The sports world was looking the wrong way.
They were looking at the Big Apple.
Except for Stephen A. Smith. A notable media personality who predicted James would land in Miami weeks before “The Decision” sent shock waves through the nation. A notable sportswriter who was perhaps dismissed because of his vociferous silver-tongued style.
Or maybe the Windy City?
Except for Pat Riley. The Giorgio Armani styled don of swag, frequently referred to as Mr. GQ, cautioned the Miami Heat fans to buy their season tickets even as the empty seats began to grow in the AAA after Shaq’s departure. (And I would have Pat, but I was a frugal graduate student. Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault–those books add up!)
It seemed a foregone conclusion. Hometown hero, hometown boy. King stays in Cleveland.
Except for me. An honest, hardworking, but parsimonious graduate student. A graduate student perpetually stressed out from her thesis, haunted by nightmares in which my thesis committee hee-hawed at my attempts to form a sentence. I managed to write an article about the possibility of the two teaming up in Miami, created a brief video on youtube, and tweeted Skip Bayless expressing my hunch: LBJ to MIA. Imagine my surprise when Skip actually responded!
Flash back to Thursday night. “The Decision” garnered outrage and shock. King James was nothing but a traitor. A deceptive coward who deserted his team, his fans, and Cleveland for the allure of South Beach. The love for Lebron in Cleveland disappeared faster than a handful of ice-cold popsicles at a summer youth camp. James’ final answer: “I’ve decided to take my talents to South Beach…” left a bitter taste in Dan Gilbert’s mouth, thicker than that BP oil and just as hard to contain. Perhaps Gilbert’s reaction is understandable when one considers that his franchise is as worthless as a box of Cracker Jacks even with the mystery surprise inside.
But the biggest shock in this is that no one expected James to choose Miami. Folks, trust me, it was staring us all right in the face. Besides the fact that there is no state income tax (which means that not only is James’ contract money tax-free, but as soon as he changes his legal address to Miami all of his money-endorsements from Nike, Vitamin Water, etc. is, you guessed it, tax-free. James is actually going to make a few million dollars more in South Beach than he would have in Cleveland), James is a vibrant, attractive, 25-year-old man. When James sat down to write that Pros versus Cons list, he began to realize that Cleveland simply could not hold a torch to Miami.
But it is more than just that. Everything in James’ life has shown us that Miami is the perfect place for the King to land. Watch James’ documentary “More Than a Game” and you will understand why. While watching it, I realized that James is, quite frankly, the furthest thing from Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Sure, Jordan had Pippen, Rodman, and the rest of his cohorts to help him win those titles, but it was clearly Jordan’s team. And Jordan liked it that way. Jordan relied upon his teammates because, after all, this is a team sport. Still, if Jordan could have found a way to win those championships by himself….Say, by cloning himself numerous times, he would have jumped at the chance. In his recent Hall of Fame acceptance speech, an older Jordan reminded us all that he had not lost that self-absorbed quality that produced greatness, insisting that “there is no I in team, but there is an I in win.”
And Kobe. Aah, Kobe. The epitome of selfish is a player unafraid to jack up shot after missed shot simply because he does not believe his teammates can actually make the shot. Kobe ran Shaq out of Los Angeles faster than Elin ran Tiger Woods out of the house. The Los Angeles love triangle culminated in Kobe demanding that Jerry West pick him or Shaq. Kobe, as victorious as a mistress snatching the philandering husband from the soon-to-be-ex-wife’s clutches, forced Shaq to move on and rebuild with another team.
Both Jordan’s and Bryant’s attitudes yielded extreme success. In the process, however, these attitudes have also redefined our conception of competitiveness; to be a true competitor is to be able to do it alone. One of the harshest criticisms leveled against Lebron post “The Decision” is that the flight to Miami proves that he cannot win the big one by himself. The reasoning here is that James needs Wade to dim the spotlight shining on him. Maybe. But people seem to forget that the spotlight has been glaring brightly on James since his high-school debut. When most teenagers were popping pimples, James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Chosen One” and appeared on ESPN–all before his eighteenth birthday. Pressure is understanding that the road leading out of housing projects, drugs, and prison is through basketball. Pressure is realizing that although your mother loves you dearly, she cannot free you from a life of instability.
Pressure is not about whether you win that championship game or even hit that game-winning shot as the clock ticks down. James has already achieved something few black men achieve–he “made it” out of the housing projects in Cleveland and into the penthouse suites of Miami.
It is only fitting that James views the basketball court as his home. As a child, he bounced around more than a basketball. The “More Than a Game” documentary reveals that basketball became a built-in family, complete with brothers and a father he never had. Even reporters observing the Cleveland Cavaliers were struck by the team’s unparalleled chemistry. Although the pre-game warm ups were indeed sophomoric, it was reminiscent of locker-room antics between high-school athletes, or the close-knit quality between a large family. James and his teammates seemed to be sharing inside jokes that to the outside world looked immature, but also seemed to say, “You have to be here to understand. Then you would know how what this means to us.”
My point for all of this is not to suggest that James is a better athlete than Kobe or Jordan. Joachim Noah was right to be angered by the shenanigans on the sidelines. My point is to suggest that James is a better team player than Kobe and Jordan. And, more importantly, that James’ decision offered him a chance to play a team sport with two of his favorite team players. When James dons that crisp Heat jersey, he is not shirking from the pressures of wearing the crown. Rather he reminds us that basketball is a team sport. As soon as Jordan hung up the jersey, the search for the next Jordan was on. We were thirsty for that fade-away jumper, that pull-away that only Jordan could hit. Five player teams became extinct. Like supermodels, one name superstars became all the rage. Tyra. Carmelo. Cindy. Kobe. Naomi. Lebron. The NBA became a one-man show with superstar athletes preening and strutting their stuff. Sure, superstar athletes surrounded themselves with role players, but superstars like Kobe make sure that these role players never outshine him.
And the NBA has suffered because of this “all about me” mentality. TV ratings are consistently lower than the NFL and baseball. There are a number of reasons for this, but it has a little something to do with the lack of true teams in the NBA. “True teams” like the 2008 Boston Celtics and the 2004 Detroit Pistons remain impressive because there was no clear superstar. These teams were like watching a giant swarm of bees operating as a single mass.
I do not know what will happen this season. I do not know if James’ phantom elbow will make a cameo appearance in the playoffs. I am hoping that Gilbert’s malevolent curse is as harmless as the South Florida breeze–fleeting and full of hot air.
My own sense of prescience makes me believe that, one day, we will realize that James did not crumble under pressure and take the easy way out. James’ actions prove that not only can he play with Wade while keeping his ego in check, but that he desires to play with great players to reach his highest level of athletic prowess. James covets that sense of camaraderie that is unnecessary in solitary sports like tennis and golf, but absolutely fundamental in team sports. Miami presented James with the best chance to win a championship and the best chance to build a family on the court. Isn’t that what teams are supposed to be? Isn’t this the same close bond Spartan warriors developed while preparing for battle? Separated from their biological family members, their brethren became their adopted family. Did this diminish their fierce competitiveness?
Welcome to the family, Lebron.