I really didn’t want to touch LeBron James or the NBA free agency circus again until it was over and it was possible to write about where the players had landed and how that might change the landscape of the league.
But the whole thing is so comically out of control at this point it can’t be ignored. The last week has been an embarrassment to just about everyone involved and it will reach a crescendo of Saturday Night Live parody tonight during the one hour “special,” which is apparently being called, “The Decision.”
When President Obama makes a decision on what to do next in Afghanistan that will be worthy of capital letters and an hour of TV time. This is a basketball player, one who has won zero championships up until this moment, finally getting around to telling people where he’s going to play basketball the next few years.
Please-PLEASE—do not tell me for one second that any of this is excusable because James and company are going to throw a few dollars at Boys and Girls Clubs. He can write that check any day he wants to and ask Nike to match it and not put everyone through this ridiculous sideshow tonight. One funny note: Apparently ESPN, embarrassed by the notion that the first half of the show would be some kind of tribute to LeBron, has insisted the announcement come in the first 10 minutes. I would love to see what happens to the ratings during those last 50 minutes. Do you think anyone other than people in the city James decides to anoint are going to want to stick around to hear Stuart Scott lob softballs at him?
“LeBron, my man, just how tough has the last month been for you and your family?”
Of course ESPN isn’t the only guilty party in all this by a long shot. James has always had the classic star athlete’s massive ego, that’s hardly a scoop or a surprise, especially given the way he’s been treated since high school. I still remember the first time I saw him in person. It was at one of those high school all-star camps in New Jersey and even then he had an entourage worthy of Andre Agassi at his best/worst. Even then ESPN was already trying to make him into a marketable, larger-than-life star, putting his high school games on TV to cash in a little bit on his teen-age mystique but also to align itself with him since he was probably going to be a big star in the NBA.
Which he has been. At his best, the guy is absolutely brilliant. But because of the over-marketing and hype of the 21st century he has been built into more than he is. Yesterday, Mike Gastineau, one of the smart guys in sportstalk radio started a question by saying to me, “If the city of Cleveland loses the greatest player of all time…”
“STOP!” I screamed. “STOP!”
“Okay,” Mike said, “maybe he’ll BECOME the greatest player of all-time.”
“STOP!” I screamed again.
You see I’m not prepared to declare James the greatest player in the game NOW. Until James starts winning championships, Kobe Bryant has that title. I’m not 100 percent sure that, when healthy, Dwyane Wade isn’t at least in the conversation for number two. That’s an argument for another day as is the fact that James isn’t close to Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson right now. Don’t talk to me about skills or dunks, talk to me about making plays that win big games. Big games, for the record, don’t take place in February. Hey, when it really matters, I’d take Walt Frazier or Jerry West over James in a heartbeat. Julius Erving wasn’t bad either.
Of course that may change. He may grow into a champion. Jordan didn’t win a title until his seventh season and ended up with six.
For now though the issue is what we’ve had to watch for the past week. Forget the now ONE MILLION times we have heard the words, “From what I’m hearing James is…” Heck, before this is over he may announce he’s going to play for Cleveland STATE. He’s got eligibility left.
Honestly, I do not care where he plays. Unless he goes to Miami, I don’t think any of the teams he might play for next year will be better than the Lakers or for that matter the Celtics (if healthy) or the Magic. If I’m wrong, fine, good for James and his teammates—although my sense is if and when a James-led team does win a title it will be all about LeBron. Apparently that’s his view of the world.
We’re all guilty. Someone asked the other day if I was so sick of the LeBron hype why did I keep writing about him? Because, sadly, it’s a story, just like the whole tawdry Tiger Woods affair (the whole thing not the individual affairs) is a story. I like to go off the beaten path as much as anyone and more than most. But when people are asking you about something on a minute-to-minute basis and you can’t escape it whenever you turn on TV, radio, the internet or pick up a newspaper, you sort of have to write and/or talk about it.
But let’s understand what the story is: It’s the story of an athlete who, even by today’s standards, is breaking through new barriers of narcissism, aided by his sycophants (ESPN included); the media, the public and an NBA system that has always been about stars not about teams for as long as David Stern has run the league.
There’s an old saying that the truly great players care first about the name on the front of their uniform not the one on the back. It may well be that James will turn out to be that way next season: Part of his deal may be to put, “LeBron,” on the front of his new uniform.