Thursday, July 8, 2010

LeBron’s decision: immediate thoughts

By Rick Morris

Just to give my background on the LeBron story before I break it down …

I am a lifelong Cleveland Cavs fan, wearing my old battered Mark Price T-shirt on the day that signifies the end of the team’s most successful era. I remember the old wine and gold from times my parents took me to the now-defunct Richfield Coliseum as a small child. So I’m not one of the bandwagon-jumpers who only got with the Cavs when they were deemed cool by the masses.

To me, LeBron James is the best player in the league, an unprecedented amalgam of skill sets and court vision the likes of which we have never seen before. Depending on the course he sets for himself – more on that below – he has an excellent chance to go down as the greatest player of all time.

Notwithstanding his Akron heritage, I have never looked at him as more than that. He’s the best player in the game, playing for my team, but I never got too invested in him off the court. I didn’t hate on him, I just didn’t idolize him personally. There are a lot of people who foolishly inflated him into more than what he is personally – local boy growing up to save us all – and they are the ones who are the most depressed about this, because it goes against their false worldview. He’s never been my favorite player, Boobie and Z were my favorites.

I never got on LeBron’s case for wearing a Yankees hat or any of the other idiocies people would give him garbage for doing (the one exception is that I did feel that he should set a good example for his fans and marry his baby mama since they were together anyway, but that’s more than a little more important than criticizing him for his team fandom). I thought the hate on him for the Game Five debacle against the Celtics was overblown and said so vociferously on Twitter that night, causing one friend piling on him to resent me to this day. But I saw him as somebody who was more injured than he was letting on and somebody who wasn’t dealing well with the frustration of the game flow and execution not working out, not as a quitter like so many in the “LeBron Messiah” crowd did when they bailed on him.

So I feel that, all in all, while I was never measured in my on-court opinion of him or my insane optimism about what he could deliver for my team, I was more measured than most in what I thought personally. And that is almost definitely helping me to deal with this better than most fellow Cavs fans.

Honestly, I was embarrassed by the banners on the highway overpasses and the “hometown” gaga that was being cited by so many to get him to stay in Northeast Ohio. As I said on our FDH LOUNGE show this past week (Wednesdays, 7-10 PM EDT on, I wanted LeBron to re-sign and bring Cleveland championships as badly as anyone, but the community needs to keep its dignity. The fact that LeBron was in position to sign a contract for nine digits is something that I am fairly philosophical about – it is what it is, as far as I’m concerned – but it’s not anything that we as a society should glorify. For people to be lining up to give this guy tongue baths to sign for that much money is something that really rubs me the wrong way.

I don’t feel that LeBron owes Northeast Ohio anything special just because he grew up here – and, notwithstanding his artificial distinctions between “Akron” and “Cleveland,” few in this area consider them completely separate and distinct and even fewer nationally look at it that way. But to cite another team as providing a better chance to win championships is a humungous slap in the face inasmuch as he has been the co-signer for every significant move since he got here in ’03.

[BTW, it’s also 20-20 hindsight to criticize the Cavs for catering to his every whim over these past seven years. He held a gun to their head and they would have had no chance to keep him, maybe not even the time he did re-sign back in 2006, had they not let him have his run of the place. You can hate the reality of modern big-time sports, but it’s displaced aggression to hate on the Cavs for doing what was necessary to even have a chance to keep him.]

If the team doesn’t have as great of a chance to win right now as Chicago or Miami – and I would dispute that premise, given the team’s underachievement in the playoffs and remaining chits that could be used for impactful trades – then LeBron must certainly share in that responsibility. To shrug that off completely is not a sign of great character.

Also, we are “Witnessing” changes throughout this process that led Cleveland Plain Dealer Brian Windhorst (who is, as I have said, the best beat writer in the country regardless of sport) to pronounce on Wednesday that “this LeBron” making these moves is not the guy he knew all these years. He has always struck me as fairly savvy, but I think we have seen erosion there in the form of the constant yes-man conduct from his inner circle. He did not have one person around him with the authority to tell him some obvious truths:

^ That kicking Cleveland (the pathetic mangy dog by the side of the road in the national image) in the nards with a steel-toed boot will damage his national reputation – to say nothing of the forum being chosen, an unprecedented hour of national television to rub additional salt in the wounds.

^ That nobody anywhere buys his artificial distinction between his loyalty to Greater Akron and Greater Cleveland (given that they are connected by highway and only separated by some national park areas) and that he’s digging the PR grave deeper by trying to get people to believe something so disingenuous.

^ That leaving Cleveland after he laid such an egg in the Boston series, coupled with going to a team where he will automatically be viewed as a co-Pippen to a megastar who’s already won a ring will damage his legacy – he should go ask Kobe what it was like dealing with criticism for the THREE rings he won when Shaq was the greatest star on his team, in a situation that pales in comparison to the “big game” questions many have already put on LeBron. And for what it is worth, I will now root against the other co-Pippen, Chris Bosh, very strenuously for providing probably the last nail in the coffin via his petulant refusal to even consider playing on America’s North Coast.

^ That because he is no longer graded on the curve of expectations relative to what was around him in Cleveland that he never wins another MVP award in Miami and will be deemed a failure if he doesn’t win at least four or five titles with that bunch – with one in his first year, of course (my personal prediction would be two titles for that nucleus, given the challenges that a lack of depth will bring and that getting good-to-great teammates to come in and take the league minimum would represent an unprecedented development in the league).

^ That this TV special is almost uniformly viewed as obnoxious by the public at large – with his “charitable efforts” serving as an insulting fig leaf for ego – and that it plays into a disturbing image with the “King James” Twitter account that was just opened.

^ That he transformed himself into an object of widespread derision by the number of teams he ostentatiously flirted with before coming to a decision that reeks to so many as taking the easier path in the end.

I realize that as an admitted lifelong Cavs fan that some of the above points may not seem completely objective, but I believe that they are and I stand by them. I am intellectually honest enough to say that my opinion of him, like that of Windhorst, did change as the process mutated. Had he returned, I would have been overjoyed at the implications for my favorite team, which would avoid the now-obvious need for a complete teardown/rebuild, but I would have been even more wary of him regardless.

[But I do not by any means condone the reactions of this area that I know will be coming, from seeking to burn down murals and billboards with his likeness to any threats that will come to him and his family. It’s a sad commentary on society when you consider the lengths people will go to in a futile attempt to exact “revenge” on “Black Modell.” Having said that, again just to recognize the world for what it is, he’s as naïve as can be if he thinks he’s going to be able to live during his summer and post-hoops career in suburban Akron.]

Speaking of that teardown/rebuild, I’m going to make it a point to go buy some Cavs merchandise very soon. This organization did EVERYTHING they could to be successful in all areas and did not deserve this outcome. If I’m going to criticize the Dolan regime that has run my favorite baseball team squarely into the ground, I have to be consistent and support good ownership when it has tried to do well for me. I can only hope that enough Cavalier fans agree with me on the need to stand by Dan Gilbert for what he has done. The fact that he owns the new casino coming to town and is thus anchored to the community gives me hope that he’s going to have the stomach for the inevitable rebuild.

When the day comes that the Cavs do acquire a new superstar to lead the team back into serious contention, I can only hope that the landscape of the league has changed by then. For while I have anger and disappointment that stems equally from the content of the decision and the manner in which it is delivered, I realize that these issues go far beyond the character and maturity levels of a filthy rich 25 year-old. They stem from the system that has created and nurtured the mania that led him through this process that was degrading to so many. David Stern is obsessed with marketing over substance and thinks any water-cooler talk is inherently good for the league, even if it overshadows a seven-game Finals series between the league’s two most historic franchises. My hope is that one way or another, by the time my team is restored to success years down the road, that the game is not governed by a commissioner who is so determined to aid and abet the culture of self-aggrandizement that leads to moments like this. I hope – in vain, probably – that this moment causes such a backlash that it rolls back this destructive tide once and for all. Characteristically, if it does, it will be too late to help my hometown.

Also, this just in, Dan Gilbert absolutely destroyed LeBron. Good for him.

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