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The Whole LeBron James Situation: A Cleveland Point of View

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

I'm living in Cleveland this summer. I spent the weekend in Chicago, and thus it was odd to be not in Cleveland on Thursday night, when LeBron James made his announcement to join the Miami Heat. My friends and compadres in Cleveland had to suffer that one alone—maybe it's just as well, because my Cleveland identity is a little bit thin for that level of pathos and identification: it's not my city, in that sense. Anyway, then I return to Cleveland this morning and find out that Harvey Pekar has died. A fun weekend in Chicago bookended by these oddly related events.

So much has been said about LeBron and Dan Gilbert's angry letter. There were still a few points I thought could add to the discussion.

1. It doesn't really matter either way. There's been a lot of commentary about the sheer scale of LeBron's ESPN announcement, which was, after all, merely an athlete's announcement of a free agency decision, which happens all the time. It was a very hollow event, inflated by hype and potential and some shrewd PR machinations. I have a friend who is in the business of re-selling Nike sneakers, and he was telling me that LeBron's decision would be a major deal for Nike, for him personally.

I don't quite buy this. The NBA has a lot of incredible young players, the number of teams that will win titles in the next five years is still capped at five, and whether it's LeBron and Wade or Dwight Howard in Orlando or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City or Derrick Rose in Chicago who becomes the next major NBA star..... is pretty moot. True, LeBron already has a Jordanesque shoe deal and maybe only he could approach the Jordanesque heights of marketing, but I don't quite buy that this makes any more difference than a butterfly's fart. Cleveland's odds of winning a title are down, Miami's are up, the number of people who like the NBA or Nike sneakers is going to stay about the same.

2. LeBron James isn't that good. I've been hearing about LeBron for years, watching some of the incredible highlights but basically paying no attention. This year, for the playoffs, knowing that I would soon be visiting Cleveland, I started watching the Cavaliers for the first time. I was shocked by what I saw. What I saw was a player who, because he is bad at free throws, declined to drive to the basket. LeBron James is a six-foot-eight shooting guard who is built like a small forward or even a small power forward and who fancies himself a point guard, in the sense that he usually "runs the offense." LeBron's is the type of player, against good teams in the playoffs, whose best weapon ended up being a decent, but not great, 18-foot jump shot. I'll be honest with you, that's quite a package, but I don't know what the hell that player is. He's not a power forward, he's not a shooting forward, he doesn't drive to the basket, he's not a point guard but plays like one.............. I don't know what that is. No matter how good or talented LeBron is, if he's at the center of a team's offense, I can't see that team winning a title.

Secondarily, I'm not convinced that LeBron values hard work, self-improvement, or, by far most important, winning basketball games more than he values his brand, his popularity, or generally being liked. He's still young and there's room for development, but I'm unsure that he will ever get the competitive fire that Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan have. He may get it once he reaches the age of 29 with no titles (if that happens) and has to retrench and eliminate all distractions.

3. Closely related to his ... insufficient game is the fact that his entire profile is built on potential. When the Cavs won the rights to draft him in 2003, that was a huge story that had all of Ohio drooling over all the titles LeBron was going to bring to the area. Those titles never happened. Seven years later, it's the same thing all over again. It's all based on a speculative future, and in that sense LeBron is not much different from a speculative bubble in the financial world.

4. I had a realization a few days before the big ESPN announcement on Thursday. The wise move for LeBron would have been to quietly re-sign with the Cavs and go back to work. Given that his Miami announcement has been something of a PR disaster for LeBron (he was actually booed at Carmelo Anthony's wedding the other day), I think I was right about this. LeBron got his hype, and he got his money, but LeBron isn't about wisdom, he's about his brand, so he made what I regard as an unwise choice here. Like a speculative bubble, it's essential that LeBron cash in as quickly as he can, and that's what he did. Showing some humility would have been a move nobody could have faulted. As it was, he pleased one city and annoyed everyone else.

5. LeBron is an athlete, and as such has every right to handle his career any way he sees fit and conduct his negotiations as he pleases. In that sense I fully endorse Mark Kleiman's wise post, "What's LeBron supposed to have done wrong?" Kleiman is right: People feel a deep need to judge wealthy athletes, and those judgments are inextricable from class and race issues. Read the whole thing.

6. Having said that, there is a difference. LeBron's announcement circus did not exactly highlight LeBron's finest features, and if it has put him in a bad light, that's his own fault. It's not so much about the size of the contract or that he was driving events that bothers me, but I have no problem with the idea that his treatment of his home region and his hankering for a shortcut to a title reflect poorly on him. It's not much different from when Roger Clemens signed with the Yankees in 2007. There are valid reasons why sports fans don't respect "title grabs," and LeBron is right in line with that.

7. Also, there is the consideration of Cleveland itself. Cleveland is a working-class midwestern city, and the last few decades have not been an easy time in the Midwest. This is where the LeBron argument collides with serious national topics like the economy, urban renewal, retraining of laid-off workers, and so on, topics that LeBron could never solve by himself. But the fact is that Cleveland was perceived as depending on LeBron for economic reasons, in a way that will never be true of Miami. It's not exactly fair to LeBron, but he contributed to a dynamic in which he was going to help revive Cleveland's downtown area; now that that downtown area may experience some hard times, it's not unjust to think poorly of LeBron for "abandoning" it, even if that word is way too strong and melodramatic. In short, the LeBron saga touches on issues of the American City. As a nation, we have to divert emphasis from diversions like sports, with its one-winner or oligopolistic logic (so few haves, so many have-nots), and towards pursuits like urban renewal. It ain't his fault, but LeBron's decision is relevant to that story.

8. So, to wrap up, I never found LeBron all that appealing, more Darryl Strawberry than Tony Gwynn, and now that he has chosen to indulge in a bath of hollow PR and scamper towards a "sure-thing" title (even if I think it's not a sure thing at all), I feel justified in saying, he ain't all that and he never was all that. I've got my doubts about his effectiveness on the basketball court, and I'll be happy to see those doubts justified in the years to come. And off the court, he's a big handsome PR creation—who cares?


This whole thing has been such a circus. The guy was a free agent and he has every right to play where he wants to and do what is best for him. he did nothing wrong. The whole special on ESPN was ridiculous, but either way it was a business decision and it’s done.

I agree with you, by and large. I almost always defend the “negotiating” athlete against the moralists and especially against the owners.

However. One cannot take the view that this is purely business, I think. The disapprobation that LeBron is facing now is nothing more or less than the flip side of the fawning adulation that he has recieved for years, adulation that forms the basis for his attractiveness as a free agent and as a hawker of sports equipment. Simply put, LeBron doesn’t have the option of saying, more or less, “This is a business decision and I will do what I please.” If you ask for and receive people’s fandom, you can’t then turn around and say, in effect, “You’re not allowed to judge me for being a jackass on national TV because I’m a businessman and I can do what I want.”

I dislike the widespread moralizing over young, wealthy African-American athletes, and I can’t say that this fracas has been entirely free of that. But I’m not upset about LeBron’s salary or negotiating clout.

Hi, nice article. So I’ve finally processed this entre incredulous Lebron James catastrophe. What a horrible plan! 1st, he fakes an injury and quits in the playoffs so that nobody is surprised when he’s done. Then they create a total media circus with it all and everyone gets sick of him before it even happens. After that, this fool gets on TV in front of the entire country to stab his hometown fans backs for an hour, all while ticking off every other big city except Miami, just to play on someone else’s team! Talk about BAD marketing! Anyway… cool blog… I’m subscribed to your RSS feed now so I’ll check in more often!

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