I think that it’s brainless
To assume that making changes
To your window’s view
Will give a new perspective
—Death Cab for Cutie, “Blacking Out the Friction”
I’ve never turned down $42.5 million. I’ve never done it to make more money, I’ve never done it to make less. I’ve never convinced anyone else to knock a couple million dollars off their annual salary to work with me. I’ve never been the best in the world at something very difficult to be good at and still been counted a failure by plenty of people. Neither have you, probably.
What I have done, though, is move. If you’re in your late 20s, chances are you have as well and not just once, but multiple times. Maybe you moved to get away from the town you grew up in. Maybe you moved for a job or for love. Maybe you don’t know why you moved other than some blind impulse to get away. At the very least, you know people who moved to New York City or Los Angeles because they “had to give it a shot.”
Because of the vast sums of money involved, because of the unimaginable gulf in talent — even relatively speaking within your career — between yourself and him, because of all this, I think the only way to get some kind of hold on LeBron James is via the emotional core at the heart of leaving. This is, after all, the crossroads he finds himself at: remain in a situation that is all but ideal or go for a wholesale change because he can. It’s like Jerry Seinfeld interrupting Kenny Bania’s pontification over whether to come back to Mendy’s for another dinner: “This would be good, but it would be the same. But if we go some place else, it would be different, but it might not be as good. It’s a gamble. I get it.”
The only reason we’re even entertaining the idea that James would gamble in such a way is because he did it before. Any other player still in his prime with a track record of four Finals trips in as many years and two championships should be a lock to stay where he’s had that success. But we think of James differently, even if by far the most likely scenario is that he stays in Miami. We watched him break an entire city’s heart in the kind of clumsy way a teenager headed off to college breaks up with his high school sweetheart.
And this is the awkward humanity at the heart of James: while single-minded, near sociopathic competitors like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant grit their teeth and brush aside our humdrum notions of human limitation, James — from his nail-biting to his hairline to his cramps to his hubris to his occasionally egregious flopping — seems almost bent on putting the human back into superhuman. As his basketball skill has grown more and more icy, grown leaner and meaner, his fumbling vulnerability in the other avenues of life has made him peculiarly more endearing.
Well, not to everyone, I realize. But that’s exactly how the possibility of him leaving yet again for some kind of greener grass beside Carmelo Anthony or alongside young talent in Phoenix fits so well into his human story. To the person leaving the Midwest behind for the coast, it’s the chance to realize a dream, to shrug off the restrictions of a provincial sensibility. To some of his or her friends, it’s running away. Changing ZIP codes can be a way to shed what we wish weren’t true about ourselves but it’s debatable how much we can actually leave behind. What was that thing Fitzgerald said about no second acts?
But this is where any connection we can forge to the situation unravels because in Miami, James has more or less proven Fitzgerald wrong: You can have a second act, and succeed spectacularly at it, and do it all in public without disappearing at all. If Jay Gatsby (or Don Draper, for that matter) were reborn in modern America with its 24/7 news cycle and cult of reality, they might realize that the only way to remake yourself is publicly and flagrantly while everyone watches.
And that’s more or less what James has done, which is maybe what makes him the perfectly imperfect superstar for this time. Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction speech showed how tenaciously he’s clung to grudges and slights as fuel. Kobe Bryant just took some time out of his busy schedule to remind everyone that when he was drafted eighteen years ago he was traded from the Hornets to the Lakers because, according to him, the Hornets “had no use for [him].” Nevermind that the pick had been moved in advance of the draft and the Lakers told the Hornets to pick Bryant. Like Jordan, Kobe needs to believe everyone doubts him. It’s one way to nurture a career as a star athlete, for sure.
But James is a little more like the rest of us, a little more like Pedro Martinez, who flat out admitted the Yankees were his “daddies” in 2004 when he played for the Red Sox. It’s possible when James comes to the end of his career that we’ll start reverse engineering a sleeker, more streamlined version of his story, one where we remember The Decision as ill-advised but ultimately humbling, rather than as the uncomfortably flawed and human thing it was in the moment.
I want James to continue to believe in rebirth by relocation, maybe just because I do, because I want to hang on to the idea that a getaway can be a running toward something and not just away from something. Although he’s grown ever more savvy in his handling of his public image, the part I like best about James is his pulpy, misshapen heart. Whether he stays or goes this time, I hope he continues to listen to it.