[Note: Apologies to those who don't want to read another word about LeBron; I know the topic is about as tired as it can be. However, what I'm trying to provide here is a different perspective from everything that has been written so far – but if you're tired of the topic in general, feel free to not read.]
What we've got here is a failure to communicate.
There are three distinct aspects of LeBron's "Decision" that people are reacting to. The problem is that while we're all reacting to different aspects of this issue, we're arguing with each other without recognizing that we're coming at it from different angles. So to clarify, I'm going to outline the three distinctly different aspects of the decision, each of which prompts a reaction from us.
This is a simple one, since, as far as I can tell, literally everyone but Henry Abbott agrees. Here, we're talking about the process, the way LeBron James handled the entire free agency process, for the last two or three years, and specifically the week leading up to and including the announcement itself. It doesn't get any worse than this. From this perspective, we all agree that this is probably the most egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, despicable displays we have ever seen. It was not just tasteless and classless, nor simply imprudent; it was wrong.
The entire population of America that does not write for ESPN agrees on this, so let's move on.
The End: Its Meaning
This is where we start talking about basketball; LeBron's decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and form a SuperTeam has changed the way we evaluate him as a player, as well as the way we perceive his still evolving legacy. From this perspective, there are several ideas that dovetail together in a common theme, and by now, you're well aware of them.
They say that LeBron took the easy way out, and that the greatest players in the history of the game would never have done this. His decision is anti-competitive; like playing video games with cheats turned on, it indicates a person more interested in standing at the top than in beating the best. You get the sense that Kobe would have a hard time celebrating victory over 29 exhibition teams, but LeBron's okay with it.
They say he doesn't have what it takes to lead his own team to victory, as The Man. Henry Abbott would have you believe that this is about our irrational over-emphasis on taking the last shot, borne out of some antiquated sense of machismo, but he's wrong. That's not it at all. It's about leadership. It's about that ineffable quality that some players have, that knowledge of how to win at the highest level, of how to lead their teams to victory. We don't even really know what it is – to the best of our ability, we describe it with terms like focus, drive, will to win, desire, intensity. It's the ability to translate immense talent into victory, and whatever it is, LeBron doesn't have it.
They say he gave up on winning a championship in Cleveland, and they're right. He promised it, and he didn't deliver it. As far as the goal of winning one for Cleveland goes, he admitted defeat.
These and similar ideas come together to form a singular idea that, while not unanimous (again, Henry Abbott is the most vocal dissenter), is certainly widely accepted, and by an overwhelming majority: With this move, LeBron can no longer be in the conversation with Jordan, Magic, Larry Legend, and Kobe for the greatest ever. The greatest individual players in the history of the game have met the ultimate challenge head on, willingly, and overcome it. They have relished the competition, rather than seeking to diminish it, or stack the deck against it. They arrived in town, embraced the challenge of delivering victory for that town, and stuck it out until they delivered. The greatest players have been the undisputed leaders and best players of their teams, the unquestionable MVPs of championship squads, and they never considered taking the easy way out.
Simply put, the greatest players in the history of the game were also its greatest competitors, and LeBron clearly does not fit into that category.
The End: Its Value
So far, all of the above should be familiar to you. Okay, okay, more than familiar – it's the dead horse, and I apologize for beating it; it was necessary to outline those ideas in order to differentiate them from what follows. This is different, and there aren't as many people saying it. When they do, they face harsh criticism, because it is interpreted as contradicting all of the above. But it doesn't do that at all; it is an entirely separate perspective.
It goes like this: So LeBron took the easy way out, decided not to be the Jordanesque singular basketball superhero, and chose to play with his friends rather than single-handedly destroy the competition – good for him! Kelly Dwyer best expresses this perspective, and I must say that I agree with him completely.
Here's the thing: None of this denies the truth of the issues outlined in the previous sections, above. Instead, it attempts to recognize that LeBron James may simply have different values and priorities, when it comes to his career, and there really isn't anything wrong with that. I've always tried to keep in mind the reality that for professional athletes, basketball is not just a game, not just some lofty pursuit, but their careers. Just like the rest of us, different basketball players are going to have different priorities and goals in their careers. Perhaps you know someone from your personal or professional life who is an absolute work-a-holic. Their job is their life; they are exceedingly good at what they do, and they put in an unthinkable amount of time and effort (an unhealthy amount, most likely). As a result, they are likely to be very successful in their work.
Now, maybe you know someone else who could be just like that highly talented work-a-holic, but just isn't interested in it. They are, essentially, more balanced. Sure, the work-a-holic can afford a bigger house – but the more balanced person is actually at home more. The balanced person doesn't work as hard, doesn't put in as many hours, doesn't avail himself of as many professional development workshops. He doesn't spend his free time getting extra degrees in his area of professional expertise, and he doesn't bring piles of work home with him. Yeah, there's probably a ceiling on how far he can advance up the professional ladder; the work-a-holic is going to make a 3-year pit stop in middle management on his way up to the top, whereas the more balanced person is going to reach middle management, spend the next couple decades there, and still be there when he retires. But with all that extra time, he reads more, learns to play a couple instruments, takes some cooking classes, spends time with his kids, has more "quality time" with his wife (wink wink), plays basketball in a rec league, and even helps out around the house here and there.
Your two friends simply have different priorities, different values, and neither is wrong. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are basketball's work-a-holics; their focus is on one thing, and one thing only. LeBron James is your more balanced friend; he wants to win championships, play with his friends, be a billionaire, be a global icon, build his brand, and play king to all his minions. What, exactly, is wrong with all of that?
Kelly Dwyer says nothing, and I tend to agree. Why should the desire to play on a basketball team with some of the best players in the world, the most talented teammates a great player could ever have, be anything but admirable? Tell me you don't want to work, at whatever it is you do, with the best in the business. Of course you do! Why shouldn't he? Can you really blame the guy for wanting to play with Wade, Bosh, and a whole slew of solid, veteran role players? Can you blame him for wanting to be a part of something truly special and unique? No, I say you can't.
The problem, here, is that some of us are talking about the meaning of LeBron's decision, while others are talking about the value of that decision, and we're arguing as though the two perspectives contradicted each other. They do not. Instead, those who, like Dwyer, would prefer to celebrate LeBron's decision to be a part of something truly special are simply saying this: Yes, we agree that it means LeBron is no longer in the discussion with MJ, Magic, Larry and Kobe, and we're okay with that – his values and priorities appear to be different, and we can appreciate what he's doing here.
It doesn't change the fact that with this decision, LeBron is unquestionably removed from the discussion of best player in the world, let alone greatest player ever. It simply means that we accept that he is no longer in that conversation, but can't blame him for not choosing that path.
The End Doesn't Justify the Means
There is one caveat to all of this. From a basketball perspective, I have no problem with the fact that LeBron has chosen not to apply his talent to the pursuit of becoming the best in the game and potentially the best ever. However, from a larger perspective, I do have one problem, and it stems from the way that LeBron portrays himself.
He acts like he owns this league. He takes the entire league hostage and builds up a free agency hype that delivers the unmistakable message that he considers his free agency to be far above and beyond any other (and that includes Michael Jordan, who has been a free agent at times, as well). He declares himself the leader of Team USA, even though everyone else on the inside points to Kobe and Jason Kidd as the team's true leaders. His opinion of himself and his importance is so overblown as to think that he deserves something no other player in history has ever had – an hour special in which the nation's attention should be devoted to his decision; for perspective, when MJ came back from playing baseball, he did it with a two-word fax: "I'm back." He wears tattoos and t-shirts which proclaim him the "Chosen 1," the King. My personal favorite, guaranteed to trigger my gag reflex, is his Witness ad campaign. It's not just the campaign; it's that he wears the t-shirts, and even has it tattooed on his leg. When Nike does it, it's advertising; when LeBron does it, he's saying, "Witness me."
Of course, all of this is just scratching the surface. This, along with far too many other examples to list, portray a clear picture of someone who wants us to be in awe of him, to witness him, even to bow down to him. And that's the problem with this new decision, and the different priorities and values it supposedly reveals. I have no problem with LeBron deciding to follow a career path that removes him from the discussion of the best or greatest current player, let alone the greatest ever. But after he's spent the last seven years trying to convince us that he is and will be "the man," with the potential to be the greatest ever? Yeah, that smarts a bit. And continuing to act as though he owns the league, all while making a decision that presumably displays other priorities? Yeah, that pisses me off.
At the end of the day, I have no problem with accepting LeBron's decision, and even celebrating his desire to play with his friends and be a part of something truly special. Those are two very valid and worthwhile goals. But accepting that decision comes with two qualifiers: First, it removes him from the conversation of greatest player, either of the present or of all time; and second, LeBron James needs to adopt an attitude commensurate with his career path.
Remember our earlier analogy? The balanced worker shouldn't be criticized for having different goals and priorities – but he doesn't get to act like the CEO.
So when you're debating this issue, keep in mind that there are several distinctly different aspects of LeBron's decision, each of which much be treated differently. The way he handled it was despicable and disgusting. The decision he made, from a basketball perspective, has forever changed how we evaluate him as a player and how we will view his legacy. That said, there's no reason that his decision to follow a career path that removes him from all of the "Greatest Player" conversations should be seen as wrong or bad, and in fact, his desire to play with his friends and be a part of something special and unique is just as valid and worthwhile as the obsessive, ultra-competitive desire to lead one's own team to victory (and probably more healthy). None of those perspectives stand in conflict with one another. However, he must adjust his attitude to be consistent with the player he has decided to be.
The fact that he has not – that he continues to act as though he is the greatest thing to ever happen to basketball – suggests that those alternate values and priorities that Kelly Dwyer celebrates may not be LeBron's, at all. Maybe that's just us, projecting the positive aspects we see in this situation on a LeBron James who really doesn't reflect those values at all.