On one hand, I can understand completely why there are neutral observers, without allegiances to Cleveland or Miami or Phoenix or Dallas or anywhere else, who want to see LeBron James return to the Cavaliers and rescue his former franchise after four years away. It’s a tidy narrative, with bookends made of MVP trophies. James starts out in Ohio as the game’s most promising youngster; he finishes there as its most celebrated champion. Who, besides the fans of rival teams obviously, can’t get behind that?
On the other hand? The pro-Cleveland contingent is missing something. In focusing too much on narrative, these fans overlook humanity. They ignore the very real possibility that there’s still an interpersonal barrier between LeBron and the Cavaliers that can’t be overcome.
Yeah, I’m talking about Dan Gilbert’s letter. And yeah, I’m serious.
I get that now, after we’ve been given four years to process the craziness that went down in July 2010 and the Comic Sans-laden missive that followed, we look back on Gilbert as more or less the punchline of the whole deal. Gilbert had an all-time great player, he lost him and he pouted about it – that makes for no shortage of easy jokes. And especially given the unprofessional tone of the whole thing, the outlandish championship prediction and, again, the Comic Sans, the jokes certainly were easy.
But to discuss Gilbert’s letter only mockingly – in other words, only through the lens of a sports fan tossing out sports takes – is to miss the point, at least partially. Gilbert’s words were about more than just competitiveness over basketball. They cut deep into who James is as a person. When you come out and label someone as “selfish,” “narcissistic” and “cowardly,” you’re crossing a line. It’s not easy – if even at all possible – to cross back.
While none of us is LeBron James and we can’t know exactly how he feels, we’ve all been through some kind of breakup at some point in our lives, whether with a lover or a boss or anyone else we once kept close. We know that when frustration mounts, we sometimes resort to hurling insults we don’t really mean.
This is human nature and it happens – but where Gilbert went too far was in making his words public. We’ve probably all had nasty fights between closed doors, but at least to the outside world, we try to maintain a facade of decency. You lose the girlfriend, but you write a nice note on Facebook about how the breakup was mutual and you wish each other the best. You lose the job, but the boss sends you a courteous memo offering you a recommendation for the next one. Even if there’s bad blood, you try to keep it veiled.
Gilbert didn’t follow this protocol. Instead, he made a crucial faux pas, and he may never finish paying the consequences.
Call me crazy, but I think the letter still matters. I think that as much as we view LeBron James as a superhero, he’s actually a real human with feelings. And while being criticized, especially for selfishness, is something that any NBA star has to deal with 10 times before breakfast each morning, it’s different when it comes from a guy you worked with for seven years. How can it not be?
Numerous credible reporters have written that James has gone to great lengths to relay his forgiveness to Gilbert after the Comic Sans fiasco. After four years, this makes sense. But even if things are now better, are they really? You might make up with your ex after all that bitter fighting, but does that mean you want to marry her tomorrow?
Again, I don’t know LeBron. I’ve spoken to the man precisely once, and he surely forgot I existed seconds later. So I can’t tell for sure how his mind works, what criteria he’s currently weighing. But I know he’s a rational person above all else – remember, the line repeated all postseason long about James is he always knows to make the right play – and I know that on a human level, playing for Dan Gilbert isn’t right.
LeBron, to put it bluntly, has the NBA by the balls this summer. There are 30 teams in the league, and he can pull enough strings to land on any one of them if he so desires. How can he overlook the fact that 29 of them didn’t viciously rip him with a personal attack from the top of the corporate ladder?
Gilbert famously wrote in that July 2010 letter that “Some people think they should go to heaven but not have to die to get there.” There’s a corollary to that statement that’s equally important – just because you’ve died, that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to anything. The Cavaliers may have been through hell these last four years without LeBron James, but James doesn’t owe them a one-way ticket out.