By now it’s had time to sink in – as much as it’ll ever sink in, anyway. He made his decision, and though it still burns like hell, at least the initial shock’s warn off. Three days later, in the year 1 AC, we finally have our wits about us. We can look at it rationally, if ever such a thing this messy – this slimy – can be looked at with rationality.
I’m not going to write what Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote in his open letter to Cleveland. I’m not going make guarantees I can’t make good on and I’m not going to “put everything in quotes” to make it “more dramatic.” There will be no talk here of meat cleavers to the back or “heartless and callous actions.” There will be no name-calling, though make no mistake – I, too, think LeBron James is a narcissist. As Dan Le Batard told Bill Simmons, having an absolute lack of self-awareness is the very definition of narcissism (And “The Decision” is the very definition of lack of self-awareness). But now the body’s cold, the rosin’s settled, “smoldering jersey” is just metaphor.
It’s time to look at The Decision logically.
What most disappoints me is not that he left his hometown – this is an era of freewheeling and free agency, there are no more Cal Ripkens. What most disappoints me is that he forever foreclosed on his greatest potential. He can no longer be what he could’ve been in Cleveland (or New York, for that matter). Not with Dwyane Wade by his side. His ceiling has been irrevocably lowered by his decision to take the easy way out. He doesn’t have to carry the load – be the guy – every single night, and unlike Jordan and Bird and Russell, that’s exactly what he was looking for.
Seems to me that there’s a difference between knowing that you need help and actively wanting help. Eighties MJ staved off teammates like the Plague. He did everything himself because deep down he knew that none of the guys around him on their best days could match the competitive fire in his own gut. Phil Jackson had to coax him into sharing, into the triangle, into trusting his teammates. It was an exercise in teeth pulling. Even after he begrudgingly mastered the concept of team, Jordan constantly struggled with deference – not out of selfish ambition, but out of a maniacal self-confidence that he was always the best guy for the job. Don’t take it from me. Ask Steve Kerr’s black eye.
LeBron’s not wired that way. And I was evidently the last one to see it. I wrote raving 1,000-word posts about him right up until the Boston Massacre. I harped on the perennial shortcomings of his supporting cast. I knocked Cavs’ management for Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall. I blamed Delonte/Gloria for the game 5 home meltdown. I chastised those with the gall to compare Mo Williams or Antawn Jamison to Scottie Pippen. And even as I sit here looking back on the past seven years, I find myself genuinely irritated by Mike Brown’s ineptitude and floating any number of trade deadline “what ifs?”
Maybe his last-second heroics against Orlando, his 48 Special at Detroit, his goofball pre-game routines, and his awe-inspiring athleticism blinded me to what I now recognize as his only true flaw – a soft will. Or rather, maybe I knew all along that he didn’t have the killer inside him like Jordan or Isiah, but teased myself into thinking that he’d compensate with superior size, talent, jumping ability and charm. He just looked the part. Had it all. Came into the league as the most hyped player in history and all but shattered our wildest expectations. I pulled for LeBron because 1) I liked him and 2) because I ultimately thought he’d be the one. The Greatest.
As of Thursday, “greatest” is no longer in play, and to me – a guy without any serious rooting interests – this is by far the biggest disappointment of it all. If you’re a fan of basketball, of history, or of greatness in general, LeBron’s outright forfeiture of destiny totally sucks. You invested in these Cleveland years because you thought they’d pave the way for something bigger… only the payoff never came.
Which brings us to the question of legacy. LeBron said he didn’t want to end up a 31-year-old with bad knees and no ring. I understand the argument. I think it’s 100 percent valid. He spent his entire career in Cleveland, where Delonte West and Anderson Varejao were the best crunch-time players they could match him with. This in itself is inexcusable. If Gilbert wants to slam his one-time meal ticket, he must first acknowledge the blood on his own hands. He never gave LeBron the best chance to win, and LeBron’s told us over and over that it’s all about winning.
Here’s my question: Winning to what end, LeBron? To leave your indomitable imprint on the game? To be talked about 50 years from now in the same breath as the Birds and Magics? To be a global brand? To be cherished? To be legend? Just to be liked?
Well you chucked all those cards out the window when you signed on for South Beach – a place without any tradition, sorry sports fans, and most irreparably undermining to your legacy, a guy in Dwyane Wade who wants all the same things you’ve alleged to have wanted. Only he really wants them. And he wants them more.
LeBron will win. LeBron will fit his fingers and toes with championship rings. He will do things with a basketball that you have never seen before and may never see again. But try as he might, LeBron James will never scale the same heights he left behind in Cleveland. Because, in Miami, all the peaks are just that much lower. Climbing Everest isn’t quite the same when, to borrow a dig from Charles Barkley, you get there on “piggyback.”
Imagine 2003 Phil Mickelson packing up his clubs, partnering up with the best swing coach in the game, and “taking his talents” to the Nationwide Tour. He’d dominate, but would we look at him the same way?
LeBron bolted under the guise of winning, but I don’t think his decision was about winning at all, not in the Jordan/Kobe sense, anyway. Their type of winning was tied to something larger – something that could be immortalized, enshrined by the embellishment of collective memory, mythologized by fathers and their sons. James cannot achieve that anymore. We’ll instead remember him for his spectacular athletic prowess, his affable demeanor, the “old days” back home and his X-number of asterisk-riddled titles.
He must’ve been aware of the tradeoffs. He is, after all, a student of the game, regardless of whether he’s surrounded himself with idiot high school buddies. So why not tell it straight? Tell us he wanted to come to South Beach to play with his friends. To soak up the glitz in a city that does glitz better than any. Why not tell us, “Hey, I gave it my best shot. I tried to be The Man every night. I’m tired of pulling the slack. I’m tired of filling the holes.”
“I’m tired of being The Man.”
It’s easier after this entire debacle to pick on him for his inconsistent jump shot or criticize his post game. To call him a choker… These things are beside the point.
LeBron James is a great basketball player – there is no disputing that – but LeBron James will never be Great. He left Greatness in Cleveland. And so Michael Jordan sleeps easier these day. Bill Russell shakes his head. Kobe lifts weights. They heard what I heard when LeBron said “South Beach” – a gasping hush. The sound of a dying legacy.