By choosing to go to Miami, LeBron James has decided to try to become one of the great winners in NBA history instead of one of the most heroic. Had he gone to almost any other team he would’ve had a shot at both, but by joining the Heat he’ll have lost his shot at heroism. Well, except possibly to Miami Heat fans. Although even that will be tempered amongst Miamians by the fact that they also have another arriving hero in Chris Bosh, not to mention the happy news of their returning hero, Dwayne Wade. The thing is, it’s easy to find winners in the NBA: every year we crown a champ. However, a true transcendent inspirational hero, that’s a rare diamond to unearth.
The almost immediate backlash across the country (except again, presumably in Miami) against LeBron’s decision has been staggering. TrueHoop’s lead writer, Henry Abbot, was shocked by all the negativity and felt if anything we should applaud an athlete for choosing winning over money, because shouldn’t that be what matters most? He should be correct, but here’s the dirty little truth in America: we care more about greatness than winning. And that misunderstanding lies at the heart of the Five Tragedies Of LeBron’s Decision:
1. Miscalculating Winning vs. Greatness
Do the winners of American Idol always get the most press? No. Would you say that guy who won the vice-presidency has become more famous than Sarah Palin? Sadly, probably not. Is Jordan Farmar, a Laker with two championship rings, more revered than Chris Bosh who has never even made it out of the first round? Hells no.
We give lip-service to winning, like whenever someone proclaims Michael Jordan the greatest of all time, someone with a cooler head always has to bring up that Bill Russel won 11 titles (the impartial logical friend nods his head, “Good point, how true.”). However, does the fact that a few years ago Gary Payton finally won a ring with the Heat, really make you any more impressed with his resume? You can say, well, that’s only ‘cuz he was like the 5th most important player on the team, but if he’d done it when he was younger, than sure. Fine, how about Kevin Garnett? When he finally won his ring in 2008, did anyone genuinely think, hmm, he’s better than I thought? No, we just felt he finally was on a team worthy of his abilities and we were happy for him (of course he hadn’t turned into a total ass yet so we felt for him after all them years losing in Minny).
As fans we may say what we want is for our team to win, but really we want greatness, we want drama, we want inspiration. In the year 2000, when both Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan were at the peak of their abilities, my guess is that most Philly fans wouldn’t have wanted to trade AI straight up for Duncan, because while Duncan won with fundamentals, Iverson was the little guy who could, dazzling with otherworldly abilities. In hindsight now they’d all jump at the chance, but at the time, only the most pragmatic of Philly fans would’ve approved of the idea (and by the way, that’s probably the first time “pragmatic” has ever been used to describe any Philly fans).
Even the very history of the NBA’s growth has been tied into superstar value over winning. The key leap in NBA marketing and popularity was when they realized that fans become more excited if stars are promoted rather than teams. It started with the arrival of Magic and Bird, then fully exploded once a certain Michael Jeffrey Jordan came along. It’s much easier to convince say a New Yorker to root for Jordan than to tell them they should root for Chicago. But more than that, we long for larger than life figures. Charles Barkley famously said he wasn’t a role model, and even that couldn’t dissuade people from wanting to be like him. So when a player like LeBron sets himself up as a King, trying to project perfection, encourage adulation, then we fall all over ourselves viewing him as a hero and his career as an idyllic great story.
Due to the fact LeBron has been such a master manipulator of his image, it’s surprising how much he miscalculated his decision and the way he went about it. On one hand, yes, he played it perfectly, grabbing everyone’s attention and not letting go until last night (hell, it ain’t over: people like me will even keep writing about it for a few more days). As David Stern said, the NBA has never, ever experienced such tremendous interest in it’s product during the off-season. ESPN’s online chats had tons more people logging on than the off-the-wall numbers who joined before Game Seven’s match-up of the NBA’s two most storied franchises, the Lakers and Celtics. Once again proving fans care more about a transcendent inspirational player than winning teams.
2. LeBron More Than Publicly Slapped Cleveland In The Face, He Pants-ed Them
Yup, in terms of getting the most interest in the story, he played this perfectly, so okay, it was great for the NBA. However, in terms of his personal brand, it was a misstep of staggering proportions. Fans of all teams thought it was horrendous that he “broke up” with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers on a televised show. This wasn’t just how the city of Cleveland found out, but pretty much management itself (word is that the team only got a phone call literally minutes before he announced his decision). Even if he truly only had 100% decided that morning, he still could’ve given them a little heads up earlier in the day. But he didn’t because he was so intent on keeping this a secret (although of course it leaked to every news outlet that Miami was the likely destination). Is it that surprising that Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert instantly wrote a hate note on the Cavs’ website? Okay, maybe it is surprising that an owner would be that public, but it ain’t surprising that he’d feel so betrayed.
Also odd is that considering he knows Cleveland has a history of tragic sports events called things like “The Shot,” “The Drive,” and “The Fumble,” did he really after to follow suit by naming his broadcast “The Decision?” Ain’t that like twisting their nipple a little harder?
3. Equal Opportunity Offender
We want our stars to be kind, benevolent, considerate beings. Not only did he keep Cleveland in the dark, he held the other teams involved hijacked too. Maybe he was considering some teams like New York up until the last second, but surely he could’ve at least told like the Clippers that they were out of the running and they should pursue other players? Yeah, we all assumed the Clips had no shot, but why not do the nice guy thing and let ‘em know so they can move on?
Of course, many (including myself) feel that his major miscalculation wasn’t just in the way he went about it all, but also his ultimate decision. No, not just because he didn’t choose New York. Sure, I would’ve loved if he became a Knick, but going to the Heat was the most disappointing outcome ‘cuz, well, it’s the least dramatically interesting. If he stayed in Cleveland, he could’ve been the local boy who finally brought some glory to his disrespected city. Had he come to the Knicks, he had a chance to turn a miserable franchise around under the white-hot spotlight. Even Chicago, where I think he probably would’ve had the best chance to win this upcoming season, he could’ve been the alpha dog they were missing.
4. LeBron Clearly Didn’t Join The Army Because He Won’t Be All That He Can Be. We’re Talking 90% Tops.
However, joining Miami 9 (a team that already has a player in Dwayne Wade who’s proven he can be the alpha dog who brings home a championship), sorta feels like LeBron won’t really be pushing himself as much as he could. That’s not to say I think the Heat’ll be instant contenders who’ll win it all easily, it’s just that we won’t get to see two of the NBA’s best battle against each other, and neither of those two guys will have to be great all the time for them to win. People have mentioned the Boston Celtic’s star trio as a model, and one of the key things to note about that team was that during the playoffs they never had the same leading scorer two games in a row (actually it’s possible that changed over the last few Laker playoff games, but for the first like 17 games it was definitely true). It wasn’t that the Big Three/Four were all having terrific games and just a different guy ended up on top each night. No, there were games where you thought, wait, did Ray Allen even play? What happened to Kevin Garnett? It wasn’t even necessarily, wow, they shut down KG, it was simply, huh, he didn’t get the ball much so I barely noticed him. With LeBron and Wade in the prime of their careers, I want to notice them every single game.
Right after “The Decision,” analyst Jon Barry said as much, that basically the LeBron and Wade we saw the last few years, they’re gone. No, they won’t suck. And some people have wondered if they’ll be able to share the ball or if there will be enough shots to go around for all three guys, but I’m not concerned about that. Both LeBron and Dwayne are great passers and unselfish players. The three stars will have no problem playing together. They won’t care who gets to take the last shot (‘cuz any good coach would make sure they all get a chance) or Whose team it is (‘cuz any good franchise will market them equally). And assuming there are no serious injuries, Miami should win a trophy or two (remember each year they’ll be able to add a $6 million player with their cap exceptions, so while the Heat may not have the ability to add depth this year, they’ll definitely be able to do it over time).
However, every Heat game you watch, you won’t necessarily be assured that you’ll see at least a few amazing things from LeBron like you could while he was with the Cavs (or if he went anywhere but the Heat). Pau Gasol is one of the best big men in the game, but there are Laker games where he doesn’t do anything too interesting. And no, not just when Kobe’s being selfish, ‘cuz sometimes Kobe’s on fire and the best option is for Kobe to just keep going to work (like during that one segment during the Phoenix series). The thing is, you can be assured that every game you’ll see Kobe do something damn impressive. Again, not because he’s being a ball hog, but because the team is designed for him to be the alpha dog. Versus Pau, as good as he is, was never someone you couldn’t take your eyes off of, so it’s fine for him to be a number two that disappears now and then. Now when Wade has another one of those nights where he’s shooting so well that he starts talking to his hand, will a kid in a LeBron jersey want Wade to keep going to see how insane Wade can be IF it means turning LBJ into a disappearing Lamar Odom?
5. Can’t Jewelry Make Everything Better?
Legacy-wise, even if LeBron does win say three championships, in Miami it will add the least luster to his resume. Sure, if he never won a ring it would’ve hurt his legacy even more, but the guy’s come so close without any true star-power by his side that it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t have happened eventually with the Cavs (plus each year Cleveland seemed to add another piece, always improving the team). Simply winning doesn’t necessarily improve your reputation if you’re on what will be a stacked team. There’s a reason All-Star Games aren’t that exciting. You can argue that’s ‘cuz no one plays defense and they aren’t two true teams. Fine, then what about the Redeem Team in the Olympics?
It was nice the Redeem Team won the gold, but did it really make anyone think those guys were better players because of it? Yes, it was impressive that they all worked together, and most impressive was Dwayne Wade’s volunteering to come off the bench. These are nice qualities, but nothing that makes you go, wow, that guy’s just entered the next level. If anything, we sorta had that with Carmelo in the international competitions before the Olympics, but that was ‘cuz we were all surprised that he of all people seemed to stand out above and beyond everyone else. On the other hand, the reps of both Pau and Manu Ginobili have been greatly enhanced precisely because they lead lesser teams to medals in international play.
For LeBron to truly impress us and go to the next level now, he can’t just win some rings. As he wins rings, he and Wade (and that Bosh guy) must stand out Dream Team style by being so head-and-shoulders above everyone that they destroy teams. The first ring, okay, that can be tough and it’s fine if they edge by. But that second year they need to be like Shaq & Kobe in their second title run when they ran rampant over everybody, losing only one game the entire playoffs. They need to be Jordan-72-wins good. Otherwise, LeBron may be a winner, but he won’t go down as a transcendent hero.