Why I Can’t Root for LeBron

December 2nd, 2010 at 4:12 pm | 3 Comments |

| Print

Rarely does an event in the sports world galvanize the American public like “The Decision” by LeBron James.  The NBA’s most ballyhooed player leaving Cleveland to “take my talents to South Beach” sparked national revulsion.  Now that the dust has settled some, troche it is time to sort out what, viagra sale if anything, health James did wrong.

Some say the problem was less his decision than its manner – going on national television to make a dramatic announcement as if he were the president taking the nation to war.  But the blame for that lies mostly with ESPN.  It’s like Sarah Palin’s Alaska.  James, like Palin, could have opted for dignity over dollars (though his went to charity), but let the first stone be cast by the rare American who resists the blandishments of celebrity.

Some believe James betrayed Cleveland, but that notion is misguided.  For seven seasons he elevated the previously pitiful Cavaliers to the status of contenders and gave its fans exciting basketball.  Did he owe the city his services for a lifetime?

Others complain that James sinned against the very idea of competitive sports.  By joining forces, James and fellow stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh pre-ordained a Miami Heat championship.  It’s bad enough when a megalomaniacal owner like George Steinbrenner tries to hog the available talent.  Do we really need players arranging their own Dream Team?  But if that argument ever had force, it lost it when the Heat staggered out of the gate.  The Heat may be the best team LeBron James and his buddies could put together, but they are a far cry from a lock to win the NBA championship.

If none of the complaints hold up, was James maligned?  When players are not under contract, after all, they can join any team that wants them – isn’t that the whole point of free agency?  And what basketball player doesn’t want talented teammates?

Commentators declared that Michael Jordan never would have joined forces with a superstar like Dwayne Wade, but did Jordan rebel when the Bulls obtained Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman?  Did Kobe Bryant complain when the Lakers signed free agent Shaquille O’Neil?

I think this defense of James overstates the case, and his decision was indeed lamentable.  Two great sports vignettes suggest why.  The first takes us back to March 1970, the 142 pound championship match in the NCAA wrestling tournament at Northwestern University.  Dan Gable, the two-time defending champion, was unbeaten in 181 matches dating back to high school.  Larry Owings, his talented but little-known opponent, had never won the nationals.  In their only previous bout, Gable defeated Owings easily.

Owings’ pulsating victory over Gable is a good candidate for the greatest upset in sports history, but isn’t the most interesting part of the story.  The most interesting thing is that Owings and Gable met at all.  Owings wrestled most of the season in the 158 pound weight-class, where he stood a good chance of winning a national title.  Alternatively, he could have shed more weight and wrestled at 150 – possibly a worthwhile sacrifice since the competition would be smaller.  Instead, he dropped two weight-classes (31 pounds from his high).  He did not do so to improve his chances of going all the way.   To the contrary, putting himself in the same weight-class as the heretofore invincible Gable was the opposite of a shortcut to a championship.  Rather, as Owings told a reporter at the outset of the tournament, “I’m not going to this tournament to be a national champion.  I’m coming here to beat Gable.”  That’s right, Larry Owings went out of his way to wrestle Dan Gable.  Why?  Because Gable had beaten him and no one had beaten Gable.  Ahab had the whale, Owings had Gable.

The second vignette comes from Game 7 of the 1969 NBA championship, in which Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics defeated Wilt Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers in an epic showdown.  Chamberlain sat out the last six minutes of the cliffhanger, having pulled himself out of the game with an injured leg.  When Chamberlain asked to come back in a few minutes later, his stubborn coach, Butch van Breda Kolff, refused.  A sad story, but the most revealing aspect was Russell’s reaction.  He publicly pilloried Chamberlain for pulling himself out in the first place, expressing genuine resentment.

Most athletes in Russell’s shoes would have been thrilled to see the opposing team’s superstar on the bench in the climactic moment of the decisive game.  But Russell felt cheated.  He’d won enough championships (eleven in all) to know that winning rings, by itself, is an unworthy goal.  His goal, always, was to reach the highest possible level of performance – the impossible dream and all.  For Russell, the “dream” was a reality made possible by Chamberlain.  Although the 6’9 athletically gifted Russell was no one’s idea of David, the 7’1” and even more gifted Chamberlain was nevertheless his Goliath.  Chamberlain did for Russell what Joe Frazier did for Muhammad Ali – forced him to otherwise unavailable heights of achievement.  Chamberlain’s disappearance in Game 7 helped hand Russell another ring.  Russell despised the idea of anything handed to him.

Therein lies what LeBron James did wrong: he betrayed himself.  As it turned out, he didn’t take an easy path to an NBA title, but that wasn’t for lack of trying.  As James himself made clear when announcing The Decision, he based his choice on the clearest path to multiple rings.  That means LeBron lacked the insight or instinct which defines the special athlete like Larry Owings and Bill Russell.

Recent Posts by Alan Hirsch



3 Comments so far ↓

  • RLHotchkiss

    This article reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the economics relating to the NBA. Each player makes his own endorsement deals with companies. This arrangement gives the player a personal financial incentive not to act in a way to hurt the brands of the companies who use his likeness or endorsement.

    Once a player has entered into an endorsement deal he has a contractual obligation to the company to maximize his brand’s usefulness to them. One could also argue he has a moral obligation to the often low income third world workers who manufacture products sold because of his likeness or endorsement.

    NBA merchandise like FIFA merchandise is sold world wide. In fact many marketing deals with NBA players have the primary purpose of helping companies enter the very emerging markets which will be so crucial to the future prosperity not only of these companies and the NBA but also our nation. Marketing research shows that international customers buy products endorsed by NBA players because they are viewed as premium products. These customers view relatively few if any NBA games and NBA championships rather than individual game play influences these customers’ purchasing decisions.

    Part of being a professional athlete is fulfilling one’s contractual obligations not only during the games but in aspects such as selecting a team association which maximizes the profitability of your endorsement partners. Say what you will about Mr. James but selecting a team that benefits his partners is the height of professional sportsmanship. To select his team for some personal sense of glory would be the hight of irresponsible selfishness.

  • Carney

    I don’t buy this criticism. I find “The Decision” and the choice to leave Cleveland at all to be far worse than assembling a Dream Team.

    It’s one thing to relish competition, to seek out the best and take them on. But before that happens, why not try to make one’s team the best it can be?

    To be frank, what I find most off-putting about LeBron is endemic now in the NBA and everywhere else in sports – the tattoos.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Well, as a lifelong and fanatical– almost fanatically religious– Celtics fan, I can’t root for LeBron (or LeGone or LeBrick or whatever you prefer) either. He’s a narcissist and a shithead, and the day he puts on the shamrock and green will be the end of my NBA fandom.

    That said, it’s really silly to blame him for going to South Beach, and for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, who can blame LeBron for wanting to play with Dwayne Wade? If you’re a talented NBA player and you get the opportunity to hook-up with a major Jim Calhoun/UCONN product, then you simply can’t turn it down. Why do you think Danny Ainge brought Ray Allen to Boston? Because Paul Pierce and KG coveted him, and had been in awe of his athleticism and crack 3-point shooting for years. Likewise, whoever gets to play with Richard Hamilton after next year’s free-agency comes along will be just as fortunate, and whatever team signs my little bro Kemba Walker will be championship material within at least five years. I mean, just look how quicly Miami progressed after Wade was drafted there in ’04. Jim Calhoun turns out special players, and the league’s most talented ballers know this.

    And how can anyone pen an article on the LeBron/Cleveland debacle without any mention of Dan Gilbert? Only the desirability of playing with Wade outranks Gilbert’s hamfisted contract negotiating as a factor in LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland. Gilbert’s handling of the situation was awful, even worse than the way Bob Kraft and Bobby Greier screwed up Curtis Martin’s contract situation in ’98 (as a result of which CM will be inducted into next years NFL Hall of Fame class as a JET. ARGHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!).