LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade have all signed for the same NBA team. 3 in-their-prime superstars, all on one team. In order to play together, the big 3 all agreed to contracts which are less than what they could have obtained elsewhere on the open market. They all are theoretically agreeing to share the spotlight, to let their stats fall off. In short, all three have made sacrifices to their individual glory, income, and perhaps even their individual legacies, for the chance to be a part of a special team, a team that has potential we've never even dreamed of.
Fans have been begging for this to happen for eons. Since the time when big money and sports became synonymous, we fans have been treated to a constant barrage of players taking the money when faced with the same choice the big 3 all faced. We understand that there is a business side of sports, but it doesn't stop us from ignoring that side as we fall in love with our players and teams. So, every time a star takes a little bit more money to play on a less successful team, we always fall back on the same old thing "Why couldn't you have been willing to sacrifice a little cash to play for a winner." Hell, as Lakers fans, we know this argument better than most. We said it to Trevor Ariza last year, as his agent tried to bluff the Lakers that Ariza was serious about making more money than they were offering. Now, Ariza's former teammates all have one ring more than he does, and we all think to ourselves "See?".
The Laker fan in me is not thrilled about the big 3 in Miami. They pose a significant threat to my beloved team. Maybe next year, maybe not, but only a colossal failure to co-exist will keep that team from being dominant in 2-3 years, if not right away. But the sports fan in me should LOVE this development. Here is what we've been asking for all this time. Three guys sacrificing for the sake of a team, superstars sacrificing for the sake of a team. Why isn't the sports fan in me celebrating. Why aren't national columnists singing praises for these 3? Why aren't we being treated to a barrage of stories about the big 3's unprecedented sacrifice?
Because LeBron James screwed it all up. The big 3 should have been celebrated. Instead, LeBron is being vilified. The Miami Heat should be a team that everyone roots for (after their own teams, of course). Instead, they will be the team that everyone roots against. The sad part is, it didn't have to be like this. There is an alternate reality, a reality in which this exact same event just happened (the big 3 signing in Miami) and the sports world is celebrating it's occurrence. Let me take you through it.
It starts with the city of Cleveland. If you weren't already aware before, you should well know by now that Cleveland is probably the most tortured fan-base in all of professional sports, and after this debacle, it's probably not even close. You should know this because it's been mentioned as part of every LeBron story that has come out in the past 96 hours. A quick run-through of the details: no championship, in any sport, since 1964, a feat that is even more impressive/tragic when you consider they have teams in 3 out of the 4 major sports leagues. Their owner stole the Cleveland Browns from them and moved to Balitmore (they ended up getting an expansion team back, but it was still pretty harsh). But it goes beyond that. The city of Cleveland has been on the wrong end of some of the most heart-breaking sports moments of our time. They rattle off these moments with one word titles. The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble. There's probably a lot more that I don't even know about.
Then comes the storybook beginning. LeBron James, an Akron (and therefore Cleveland) native, a kid who possesses more potential than perhaps the game of basketball has ever seen, who might be the best athlete the world has ever seen, magically falls into the hands of his hometown Cavaliers. He is hyped more than any player ever, and yet he lives up to it all. And he's one of their own. He knows what it's like to love sports in Cleveland. He knows the sports tragedies that have been suffered.
Fast forward to two years ago. The Olympics have just taken place, and Kobe Bryant has just led the US to the gold medal. Along the way, Team USA, filled with the biggest names in basketball, have all become great friends. Watch Kobe hug Carmelo Anthony before a game, watch any one of these guys talk about how great of a player one of their USA teammates is, or listen as they describe the Team USA experience. James, Bosh, and Wade were all a part of that team, and it was the beginning of the camaraderie that has led us to where we are now. Perhaps they all agreed to do this at that moment, perhaps it was just an idea, or perhaps it was simply the seeds being planted.
Here is where our realities diverge. You already know what happened. Here is what should have happened.
In the alternate reality, LeBron James doesn't spend two years hyping his impending free agency in 2010. He doesn't openly flirt with multiple other teams. He doesn't openly talk about his love for Madison Square Garden, or make little inferences that he'd like to play in New York. He doesn't have shoes that match a team's colors that aren't even his. He doesn't get the hopes of 5-6 NBA franchises up that he is genuinely interested in playing for them. He simply goes about his business. There's a way to be an impending free agent without playing it up. LeBron needed to look no further than his future teammate, Dwyane Wade, to see how. Wade is a special talent, too. Perhaps not quite on LeBron's level talent-wise, but he was clearly the 1-A prize in free agency this year. And yet, you hardly heard a word about cities he'd love to play in, or where he's thinking about going, because he just went about his business. He didn't have to commit to anybody, didn't have to say anything for people to know where he might consider playing.
Instead, LeBron did everything he could to encourage the hype, all the while rubbing it in the faces of the Cleveland supporters. And yet, they still loved him unconditionally because he was still theirs, and because any negative reaction on their part to his antics could ultimately result in his leaving. So, they put up with his flirtations, they kept on loving him, and they showed him all the loyalty he wasn't showing them, hoping against hope that in the end, LeBron's show of interest in everybody else would be just that, a show.
In the alternate reality, the 2009 playoffs occur exactly as they actually did. The Cavs, despite having the best regular season record, crash out in the Eastern Conference Finals. They do so, despite the fact that LeBron plays fantastically. His teammates let him down and fail to perform. The message is clear, and LeBron doesn't even need to give it. "We need more help". So the Cavs trade for Shaquille O'neal, giving nothing but spare parts in return. They go on to have the best regular season record in the league for the 2nd straight year, and while already having that best record, they make a trade for Antawn Jamison, losing only Zydrunas Ilgauskus' services for a month before getting him back. They do everything they can to give LeBron the help he needs. Perhaps they don't make the smartest decisions about which help to get, but the decisions they do make are done with LeBron's blessing, and perhaps even at his behest.
Then, we arrive at the 2010 playoffs. In the real world, the Cavs destroyed their first round opponent and were going up against a Celtics team that nobody knew was about to launch a very impressive underdog playoff run. But it is how the Celtics beat the Cavs that is the focus of our story. They beat the Cavs because LeBron James played one of the worst playoff series' of his career. He played poorly in all four of the Cavs losses, but that doesn't matter. He played quite poorly in the final loss, but that doesn't matter either. In Game 5, in what ended up being his last game in Cleveland as a member of the Cavaliers, LeBron James didn't play badly. Instead, he didn't try at all. Players can have bad games, hell, players can have a bad series, or even a bad season. Kobe Bryant had a terrible game in the biggest game of his career, Game 7 of the NBA Finals. But, in a game that will end up defining his career, LeBron James just stopped trying. I don't know if he gave up, I don't know if he already knew he was leaving and it affected his play, I don't know if the crazy internet rumors about his mom having an affair with Delonte West were true, I have no idea what could have caused him to play that way in such a pivotal game. I don't think we'll ever know. Making matters worse, his response, after a game in which he clearly wasn't even trying, was to say "I spoil people with my play. When you play 3 bad games in 7 years, people make a big deal about it".
In the alternate reality, LeBron doesn't give up. He plays the way he always does, the closest thing to a consistently unstoppable force that we have in this league. Maybe the Cavs beat the Celtics, maybe they don't. Maybe the Cavs make it to the Finals, maybe they don't. Maybe the Cavs are the NBA champions right now. Who knows, who cares? The point is this: If LeBron had gone out swinging, instead of talking about how "spoiled" his fans were for getting to watch him play well, this whole story has a different ring to it. If the Cavs are the champions, and he leaves for Miami, well, he accomplished the goal he set out to achieve. If he plays his best and the Cavs come up short, nobody is mad at him for wanting to go to a team that has the necessary talent to help him reach the top. Instead, it was his fault his team crashed out of the playoffs unexpectedly, and his choice to go to the Heat looks much more like a cop out than a smart decision. He's following Wade instead of joining him.
Now we've arrived at the free agency period. Keep in mind, this already looks different in the alternate reality because James hasn't been building it up. Let's just assume, for the sake of the argument, that LeBron knew, or at least had a very strong idea, that he wanted to join Wade and Bosh. It's not an unreasonable assumption, as Stephen A. Smith did report this was a done deal a couple weeks beforehand. Since then, Smith has further implied that these guys agreed to do this months ago, and that it was James who was actually the driving force. Say what you want about Smith as a credible source, but dude nailed this story, and was promptly killed for it, only to be vindicated in the end. Regardless, let's just say that all three stars signing in Miami was closer to inevitable than improbable. How could LeBron have left the city of Cleveland without the backlash he's now receiving?
He could have started by being up front with the Cavs organization, privately, quietly, behind closed doors, informing them that, in all likelihood, he would be leaving. Then, even if he does want to hear what all these other teams have to say, he could have chosen a neutral location for these guys to make their pitches to him, instead of downtown Cleveland, once again taking every opportunity (or failing to realize the symbolism) to rub it in his fans' faces that he was looking elsewhere.
And then, of course, there is the announcement. If LeBron, Wade, and Bosh really did all want to play on the same team, to make this about sacrificing individual glory to be a part of a legendary team, in our alternate reality, he would have announced his decision at the same time as Wade and Bosh. They could have had a press conference, each one of them could have talked about how this isn't about I, it's about we. He could have thanked the city of Cleveland for their devoted support, talked about his regret that he was unable to bring them a championship, and focused on how he wanted to play with his friends and be part of something special. It would have been completely symbolic of every positive aspect this super team had the potential to represent.
Instead, he let Bosh and Wade commit first, so that his announcement to join the Heat would be about him deciding to join them, instead of all of them joining together. And, in one last exercise in public humiliation, his people set up an hour long special during which he would announce his decision, nationally televised. If they were attempting to build a sense of anticipation, congratulations, it worked. But, if they were attempting to further build the LeBron brand, by allowing him to spit in his former fans' faces, in front of the entire country, well, let's just say that decision might have backfired a little bit. It's hard to imagine anybody, in the history of sports, topping this moment in terms of giving the middle finger to the people who have supported you your entire career. To add insult to injury, he spent time during the special talking about his loyalty, in the exact moment he was showing how much loyalty he had.
It didn't have to be this way. If LeBron handles his impending free agency like a business decision instead of a popularity contest (like, say, D-Wade did), maybe the Cavs don't make the wrong choices (wrong choices that he wanted) in trying to build a team around him. If his team's final failing in the playoffs wasn't because he choked/gave up, then nobody is blaming him for jumping ship for a team with more talent. Hell, if he played his heart out while his team let him down (as happened in 2009), I genuinely believe even the city of Cleveland understands his decision. They'd be despondent, they'd ask why stuff like this keeps on happening to them, but they'd understand. They'd still love LeBron for all the good he did for the city and the franchise (and he did do good, for both). They'd be happy for him if (when) he won a championship in Miami. Plus, since his team would have failed him instead of the other way around, all those stories you are seeing about how LeBron can't lead a team to a championship aren't there. He's not riding Wade's coattails, because we haven't seen that he's incapable of leading a team to a ring, only that he's never played on a team with enough talent to be led. But his playoff failure did happen, and in that light, his move looks like he's admitting he can't do it without someone else to lead him there. Now, we have stories about how he's taking the easy way out, trying to avoid responsibility, and how his individual legacy will never match that of Jordan, Kobe, or even Wade.
This could have been a seminal moment for sports. It could have been the moment when three of the country's biggest sports stars got together and decided to sacrifice for the team, to sacrifice for each other. But, even in making that sacrifice, even in choosing to forgo dollars, statistics, and individual glory, LeBron James couldn't help but make it about him. The hyped up free agency, the excuses for playoff failure, the parade of suitors, the separate announcement, and the final press conference, all of it screamed from the rooftops "It's all about ME." It ended up being a seminal moment, just not the one we were hoping for.
Congratulations, LeBron, your plan worked to perfection. 3 of the biggest stars in the NBA all signed with the same team, making sacrifices along the way, in the hopes of achieving something special, but that's not what the story is. The story is how you treated the fans who have loved you since your career began like dirt. The story is about how you don't have the stuff to win a championship on your own, that you can't lead a team to the promised land, so you've chosen to ride somebody else's coattails. You are the story. You got what you wanted.
Just be careful what you wish for.