LeBron James may have his fun on ESPN, but lose his legacy on court

By Mike Wise
Friday, July 9, 2010; D01

He made the right basketball decision, plain and simple. Let's not even argue that one. But LeBron James's poor choice of medium, of grand spectacle -- of really not having the common decency to break up with his first love in person rather than by prime-time, prearranged, Jim Gray-as-paternal-figure special, hundreds of miles away in Greenwich, Conn. -- ultimately is why Cleveland and much of the country can't stand him today.

But give King Fame this: On the night the NBA's No. 1 free agent proposed to Miami and dumped northeastern Ohio, at least the showman was smart enough to know that if he ever wanted to hoist a championship trophy, he needed a genuine leader such as Dwyane Wade to get him there.

Oh, and he can't be Magic now. Or Bird. Or Michael. Or Isiah Thomas, Tim Duncan or Bill Russell or any other NBA supernova who stuck around long enough to win championships for a town and its people.

LeBron can be Shaquille O'Neal, who left Orlando amid hard feelings to become a basketball mercenary in many more glorious pastures. He can be Kevin Garnett, who had to leave Minnesota to win it all.

As a legacy guy, he needs to know: His decision to spurn the Cavaliers for more talent and hope in Miami forbids LeBron from ever being one of those all-time greats who persevered through coaching changes, roster changes and wrenching playoff losses to lift a trophy to the rafters for the team who drafted him.

He didn't quit on Cleveland with his made-for-ESPN finale. But he did give up on the belief that the Cavaliers could surround him with the pieces he needed to stay on a championship path.

And amid a torched No. 23 Cavs jersey on the crestfallen streets of Cleveland, there, left in ashes, was the homespun story of an impoverished Akron kid who grew up to spin a whole region on his fingertips -- simultaneously bailing out a pro basketball franchise and an ailing city's economy.

Crushed, smashed to pieces the moment the words "South Beach" left his mouth Thursday night in Greenwich.

Poor Cleveland. Pity its burned-out graveyard of a heart today. Pity Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who sounded more scorned than Elin Nordegren in a warped letter to fans Thursday night:

"You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal," an actual NBA owner penned in a statement posted on the Cavaliers Web site. He called LeBron's decision "a shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own," and added, "Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there."

Oh, it embarrassingly goes on. Curses, bad karma, championship guarantees. It's the kind of psycho, ex-girlfriend letter that certifies LeBron made the right decision.

He might have been more self-absorbed, shameless and out of touch during the process. But next to the owner and people he left, LeBron actually came across as the adult.

When a major American municipality's identity is that wrapped up in one special athlete, what does it say about Cleveland's self-worth? LeBron made that city millions, made an NBA outpost matter again, and Gilbert has the temerity to call the guy who filled his building "callous" and "disloyal."

You're lucky you had him for as long as you did. He just outgrew you, Cleveland. He fell in love with somebody else. Deal with it.

That doesn't make how LeBron handled everything right, but it makes him look bigger than the place he left.

He looked comfortable in his gingham red long-sleeve shirt, calm -- answering questions from anyone who wanted to ask from an ESPN studio. No tears. A business decision, he said.

He didn't talk in the third person too much, but LeBron James said LeBron James couldn't be burdened with flaming tank tops, that he hoped the angry and livid would understand, essentially saying, "It's not you; it's LeBron James."

But there was something so beyond schmaltz and kitsch that just colored the entire proceeding.

Again, I never had a problem with LeBron leaving for basketball reasons. All that made sense. It was how he chose to say goodbye.

"This process has been everything I've thought and more," LeBron said, moments before announcing he was headed to Miami, where Wade, Chris Bosh and Pat Riley, the architect who outsmarted the Cavaliers, Knicks, Bulls and other suitors, await LeBron.

He said he made the decision Thursday morning after consulting with his mother, Gloria, who was reportedly spending time in Miami this week.

No one believed him, especially when the idea of the three 2008 Olympic teammates playing together in the NBA began during a meeting in late June between LeBron, Wade and Bosh. That's a fact.

This parade of pomp and ego never needed to drag on this long. The moment Cleveland was unable to procure Bosh in a sign-and-trade deal with Toronto, the dream of LeBron staying was over.

The Chosen One became Cleveland's new Art Modell. Beautiful. What a sweet ending.

Meantime, a 21-year-old kid who has been mostly overlooked for the past two days chose to stay in his small market, signing for more years and more money.

Kevin Durant's decision to remain in Oklahoma City was met with little fanfare and even less interest.

And that's too bad for the District native. Poor kid. Maybe in four or five years he can have his own hour-long television special and do it up right, scorning the fans and the organization that launched his career for a sexier suitor, right there on prime time.

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