LeBron James has been bigger than the game, a cultural artifact for discussion, dissection and discernment for six years through triumph, misery, and wait, did he have a cartoon show? In advance of LeBron’s second big decision, we wanted to weigh in with our writers’ thoughts on the different worlds this moment in time touches and how honestly weird this entire process is — because the four most powerful words in the NBA are “LeBron James free agency.” Enjoy. – Ed.
I stood behind my father’s couch, gently placing tortilla chips into my mouth as I pondered the muted absurdity of what was on my screen. In a weird, oddly-lit gym, a comparatively tiny Jim Gray was asking LeBron James about what team he was going to join after spending seven years as a Cleveland Cavalier. There was a pause. An unnecessary stumble. Then he said it.
“Huh. Miami,” I said to no one, more back to the screen itself than anything. Then, I turned the TV off and went back to my summer. That was that.
When James made his first decision four years ago, it didn’t really grip me the way that it did others. A 75-minute TV special seemed a little self-congratulatory, perhaps even a little stupid. But in an age where every bit of an athlete’s personal brand was cultivated by an endless stream of social media, broadcast news and blogs, it really didn’t seem that weird. It still doesn’t, at least not in the sense that I can see how that idea could be formulated and carried out to fruition by a team of hustlers with ear pieces talking about market awareness and traction.
I wasn’t a Cavaliers supporter, nor was I a detractor or a fan of a rival. My feelings on James were, at the time, neutral. Yes, he was very good, but I wasn’t drawn to watching him. Likewise, after The Decision I didn’t really connect with the intense hatred felt for James. I was unconvinced of his appeal or repugnance. Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals changed all that.
On one side you had the Celtics, a tried and true squad whose narrative never seemed to garner the national wrath at their construction in 2008 that would occur in Miami just two years later. They were a team with a homemade superstar in Paul Pierce and (at least) two future Hall of Famers in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Like with James, Boston didn’t warrant an emotional response for me. They were a team that played in the East, and had conglomerated an advantage by tipping the scales of talent in their favor. It paid off, and fair was (mostly) fair.
Meanwhile, James had incurred all kinds of hatred for spurning his hometown despite seven hard years of chasing a ring. Frankly, I didn’t really understand the difference in attitude toward the Heat versus the Celtics, save for the backlash from The Decision. As I saw it, the combination in Miami appeared to mirror Boston’s own. Wade, playing the lonely patriot stuck in Florida, with James and Chris Bosh the outside hero veterans there to save the day. Whether they got there by trade or free agency didn’t concern me, but for many, that was the difference between these two teams. Boston was hated for who they were and how they played. Miami? Miami was hated for why they were.
Bluntly, the Heat were despised because one man had decided to take his talents to South Beach.
Heading into that series in 2012, there was no active reason for me to root for James. He was the top player in the league, but there had always been a top player in the NBA. Why start rooting for this one? Against the Celtics, he displayed everything a basketball player could possibly put on the floor. James shot the three and he got to the line. He ripped apart the Celtics’ vaunted defense by himself.
He did everything I’ve ever wanted to see in a player I call “the best” with no deficiencies, errors, flaws or holes. His personality was of a team player, but his face that night was of a true killer. We posthumously gawk at his stat line of 45 points on 19-of-26 shooting with 15 rebounds and somehow lose sight of the fact that he still led the Heat with five assists. If you watched that game, it was obvious he was the best player on the planet. That’s when I knew I had to watch.
I knew I had to root for greatness.
Beating Boston in 2012 wasn’t just Miami getting over the hump on their toughest rival on their way to their first NBA championship as a group. Instead, I saw it as vindication against an unfair cry against Miami “buying” their team rather than building it, whatever the hell that means in a post-lockout, post-BRI world. The rally against James has been exacerbated by The Decision, with fans not only in Cleveland feeling sore but in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as well. That’s understandable, as it’s what makes fandom and passion and defeat and victory all the more intense for those who share in it together.
The groundswell against LeBron after The Decision and the immediate impact on his public image was significant. Then again, that hatred has entrenched new fans and hardened old ones. Blogs have used James as easy fodder for shareable content, with those who see him as the villain contributing to pageviews just because they have to see what this traitor/ring chaser/[insert narrative] is doing now. And no, present company is not excluded.
But, even four years later and faced with yet another decision to make, my reaction will likely be the same toward James regardless the outcome. He will say the words, or tweet it out or someone on the inside will break the story. I’ll nod my head and think it’s all too funny, a little absurd and absolutely understandable. Frankly, I don’t care about where James ends up. Chicago, L.A., Miami, Cleveland, Charlotte, Seattle. On the outside, it doesn’t matter.
This time, I’ll just be glad I’m watching.