he added. "All the best teams in the league treat themselves first-class every day. Other players come over and think, 'They got this, they got that. Oh, I want to be here.' "

Whether Arenas was telling Abe Pollin and Ernie Grunfeld to upgrade the Wizards' facilities is up for debate. But he was clearly illustrating how the defending champions take care of their players. How the Wizards interpret Arenas's words gets to the issue of how much leverage stars have in this league.

The Cavs are coming off back-to-back, 50-win seasons. Taking Detroit to seven games in the second round last May, they were the "It" team a year ago. Ohio cares about the Cavs, more at this moment than the Browns or the Indians. It's a football town, but cabbies and other proud Clevelanders will tell you these Browns don't engender the same kind of aura and passion that Art Modell's Browns did.

LeBron is Cleveland's most important sports commodity. Without him, it's an NBA outpost again. He's not just the most gifted young player in the league; he's civic renewal in high-tops, the most prideful statement about sports in this city.

It's not just self-important Nike marketing guys selling this savior stuff. Even the watchdogs have bought into this whole "Witness" angle. The Plain Dealer and its online arm last week unveiled "The King James Statistical Bible." It's a new searchable database of LeBron's career statistics. No word yet whether it was translated from Hebrew.

After LeBron shot his owner's words down, Gilbert said he wasn't worried because he didn't feel LeBron was presented with the entire context of his statement. But that Gilbert had to comment on it at all speaks to the tightrope being walked in Cleveland and beyond.

Mike Brown and Eddie Jordan merely have to try to coach while the game is played.

In February, both the Cavs' and Wizards' coaches were confronted with differing opinions from their superstars about their priorities. Larry Hughes and LeBron felt the Cavs needed to get out and run more, that Cleveland was an offensive team. Brown countered he believed the Cavs were a defensive team first. Lines were drawn.

Arenas said Jordan spent too much time on defense during a slump. Jordan came back at him, questioning Arenas's leadership. At a time when both organizations could have taken a stand against one or more marquee players for words that straddled the insubordination line, nary a peep was heard from upstairs. Running the risk of alienating LeBron James or Gilbert Arenas seemed too great for management to get involved.

The Wizards and Cavaliers have titles to contend for over the next several years, but they know it's impossible without holding onto the faces of their franchises. For better or worse, that's why LeBron can openly disagree with his employer and why Gilbert needs to be careful about how he responds to a 22-year-old.

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