LeBron James doesn’t owe anyone anything

Jun 11, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James speaks to the media prior to practice before game four of the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know LeBron James. We have a few things in common–we both graduated high school in 2003, we’re both from Northeastern Ohio, we both left Northeastern Ohio for employment prospects, and we both hang out with people who went to my high school–but I can’t pretend to know anything about this man’s inclinations, preferences, priorities, or goals in life.

There are two things I do know, though:

1) LeBron James doesn’t owe anyone anything.

2) LeBron James should be self-aware enough to not be a jerk to thousands of people.

Self-awareness plays a big role in the LeBron James Free Agency saga that we’re all so anxiously watching. With all that James has been through personally and professionally in his 29 years of life, it’s likely that he has developed–and continues to develop–a keen sense of self-awareness. For myself–also 29 years old–I feel that I’m more self-aware and less of a jerk than I was at age 25, and age 21, and age 17, and so on.

What happened in 2010–The Decision–was a jerk move. The actual departure wasn’t a jerk move, per se, but the spectacle around it certainly was.1 But at the time, he didn’t realize it was a jerk move because he lacked self-awareness. He was 25, approaching his prime, unparalleled in talent, expanding his global reach, generally a pretty stand-up guy vis-a-vis community outreach and such, but he was in this bubble of affirmation because of all the good things around him.

Then, as it is now, James was 100% within his personal and professional rights to choose which team to play for and how that decision would play out. He was allowed to take as long as he wanted–and still can–to think about his options, and he’d only have to pick a team and a deal within the confines of the rules of the NBA CBA.

Then, as it is now, no one should or could begrudge James for exercising those rights. But then, as it does now, the way in which he’s exercising those rights treads on a precarious line. Last time, it was the in-your-face-ness of it all; this time, it’s the deafening silence. Both times, he did not choose to stave off the impact of either approach. He didn’t need to do so, but there was–and has been–ample opportunity to do so.

After he uttered those infamous words in 2010, when he let the world know he was taking his talents to South Beach and away from Lake Erie, Cavaliers fans felt flummoxed. The wind was knocked out of them, and they couldn’t believe that a man would go out of their way to make a fool of them like that. One little problem: it was pretty evident from the rest of the television special that he had no idea that would happen.

When the feeds in the ESPN studio showed him live footage of his name dancing in fire as irate fans set his jersey ablaze, it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that he was fucking shocked. The confusion, anger, and sadness that came across his face quickly wiped away the elation he had from being able to talk about this decision that had likely weighed on him for some time.2

This, after all, was a personal decision. All anyone ever talked about in the news was what James would do and what James’s place in history was. The other people–the fans–weren’t part of this mental calculus. When you’re the best basketball player in the world, the fans are going to be there. But when he saw those jerseys burn, it appeared as though he had no idea people could be emotional like that. And it was at that moment where the bubble–his cloud of affirmation–burst.  He was instantly and forever aware of the outside world.

There was a period of time in the Big Three Heat’s first season where he embraced the villain role that so many thrust upon him, but from an outside perspective, it didn’t suit him. After all, he’s not a bad person, and he doesn’t want to be a bad person. And you could see that in the second year, when he came back and played a start-to-finish MVP season that left no one wondering about his mentality or character.

Again, I can’t speak for him, but I can speak for myself as a 29-year old who’s more self-aware than he was at 25. It’s likely that James wants to do what’s right by him, what’s right by his career, what’s right by his family, what’s right by his friends, and he wants to hurt as few people as possible in the wake. There’s no “right” answer to his choice here. People are going to be pissed one way or another, because sports are inherently emotional for fans and we take them so personally–for better and for worse. But James is prepared for those negative reactions this time, no matter what he does. He knows there will be people who hate him and who love him, and it doesn’t really matter as long he can manage the co-existence of that outside world and his inner circle and as long as he knows he’s not being a jerk.

Basketball reasons aside, there are well-founded arguments about why it doesn’t make sense for James to return to Cleveland. A hyperbolic fanbase and an owner whose fanbase-directed-worldwide-consumed post-Decision letter was petulant at best and unconsciously-plantation-mentality-driven at worst are two strong arguments as to why he shouldn’t. But James isn’t a jerk. And I don’t think–even to get back and Dan Gilbert and the jersey burning hyper-emotional fans–he would troll the entirety of the basketball-watching world like this.

In 2010, there was an opportunity for him to exercise his rights and make his decision, while doing so in a way that would satisfy what he wanted while minimizing the outside toll. This time around, a similar opportunity exists for James to exercise his rights, make his decision, and minimize the impact to others.

So let’s make a pact, LeBron: Take your time and make your personal decision, and please don’t drag it out any longer than you have to. And we–me and everyone watching–we’ll try not to be jerks, too, when you make your choice. At the end of the day, all anyone can ask is that we all have enough self-awareness for that.

1 One could argue that the leaving itself was a jerk move since he said he wouldn’t leave to chase rings, but people change their minds, and whatever. It’s moot.

2 Conspiracy theorists will be quick to reference the premeditated plan of James, Wade, and Bosh to join forces after playing together in the 2008 Olympics. Even if that was the case, it’s a lot easier to say “that’s the plan” than to be the one who has to actualize the plan, leave a team that was ridiculously successful (minus championships), and venture into the unknown.

Amin Vafa

Amin grew up in Cleveland, lives in DC, and somehow still manages to love watching professional basketball.