I’m a Knicks fan. So I’m bummed about LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat (a team Knicks fans didn’t need any more reasons to dislike) and the two other top free agents. The reaction to LeBron’s decision, however, and particularly the way it was made and presented, has said a great deal more about sports media and fans it has about LeBron.
I’ve already read that the way the decision went down made being a sports fan feel stupid, showed LeBron James to be a selfish coward, and has Ohioans more likely to join the Tea Party. That even the way he decided, with various teams travelling to Ohio to make their pitch and then waiting for his word, has caused potentially irreparable damage to his brand. And we know that it caused a very rich man to write a letter in Comic Sans font.
But for writers and fans to complain about both LeBron’s decision and the manner in which it was made makes a complete hash of what we presumably believe as sports fans. And it directs anger at LeBron (not that he cares) for playing his part in a narrative we created for him.
The easy contradictions are about the basketball: We value team, but say it’s selfish for LeBron to want to join other elite players. We value championships, but demand that he win them the “right” way. We value selflessness, but have a conniption over a player taking less money to be on the team of his choice.
The more interesting contradiction is the media one. Somehow LeBron came to embody hubris in his free agent decision making process which, it’s worth noting, lasted all of eight days. He went from being a great teammate and the present and future of basketball to the embodiment of all-that-is-wrong. And it’s bunk. If LeBron did anything worth criticizing, it’s that he overly honored the story that we all spent the last several years writing him into. We created this narrative around him and then got angry when he tired of being just an actor in it, and became a producer as well.
LeBron’s impending free agency has been a front page NBA story for about the last three summers. Each July, the Knicks, and other teams, would tell their fans that, yeah, the team may stink this year, but wait until the summer of 2010 gets here! All those moves that make the team worse right now but free up funds for LeBron will finally pay off. Just wait and see!
Coming into this summer, six teams had a shot at signing him, and each had sold their fanbases on the idea that LeBron might be coming to their town. By meeting with all of the team, LeBron let each franchise feel like they had a shot. That the last couple of years of austerity weren’t a joke. And that’s selfish? LeBron was just providing additional chapters to the story that we were already demanding he tell. He took a meeting with the Clippers, the Michael Steele of the NBA, even. That smells more of benevolent patience than ego, to me.
And as to the selfishness of having the teams come to him, one after the other, to make their pitches? Imagine the response to the alternative. Would things have been better if LeBron spent a day in New York being feted by billionaires and celebrities, and then one in New Jersey with Jay-Z and the Nets’ Russian super-villain of an owner, and then taking South Beach, and then touring Chicago, and finally LA, with fans going crazy and throwing makeshift “We Love You” parades at each stop? What would Mitch Albom tell the children?
Not even his awkwardly produced “Decision” special said anything in particular about him. (Whether or not it said something about ESPN is a different matter.) After we demanded that he be the star in a reality show-type drama, how could anyone be upset that he decided to take some ownership over that process?
After the years of build up, and the expectations for sports salvation put on a 25 year old who hasn’t yet won anything, there was no way this story would end with anything but a backlash against LeBron. And, as is usually the case, the way we’ve backlashed says a great deal more about us than it does about him.