Column
July 16, 2014

The summer of LeBron, part II

The summer of LeBron, part II

The summer of LeBron, part II
Four years have passed since the last Summer of LeBron, when NBA fans and execs waited to see whether LeBron James – the best basketball player in the world – would sign a new contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers or jump ship to the Miami Heat. He stunned the world, giving the Heat perhaps the greatest free agency coup in the league’s history. This summer, we waited with the same suspense to see whether he, again a free agent, would stay in Miami or return to Cleveland. He shocked us all once more by coming home to the city whose heart he’d broken.
Already this is starting to feel cyclical, like a presidential election; the difference is that we already knew LeBron was the president – we just didn’t know which country he was going to be the president of. Do you have any predictions yet for 2018?
For now, it’s hard to imagine, suddenly, the Cavaliers as a potentially dominant NBA team. Even in their pre-“Decision” heyday, they were not that: they were a lousy NBA team containing a single transcendent talent.
Historically, the Cavs are the dregs of the NBA, tied with Clippers as the second-oldest franchise never to have won a title. Both were founded in 1970; however, the Clippers were called the Braves and played in Buffalo until 1978, whereas the Cavs have been muddling along in Cleveland this whole time. Meanwhile, the oldest franchise never to have won a title, the Phoenix Suns (born 1968), nevertheless wins more often than it loses, boasting an all-time winning percentage of .552; Cleveland’s is .456.
Before LeBron made his choice on Friday, I was thinking about how badly not only the Cavaliers but the state of Ohio needs him. Ohio is a place of deep suffering for pro sports fans.
It’s one of only eight states that field five or more major professional sports teams (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) – this group includes the seven U.S. states with populations greater than 10 million (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio); it also somehow includes Missouri. By my calculation, New York has won 51 combined championships in pro sports, California 34, Pennsylvania 24, Illinois 17, Texas 14, Missouri 14, Florida nine. Ohio has won seven. No wonder they were so upset when LeBron left.
This calculation, by the way, refers to championships in their current iterations, within the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL, not any of their predecessors or competitors. It doesn’t include the BAA, the ABA, or the AAFC. It doesn’t count any football trophies before the Super Bowl. It counts not by franchise but by geographic location; therefore, for example, the Athletics’ early World Series titles (before they moved from Philadelphia to Oakland) count for Pennsylvania, not for California.
Ohio’s seven championships – five by the Cincinnati Reds – don’t look as bad next to Florida’s nine as they do next to New York’s 51, but keep in mind that only two of Florida’s nine teams existed before 1988, and the earliest, the Dolphins, were born in 1966. In Ohio, the Cavs (from 1970) are the youngest franchise; the oldest, the Reds, were established in 1881.
Arguably, Ohio needed LeBron more than any other state; they needed him during the 2003 draft lottery, and they need him even more now. As I write this, however, it’s too early to know what the popular narrative will ultimately say about LeBron’s choice. Has LeBron, the Akron native, bravely and selflessly returned to save his forlorn people, or has he once again abandoned his team for an easier route to a championship? The Cavs’ situation is more promising in 2014 than the Heat’s is, just as the Heat’s situation was more promising than the Cavs’ was in 2010, so in essence LeBron has done nothing differently this time than last time, but people may read it differently – or they may not. Should his “loyalty” in 2014 lie with the team he “should” have been with all along, or (after four years) with the team for whom he “disloyally” betrayed his home state?
The story contains contradictions, and different people will parse it in different ways. LeBron himself seems to be pushing one interpretation: home is where the heart is, and he’s going home – so everyone who despised him for leaving can calm down now. In 2010, his villainously pompous “The Decision” special seemed almost designed to play up the “immorality” of his choice, feeding into the narrative that was immediately to take shape; in 2014, the means by which he made the big announcement – a heartfelt letter about the place where he grew up – anticipates and urges on a kinder take. I anticipate that, too.
Still, there will be dissenters, to whom this latest turn of events has only confirmed their view of LeBron as a team-hopping mercenary. Who’s correct? It’s hard to say; I would argue that the reason there appears to be no right answer here is that we’re not asking the right questions. LeBron never owed the Cavaliers or the Heat any loyalty; in both cases, he was a worker, employed by people who wouldn’t care about him if he couldn’t make money for them – the only loyalty he owed was to himself and his loved ones. The genius of LeBron is to value basketball – the sport he loves to play – above the ridiculous narrative we impose upon it at the professional level.
For those of us who can do the same thing, it’ll be exciting to watch him play with a new, talented cast of teammates, instead of the same old tired guys in Miami. He’ll have fun, and we’ll have fun. It’ll be great. Everyone who (as I did) got angry at him for leaving Cleveland in 2010 and everyone who suddenly either loves him or hates him now, either for his perfidy or for his faithfulness, cares more about narrative than about basketball, and they’re all missing the point.

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