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.
In the four NBA seasons between ‘The Decision’ and the Spurs walking off their home floor as 2014 Champions, LeBron James had a career within a career. The ill will from that misguided TV special permeated even the media, who denied him the 2011 MVP he probably deserved. He spent a year or more as one of the most reviled athletes in American history, a pop culture scapegoat for everything that was wrong with the current generation of NBA players. The aftermath of teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh left him living in an echo chamber of criticism and scorn, the pressure mounting to make good on his promises of “not two, not three, not four” titles for his new franchise.
Eventually, the hatred waned. Sandwiched between his two Finals losses were two titles, two Finals MVPs, two regular season MVP trophies and two large sighs of relief, finally having earned an elusive ring. He logged nearly 15,000 minutes (14,796, to be exact) and played in 381 games as a member of the Miami Heat. When you look at the math, it’s almost as if he played five full NBA seasons in the span of 43 months (November, 2010 through June 2013)… which is a little crazy, because part of me feels like it was yesterday he was arriving on South Beach.
No matter how quickly the past four years seem to have gone for the rest of us, I guarantee it’s been a long, taxing road for the best basketball player in the world – and at the end of it, LeBron James finds himself, once again, on the open market. He could end up with the Warriors, Clippers, Lakers, Bulls, Rockets, Cavaliers or Heat – plenty of teams will line up to make their pitches. Various media outlets will cover his every move ad nauseam and treat every careless agent’s whisper as a definitive proclamation. It will be a circus. The greatest player of his generation is a free agent – there’s no way it won’t be a circus.
And yet, no matter the outcome, it won’t be as shocking or insufferable this time around, and it won’t elicit the backlash it did in the summer of 2010. Maybe his championship rings grant him a degree of clemency in his decision-making. Maybe we’ve come to accept that the era of empowered players having control over where they live and who their co-workers will be won’t bring about the ruin of professional sports in America. Maybe ‘The Decision’ broke the public’s barometer to properly gauge these things, so now the only way LeBron could really shock us is if he decided to pursue football full-time or purchased the MLS (the whole league, not a team) or decided to quit basketball to pursue a music career. Maybe he’s matured. Maybe we’ve matured.
There will still be hot takes. There will still be morons on social media. There will even be former players who mutter “tisk, tisk, I never would’ve done that” should LeBron actually pull off the formation of another superteam, whether it’s in Miami or not. All of that happened in 2010. The difference is, this time around, the majority of people will be rolling their eyes at such things, rather than nodding in agreement.
The inimitable Andrew Sharp of Grantland admitted his own 2010-era LeBron hatred last week, ultimately concluding that as time has gone by, he’s stopped the irrational dislike of LeBron James, and replaced it with a nuanced appreciation of a complex player (and person). The column resonated with me, as I think it does with many hoops fans. A basketball player changing teams isn’t the serious affair we all made it out to be four years ago. Basketball is entertainment, and I sincerely hope wherever LeBron ends up, it’s the most entertaining or thought-provoking option on the table.
Back when ‘The Decision’ happened, people were going to be peeved if he left Cleveland, no matter how he did it. The method he chose only enhanced the vitriol. He’s bound by no such sentimental shackles this time around, and will almost certainly conduct himself more diplomatically, if only to avoid the headaches. He’s grown, we’ve grown. The second chapter of his career was a success – the third could entail him evolving into the ultimate basketball mercenary – made available every fourth summer to the team in the right situation, bringing in or along the teammates he prefers.
Maybe that annoys you. Maybe that’s not “organic” enough for you. It’s fine if you find the circus annoying, the incessant chatter and leaks and speculation insufferable, and that’s fine. I get it. But understand that isn’t all LeBron’s doing, nor is it his fault. It is the nature of the sports media machine, in which LeBron is somewhat complicit, but is bigger than everyone, even him.
So, speaking from personal experience, as someone who disliked the Heat after their formation and did mental gymnastics to deny LeBron’s greatness for as long as I could, learn to ignore the nonsense and appreciate the player for what he is – the best this generation has to offer. Chuckle at the July insanity and prepare for November magic and June, 2015 playoff drama, because no matter where he goes, that’s what is coming. And no matter where he goes, it’s going to be a lot of fun.