The Once and Future King?

What follows is my attempt at basketball analysis.

Now, I have never claimed to be an authority on any sport, with the notable exceptions of kickball, mini-golf, and Australian Rules Football.  And while I am a baseball fan, I often defer to the opinions of more seasoned spectators, like Honestly Blog contributor Tripp or my younger hometown comrades-in-bloggery at Watch The Gap Sports.  Of all the major team sports, basketball is the one I have the least connection to and knowledge of.  I didn’t watch enough minutes of this season’s final series between the Lakers and Celtics to amount to an entire half.  I don’t know what the players’ positions actually are.  And if you asked me to name someone who plays at Madison Square Garden, I’d ask you if John Starks was still a Knick.

So, no, basketball is not my area of expertise.  But it was near impossible to hear about anything else this week.  Emboldened from expanding my repertoire to include music reviews, I’ve decided to weigh in on the LeBron-o-thon.  I decided to discuss it in two ways: first, in terms of the actual decision itself; second, in terms of the hoopla surrounding it.  I expect some of my readers to correct me on some points, but I hope that as a removed neophyte, my perspective might be a welcome one.

Bienvenido A Miami

The weeks of speculation over LeBron James’ future that began the minute the Cavs were knocked out of the play-offs ended last night with his announcement that he will be signing with the Miami Heat.  Here are the questions his decision raises in my unfamiliar mind…

Why did LeBron choose Miami?

In his prime-time special, LeBron essentially said that he wanted to go where the winning was.  Shallow as it may be, it is nevertheless a perfectly valid reason for a high-profile professional athlete who has collected nearly every other possible accolade in his career thus far, except for a championship.  Yet what guarantee does the move to Miami give him?  The Heat may have Dwyane Wade, but they haven’t won it all in four years.  Not even the Celtics, with players so well-regarded for their skills that even I can name them (Garnett, Rondo, and Pierce) could beat the Lakers last month.  All this says to me is that there is no guarantee, that no team is as good as its superstar.  Which leads into my next question…

Is Miami big enough for James and Wade?

I’m not sure there are many prior examples to two players of such magnitude joining forces.  The closest comparison I can make is A-Rod joining the Yankees.  Upon its announcement, that deal was arguably even bigger news.  After all, Rodriguez was coming to a team whose favorite son and ambassador to the world was a guy who played the same position he did.  A-Rod conceded to Jeter and took over at third, which got him off on the right foot with the Yankee fanbase.  But it didn’t take long for that other shoe to drop–repeatedly and heavily.

I can’t help but think that LeBron is going to find himself in a similar situation.  If the Heat start the season strong, he’ll be celebrated.  If he brings them another championship, he’ll be elevated from King James to God-Emperor James.  Yet if they lose five straight games, fall to anything below second in their conference, or fail to reach–let alone win–the finals, he will be the most singularly reviled human being in Dade County.  He’ll be written off as a joke, a greedy blowhard who was all style and no substance.  (Some people already say those things about him)

And that’s just what they’ll say about his actions on the court.  Throughout his first season in Miami, LeBron James will be subjected to a media presence that even someone at his level of fame will find intrusive.  I doubt we’ll get to the All-Star break before hearing about diva antics in the locker room, excessive spending, or a sordid accusation from a Miami female.  I don’t say these things because I think less of LeBron James.  I say these things because he’s human.  True or false, in or out of context, his every move and every word will enter the news cycle, and it won’t always play well with audiences.

Which brings us to the team’s other superstar, he of the ludicrously misspelled first name, Dwyane Wade.  He’s been the hero of the Heat since he arrived.  Even in less successful seasons, his own abilities have kept the team in focus.  Whether he was engaged in the efforts to recruit LeBron or not, he must realize that his star is about to be eclipsed.  Yet if he’s smart, he might be breathing a sigh of relief right now.

Another grossly over-sized ring might be the least of the benefits Wade will reap from LeBron’s arrival.  If the Heat stumble, 99% of the blame will fall on LeBron.  If they win a title, there will be those who say that they couldn’t have done it without LeBron; but I suspect there will be just as many who say that LeBron couldn’t have done it without Wade.  There is no way that Dwyane Wade can come out of this other than smelling like roses.  Even if a clash of personalities develops between the two, he’ll be seen as the victim, no matter how contradictory the evidence.  It’s all because Wade has one thing on his side that LeBron doesn’t: he was there first.

So, to actually answer the question: yes, I think these two can co-exist, even thrive, on a team together.  But if the new Miami Heat are thriving, what about the rest of the NBA?  Simply put…

Is it fair?

Already people are bemoaning the one-sided nature of the next NBA season.  Yet I again point to my boys in pinstripes as an example.  Signing C.C., A.J., and Tex hasn’t been enough to keep the Yanks from having to constantly beat back the Sox and Rays for dominance in the AL East.  No matter how high you stack the deck, it can always come tumbling down.

I don’t think the blockbuster acquisitions the Heat have made will be bad for competition in the league.  If anything, I think it will elevate it.  Every other team should be rabid now for the chance to hand the Heat a loss.  This is great for basketball fandom, too, as no realm of public domain relishes a David-over-Goliath victory more than professional sports.  Sure, bandwagoners will flock to the Heat, but just as many people will don the jersey of their local team for the odd satisfaction that comes with being the underdog.

Yet if there are any losers in this deal (aside from the heart-broken residents of The Buckeye State), I think they are the other two starters on the Heat.  Are those guys ever going to even touch the ball?  Sharing the floor with James, Wade, and Bosh might be your quickest way to a championship, but man, what a thankless way to get there.  And let’s not forget the salary discrepancies on the court.  Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA has a salary cap.  This means that the Heat’s fourth and fifth starters are going to have to live with the fact that they’re being paid less precisely so their teammates can be paid more.  Maybe that won’t bother them.  Perhaps the ends justify the means.  But as I said, regardless of team harmony, superstars don’t guarantee success.  How steamed will these two guys be if one of the new hires fails to deliver?  Frankly, I’d like nothing more than for one of these Other Guys to have a break-out season and take a couple hundred thousand away from LeBron.  What a thrill if someone other than The King became the team’s great hope.

If hopes are high in Miami, they’re at a record low in Cleveland.  Which begs the seemingly obvious question…

Should Cleveland fans be angry?

I think Cleveland fans have every right to be angry, but I don’t think they can be surprised.  LeBron’s contract was up, he and his teammates were not finding that championship rhythm, and there were others offering to pay him handsomely.  So, allow me to modify my statement: Cleveland fans can not be angry that LeBron left; however, they can be angry with how he left.  Which brings me to the second part of this already much longer than I anticipated article: the nature of The Decision itself.

Razzle Dazzle ‘Em

“It’s all a circus, kid.  A three-ring circus.  This trial…the whole world…all show business.  But, kid, you’re working with a star.  The biggest.”
~ Billy Flynn, “Chicago”

Occasionally, there are athletes who transcend the world of sports.  Their fame, influence, and appeal extend beyond the playing field.  They’re not just all-stars or superstars.  They become celebrities.  And believe it or not, there is a step beyond celebrity that only a few of these athletes reach.  They become a brand.  LeBron James is such an athlete.

If you had any doubts that LeBron James is a commodity, I hope that last night’s ESPN prime-time special erased them from your mind.  What aired last night was heretofore unseen on television.  I’m not talking about LeBron’s announcement itself.  I’m talking about a market-dominating basic cable channel, itself owned by one of the most powerful media conglomerates in the world, suspending regularly scheduled programming and ignoring existing advertising contracts at the request of an individual (or his representatives), in order to get an exclusive story–albeit one which the network’s best analysts had already deemed a foregone conclusion.

Think about that.  If that doesn’t boggle your mind, it should.  For one hour–and perhaps a few scattered moments in the preceding two days–Team LeBron ran ESPN.  And by all accounts, they did so with the full cooperation of network brass.  The suits, facing any number of unknown consequences, nevertheless handed LeBron the keys and said, “Put pedal to metal, baby!  We won’t even buckle our seat belts.  We cool.  Fist-bump!  Explode!”

Team LeBron picked the time.  Team LeBron picked the place.  I imagine that Team LeBron picked the interviewer.  Team LeBron even picked the commercials, all for products or services from which you know he gets a kick-back.  In the act of allowing LeBron James to use them as a platform to announce where he would be going to make more money, ESPN helped LeBron James make more money!  The Worldwide Leader shook the Devil’s hand really hard this time.

And yet, despite the outrageous precedent it sets, I have to admire it.  Team LeBron knows how to put on a show.  They rode his free agency for all it was worth.  They reported his every move, leaked his every thought, and teased fans across the nation (oh, you thought he just felt like wearing a Yankee cap that day, did you?).  And when The King decided where he wanted to place his throne, they got him an hour of free television and idiot-proofed it: a submissive interviewer, friendly sponsors, and a room full of silent, awe-struck children as his only audience.  But…there was just one problem.

As it turns out, LeBron James is something of a first-class idiot.

And like all first-class idiots, he managed to find a way around the safety catches set up for him and inflict as many bruises as possible.  One need look no further than the first few awkward minutes of his conversation with Jim Gray.  Clearly, the earpiece LeBron was wearing was malfunctioning.  How else do you reconcile his subsequent rambling remarks with this early stunted gem:

Gray:  “What’s new?  What’s been going on with you this summer?”
James: “Man, this whole free agency experience.  >pause< Looking forward to it. >pause<

>crickets< >crickets<

All right, so am I surprised that he was being fed his answers over a wire?  Hardly.  Was it unfortunate that the machinery was on the fritz?  Hey, shit happens.  But to see that not only was LeBron this poorly rehearsed, but that the answers written for him were this limp, noncommittal, and defensive is embarrassing.  I thought Team LeBron was in the driver’s seat.  Looks like the speechwriter was asleep at the wheel.  This moment was the start of the next stage of LeBron’s career.  He should have appeared confident, determined, and in control.  Instead, he told his hometown fans, who he was abandoning, to respect his fragile emotional state.  He told Jim Gray more than once that he only committed to Miami after he had his mother’s permission.  Dressing him like a visitor to a Rockwellian state fair didn’t help either.  Honestly, Team LeBron, this was your idea of being air-ready?  Nobody’s cared this much about where a black man wanted to work since President Obama announced his candidacy, and you think the following is an acceptable response to a question about LeBron’s expectations for free agency?

“I expected to be able to go through this process and be able to sit down with my team and sit across from other teams and hear how they feel with me being a part of their team, could help them win and could ultimately help others win.  And the process was everything I expected and more. And like I said before, I just thank all those teams that have come to Cleveland and us have those interviews and have that process. It was everything that I’ve ever expected and more.”

So when’s the swimsuit competition?  Because I’m pretty sure I’m watching a goddamn beauty pageant.

I’m not saying he has to deliver the Gettysburg Address, but everyone knew this moment was coming.  Couldn’t he have been just a bit more prepared?  Suffice to say, LeBron better rack up those championships, because he has a long way to go to calling games on TNT.  Then again, when considering the talent on display from ESPN last night, he might fit right in…

Here’s where most of my beef with “The Decision”, and where my expertise, lies.  Jim Gray, you are not Ryan Seacrest.  I just about put my foot through my television when you said (and I’m only loosely paraphrasing), “Do you still bite your nails, LeBron?  Because right now, you’ve got everyone else biting theirs!  Haw haw haw!”  Are you fucking kidding me?  And Stuart Scott, you’re not getting off the hook either.  The only thing more unpleasant to viewers than your drastically lazy eye is your outlandish hyperbole.  Again, paraphrasing: “Just moments from now, LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of his or any past or future generation, will announce which team he will be signing with.  Which team will it be?  Which team will be blessed with championship after championship, record after record?  Which arena will have the honor to retire jersey number 23 and have their ceiling be deemed a holy place to which all sports fans will make pilgrimages to for centuries to come?”  Give me a break.

If they really wanted to build suspense, they shouldn’t have shown LeBron on camera until the second half hour.  Instead, they should have had every guy who ever coached him, every teammate who ever liked him, every opponent who ever respected him, and every living legend who ever admired him in the studio or checking in via satellite to give viewers their thoughts and their predictions.  ESPN should have had puff pieces about LeBron’s time with the Cavs, his boyhood in Akron, and his amiable, generous nature.  Interspersed should have been highlight reels of his greatest shots, blocks, and dunks.  Finally, in the last quarter of the hour, Stu Scott tosses it to Jim Gray, live at the Boys & Girls Club, for some cheap suspense and then, with minutes ticking away, only then should they have let LeBron answer the question everyone’s been asking.  That’s how you do it.

Was this whole spectacle indulgent, manipulative, and self-serving?  Of course it was.  But the far greater crime is that it was simply bad television.  ESPN, leave the agonizing results shows to Fox.  Stick with what you know.

In Conclusion…

I imagine that by now most of you are wishing I would heed my own advice.  What can I say?  The muse was moving me today.  Again, I don’t know much about basketball.  The first half of this post is just the unvarnished observations of someone outside that particular world.  But having been involved in the business of show, I’d like to think my critiques in part two carry a bit more weight (and a few more laughs).  But the floor is open, dear readers.  Tell me where I’m wrong and why I’m wrong.  Who knows?  You feedback just might convince me to follow basketball next season.

~ T

P.S: I may not know much about the NBA, but I know enough to play a long shot when I see it: Clippers over Heat in 5.  Blake Griffin is my homeboy.

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One thought on “The Once and Future King?”

  1. fantastic article tyler! i didn’t notice his earpiece wasn’t working.. explains a lot of the awkwardness. whats your take on the owner of the cavs and his letter about lebron?

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