LeBron James's exit strategy leaves much to ponder

The love affair between LeBron James and his home town has become the War of the Roses due in part to his hour-long TV special.
The love affair between LeBron James and his home town has become the War of the Roses due in part to his hour-long TV special. (Larry Busacca/getty Images For Estabrook Group)
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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, July 10, 2010

Now we are left to consider the 360 degrees of fallout, from LeBron's image to owner Dan Gilbert's incivility, to the role of television, to the potency of the Miami Heat, to the unrequited love of Cleveland, to the issue of whether the world's best players should be joining each other or beating each other. There's nothing like a spectacle to bring out the crazy in all of us and there's been no spectacle quite like LeBron's decision because damned if it didn't touch just about everything in the culture.

The initial flashpoints, as anybody surfing the Internet can attest, were ESPN and LeBron's image, and both took a hit. LeBron, for the first time in his career, is being cast -- whether he wants to be or not -- as the villain, and most folks are holding him wholly responsible because he felt the need to do in about 75 minutes what could have been done in two.

His co-conspirator, if you don't particularly like Thursday's drama, is ESPN, which is being roasted for forsaking its role as news organization and going into the reality TV business with LeBron. If being a willing participant indicts me, fine. I will say that making viewers wait for more than 20 minutes before actually hearing LeBron's decision was, at best, cheesy. And LeBron, for the first time that I can remember, seemed shaken, which I more or less expected since he knew he was breaking up with his extended family (Northeast Ohio) on national TV, with the partner having an inkling but hearing the news officially for the very first time.

For all the criticism about the platform and whether LeBron is a narcissist, and how come he couldn't do it quietly and without fanfare like Kevin Durant, fact is more people watched LeBron's decision on ESPN Thursday night than watched him play in any one game of the NBA Finals three years ago against the Spurs. And since when did we as a culture start running away from television, what with everybody and his mamma on some kind of reality TV? Any and every network under the sun would have said "yes" to LeBron and his announcement if asked, and anybody who says otherwise is a liar. As Moses Malone used to say, "That's what bees."

There's no question LeBron's image is taking a hit, but mostly it's because he left Cleveland before winning a championship, prompting a need for police in front of his house in Akron, prompting idiots to burn his jersey, prompting the owner of the franchise, Dan Gilbert, to act like a bridegroom left standing embarrassed at the altar.

Gilbert, with his rant, came off like a creep, like a guy whose franchise is worth about $100 million less because LeBron didn't do what he wanted. Clearly, leaving this idiot was the right move. Whatever sympathy I felt for Cleveland in the immediate aftermath of the announcement isn't extended to Gilbert, whose image ought to be taking a lot worse beating than LeBron's.

In a perfect world, LeBron would have met with Gilbert face-to-face in the afternoon, damn the TV surprise, and told him, "Thanks for everything the past seven years. Sorry we didn't win, but I'm leaving because I want to try this thing in Miami. We had more fun than this franchise has ever had and maybe our paths will cross again one day, but I'm going to follow my heart."

Instead, we've got this mess, with an owner acting like a fool instead of a businessman and this great love affair between LeBron James and his home town, which was always such an appealing part of this story, having become the War of the Roses.

To me, since I don't live in Northeast Ohio and do care about basketball, there's a much bigger issue that needs to be moved from the back to front burner: Should you hook up with your rivals or try to beat their brains out?

I'm both old and old school. And I'm entirely influenced by players now mostly retired and in their 40s and 50s who are mortified that LeBron would rather play with Dwyane Wade than try to beat him. One player asked me Thursday night if I could imagine how much worse off the NBA would be if Magic and Larry Bird had tried to join forces instead of remaining apart and going after each other for more than a decade. Suppose Michael Jordan, because his Bulls lost three straight years in the playoffs to the Pistons, had gone to Detroit as a free agent instead of remaining in Chicago and demonstrating championship resolve?

Something my friend Charles Barkley said on NBA TV the other day resonates with every single old-school player I've talked to. "In fairness, if I was 25 I'd try to win it by myself," Barkley said. "Not technically 'by myself,' but I would want to be the guy. LeBron is never going to be the guy."

What Barkley is saying is that you'll never be "the guy" if you're part of an ensemble where one of the guys, Wade, has already led that franchise to a championship. This isn't a big deal in football or baseball, but it is in the culture of professional basketball. It's how men are ultimately judged. Even a guy who as a player was a nobody, Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith, was quoted as saying he was surprised LeBron went to Miami because he thought the league's two-time MVP was "more of a competitor . . . great ones usually stay in one location."

He was talking, of course, about players such as Bill Russell, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, although some great players such as Shaq and Wilt did make more than one move, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moved once and Barkley twice. But none of the players who did move went to hook up with a player who was seen more or less as an equal.

But we might be looking at something completely new now, what with the way the 2008 championship Boston Celtics team was put together almost overnight, with trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen bringing them to Boston to join Paul Pierce. Okay, that wasn't orchestrated by the players, which has really annoyed some of the legends, but it was a new way to put together a serious contender. LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh admit openly they got the idea during their time together playing for Team USA in international competition. The most skeptical folk out there suggest that all this made-for-TV drama was a ruse because the three have forever known they were going to do this, and that the interviews of recent days were a farce.

More than likely, we're seeing a cultural shift in the game because of the way kids play basketball now: on multiple travel teams, many of them through AAU competition. They all know each other these days by the time they're 16, 17 years old. Associations, in this new basketball world, are more important and have deeper roots than teams.

Either way, these three are together now and the next significant appearance they make on television, presumably, will be in uniform. And while at least one of LeBron's sponsors is apparently confused about how to market him now with this new backlash threatening to redefine how people feel about him, chances are overwhelming that once LeBron's on the court playing with Wade and Bosh and not talking about it, people are going to remember why they loved him in the first place and go back to defining him as a basketball player -- everywhere, that is, except Ohio.

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