It came through like a jolt, a link to Lee Jenkins’s SI story and a question, “Is this real?” I clicked and was stupefied and couldn’t process what I was seeing. Was this a real story? Was it speculation, a mockup? I validated via Twitter. It was real. It is!
For the past week, like most people who follow the basketball world, I was in the grips of this seemingly endless riddle: Where will LeBron go? Over the past week, more words have been written about LeBron than appear in the bible. More time and tweets have been dedicated to him than to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We swarmed to the story in desperation. People coped by making jokes, by lashing out, assigning blame, passing judgments, using pragmatism, creating decision trees, and reading tea leaves. It wasn’t madness, it wasn’t Sparta (!!!). It was NBA free agency driven by Hollywood-like subplots, context, and history.
It was an event with a main character so much larger than life as to be barely recognizable at times. There were supporting roles, villains based on perspective, redemption songs, bit parts, and dizzying plot twists and turns.
Collectively, the basketball world sat softly in the palm of LeBron’s Globally Iconish hands. Sometimes when I play with my pug, I’ll fake throw his squeaky ducky. He turns around, convinced I’ve thrown it and stands there waiting for ducky to inevitably come soaring past his head and little walnut-sized brain. This was us. Someone said there would be an announcement and we spun around watching the clock, waiting with eyes fixed, thinking no one had anything to gain by psyching us out. Only it wasn’t LeBron, it was the media and sources in a crush to feed our insatiable needs. Gullible right up to the end, I had friends tweeting me more information that turned out to be untrue on Friday, just a couple hours before the real announcement broke.
Our cacophonous obsession reached a pitch on Thursday that I found myself questioning how all of us could sweep aside our daily responsibilities so easily in exchange for tasteless nuggets of misinformation. Twitter, email, text messages, water cooler conversation – the topic was pervasive in a way that gripped like the OJ chase or the hunt for the Boston bombers, but thankfully without any of the accompanying tragedy. Experts in a variety of fields could easily write masterful theses on the massive shadow LeBron James’s free agency cast over us – from the economic impact to a marketplace (both the NBA free agent market and the Cleveland/Miami markets) to the technological impact of monetizing web traffic to the significance of his free agency on media and sourcing to the hypnotic deliriousness with which millions of fans followed the story. It was frightening how easily we became addicted despite our own objections.
For it all to end (assuming it’s over) with a (mostly) happy story is unexpected and leaves me feeling both genuinely positive and cautiously skeptical. There is a flawlessness to the execution of the SI story, of LeBron’s words, that gives off the appearance of a masterful architect at work. That no sieves existed in the James camp or among the SI staffers reveals an operation executed with an air tight precision that would receive the approval of La Cosa Nostra. Perhaps every word in James’s essay is heartfelt and meaningful and maybe Dan Gilbert’s comments in Adrian Wojnarowski’s story would pass any lie detector test. Perhaps all of it is true. And if that’s the case, we’ve been witness to the capitalization of this infinitely plausible moment by LeBron James.
The story as told is mostly impenetrable by criticism. It feels good, it feels right. There is growth and reconciliation, a homecoming with which so many of us can relate and it’s brilliantly wrapped in a beautiful wine and gold bow, so patiently and deliberately cinched by James with the guidance of agent Rich Paul and Maverick Carter. The cover photo of James looking mature with a calming, close-mouthed smile; his conservative black shirt, black tie with black suit ensemble contrasting the thistle-colored gingham shirt with rolled up sleeves he wore during The Decision, and that rock-like NBA championship ring reminding everyone from Miami to Cleveland that he is a titlist and carries around with him the aspirations of a champion. There is the “I’m Coming Home” title, tastefully stretched across the picture and heartwarming in its own way. I can’t lie, for a while during this process I experienced sympathy for James based on the notion that he likely wanted to return to Cleveland, but that the cuts from Gilbert’s letter were too deep. That simple phrase, “I’m Coming Home,” revealed a healing and letting go.
Like the rest of this James free agency, the SI cover image and presentation are nothing if not controlled. For a man whose decisions have been so microscopically dissected, both on and off the basketball court, this latest choice was delivered so pragmatically as to appear to be premeditated. While my inclination towards skepticism is present, it’s clear that LeBron’s letter can be completely genuine and his team may have crafted the entire process. In which case, LeBron would be revealed as the full human being he is; capable of both great feeling and selfish motivation, able to breathe life into an entire region and simultaneously destroy the hopes for another (Heat) nation.
I walk away from this experience semi-exhausted. I’m thrilled it’s finally over, but already miss the insanity that accompanied it. As much as it’s over, for Cleveland and the rest of the NBA’s previously-frozen free agent class of 2014, it’s just beginning … now that LeBron has allowed it to.