By Rick Morris
Dennis Prager, one of my favorite talk show hosts, speaks often on the utmost need for clarity. In a world cluttered by fake sentiment and just plain misinformation, it is often in short supply.
As a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers and somebody who covered his entire tenure on the North Coast, I was often frustrated by the lack of clarity when it came to Lebron James.
^ There were people in Cleveland who never seemed able to simply appreciate him for what he did between the lines. I railed against those who criticized his support of the Yankees and Cowboys. He had no special obligations based on where he grew up and my hometown has long had a self-defeating “hometown boy” complex that warps how athletes are perceived, for better and for worse. If we were going to criticize him for anything, I felt, his disdain for the traditional nuclear family as it has always been defined in this country would have been a much better place to start given his vast influence in urban America. At least that would have been a substantive critique that dealt with his failure to set a better example for an impressionable fanbase.
^ The national media also had their own blinders when it came to Lebron. It seemed that national media outlets had installed a countdown clock in Times Square as soon as the Cavs won the 2003 draft lottery. Never mind that the Knicks (salary cap quicksand) and Nets (Brooklyn arena construction postponements) would have to get their own houses in order, as I pointed out; it was taken on sheer faith that C-Town was only renting the eventual property of the Big Apple. Additionally, the hype that surrounded his game brought out some of the very worst know-nothing tendencies I have ever seen. His two MVP awards are arguably at least one or two short of what they should be. This is because those who resented him for his hype managed to shout down all too often those who pointed out, reasonably, that he was the greatest amalgam of skill sets that we have ever seen in the NBA.
After a summer in which Lebron and his posse themselves added to the lack of clarity around him by tossing up smokescreens about “doing it for the kids” and “not doing anything wrong,” it seemed as though we might never truly see him for the complex package that he is, both great (in terms of skills) and truly lacking (in terms of character). His massively-touted return to Cleveland didn’t seem poised to clear the air.
But against all odds, it did just that. Not in terms of bad feelings, but in terms of the ability of people to sort through some complicated truths.
In terms of revealing his moral shortcomings, we owe a huge debt to Lebron himself. His transparent attempt to get his coach fired in the week leading up the homecoming showed the nation exactly what I was referencing in August when I christened him “the deadbeat dad of the Cavs.” Those of us who just wanted people outside the Cleveland bubble to understand just what a sociopath this guy is really got our wish. This was the Lebron whose boot we writhed under for seven years (very willingly in the good times, I will grant you). He took and took from the organization, putting his sub-literate bag-carriers on the team’s payroll and took space away from working media and team employees on Cavs flights for his entourage. His poor tipping habits were infamous in town, exposing the mantra of “remembering where he came from” as a delusional lie. He insisted on public adoration and stoking of his ego until the very end, holding his potential departure over everyone’s heads. In so doing, the more naïve among us thought that we were holding up our end of a bargain that would result in continued good times for our favorite franchise. Wrong-o.
But he didn’t skate away unscathed after all, notwithstanding our initial fears. He is booed mightily in every league outpost these days and it’s only because of his lethal combination of arrogance and stupidity that it’s a surprise to him. His arrogance comes from never having to deal with any consequences before. He never lifted a finger to help the front office recruit other superstars – and indeed, he even scared many away by refusing to commit to Cleveland – and added insult to injury by working the phones for Miami immediately upon his arrival. Nobody criticized him for hobbling the front office as they worked so mightily and admirably to put talent around him. Even after his unforgivable tank-job in Game Five against Boston in last year’s East semifinals, the worst moment in team history by far (and one that I witnessed on the night of my birthday, thank you very much), local criticism of him was muted lest he take that as an excuse to leave town. I would submit that we in the fanbase and Dan Gilbert and the Cavs organization had no choice but to cater to his every whim because he held all the cards, but in so doing we reinforced his own sense of divine infallibility. Now that he’s somebody else’s problem, I’m glad that we did. You’re welcome, Miami!
His aforementioned stupidity comes from failing to understand that his lies – from saying that he wouldn’t be satisfied until the Cavs could win a championship to telling Larry King that Cleveland had “an edge” for his services to his later ones about how Akron is completely separate from Cleveland (only in his own mind) and Dan Gilbert’s response proved that he never cared about him at all and most egregiously, about how his egofest “Decision” was “for the kids” – would brand him forever. Of all the reasons I was wrong in my prediction that he would sign an extension with the Cavs, my overestimation of his own sense of self-awareness was the greatest one. The second-greatest one was the fact that Shaq back in ’96 was the only other big-time free agent to leave money on the table by going to a team that didn’t hold his Larry Bird rights, although in typical fashion Lebron was able to have his cake and eat it too in the form of a sign-and-trade. The third-greatest one related to his lack of awareness about throwing away the chance to become the greatest player of all time to become a beta male on a team with a megastar who already has one ring. “SCOT-TIE PIP-PEN,” indeed.
That week before the game and the press conference after it – with his typical can’t-help-himself-moment coming in the form of “continue the greatness” – reinforced the image that those of us who root for a team he decimated have wanted to have stick to him. That form of clarity is not so good for him, to be sure.
Additionally, there is growing clarity about the shortcomings of the Miami Heat. The only reason that the Cavs were within a few games of the Heat coming into the contest was that both teams had, largely, victimized the weak of the NBA. Now, such scavenging was to be expected for Cleveland, but Miami was supposed to at least split their games with their fellow members of the Association’s elite. But with a massive donut hole down low, chemistry problems stemming from their two best players each needing to play in a similar dominate-the-ball style, the softness of their third elite player and a dozen players filling out the roster who are best suited to the European minor leagues, Miami clings to the “elite” designation by the skin of their teeth. Sure, they spanked the Cavs. Congratulations, they’ve tallied one game so far in which they did exactly what they were supposed to do; unfortunately for them, we are several weeks into the season. The Heat are not who Dennis Green (and the rest of us) thought they were, but clarity has revealed their many shortcomings and one exultant night against a team decimated by Lebron’s departure doesn’t change that.
And lastly, we now have clarity about that team he left behind so shabbily. Uneducated critics have had a field day pronouncing the Cavs as a one-man team ever since he arrived, but the fact that Miami’s “Dream Team” will have a devil of a time duplicating the 61-win and 66-win seasons the Cavs had the last two years shows the underrated depth that I said these teams had all along. Additionally, the Cavs’ continued contention for a playoff berth – one game out of the final spot right now even after their absolutely pathetic play of the past week – proves that what Lebron left behind is at least a borderline playoff team considering the horrific state of Eastern Conference basketball once you get past the top half-dozen or so teams. Those who said that they wouldn’t come close to contention are ignorant, as those of us who saw this with clarity said all along.
But by the same token, the Cavs in their present state are by definition on a treadmill and nobody ever wins a title that way. While Dan Gilbert is admirable in his refusal to concede anything, reality must intercede at some point and the shock of the past week’s carnage is delivering that clarity in spades to the front office and coaching staff. In addition, we are also now seeing much more clearly the softness and mental weakness of so many now wearing the wine and gold, those who cannot stop seeing themselves as Lebron’s sidekicks even though he proved he cares nothing about them. May the coming purge include them posthaste. I’m fighting the urge to go after my favorite player and say, “I’m looking at you, Boobie!”
One last note: we also got clarity about Cleveland fans, about which I am often embarrassed. Certainly, our worst know-nothing, belligerent element is as bad as any in the country, but we do have the capacity to avoid being defined by them, as the passionate but non-violent response on Thursday proved. There were no jersey-burning idiots in attendance.
All of this is not to say that everything is wrapped up into a neat and tidy package. The wreckage of Lebron’s departure – both in terms of his own reputation and the Cavs’ plight – will linger for years and the bad feelings will continue to pour out of the North Coast accordingly. But at least everybody now seems to know where everybody stands, including the national media and fans across the country, who have come to recognize the complicated truth that the game’s greatest specimen is also a feckless backstabber without a conscience. That has to count for something.