Fred McKissack Jr.
LeBron James’ pronouncement that he and his court would make a grand egress from chilly Cleveland to muy caliente Miami left me laughing.
I laughed at James himself, at ESPN and at the Cavaliers’ owner, Dan Gilbert. I could sympathize with the fans’ disgust, particularly kids, who, despite themselves, hero worship with abandon.
James, using the third-person pronoun to refer to himself in this most self-indulgent show, did not do himself any favors.
And ESPN is as guilty as James. It endlessly hyped the LeBron James free-agency affair, with “summits” between players, scenes of owners, general managers, and coaches arriving to, and departing from, the James compound, and investigative journalists parsing sentences and reading body language. ESPN has long had an incestuous commercial relationship with athletes, and turned the entire James affair into the sports equivalent of a G-20 meeting.
Fans are fans, with feelings quickly moving from strawberries and cream to acid reflux at the stroke of a pen. Think Green Bay Packer fans and Brett Favre, or Red Sox Nation fans and Manny Ramirez. Some fans burn cars in celebration and jerseys in disgust.
However, owners ought to know better than to cross the line into frenzied fandom, where common sense and manners fall by the wayside.
David Stern is the smartest commissioner in all of sports, and he proved it by again slapping a considerable fine on Gilbert for publicly attacking James like a teen dissolving into extreme public petulance.
“This shocking act of disloyalty from our homegrown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn,” Gilbert wrote after James’ decision.
It was truculent and sanctimonious language like this, rhetoric that moved Jesse Jackson to shift the debate away from the grammar of free agency and toward master-and-slave, that reminded me of the cultural critic John Leonard and what he called his “Freudian-dysfunctional” parting as the New York Times’ book critic.
“Finally, they screamed at me: ‘We made you! You’d be nothing without the Times!’” Leonard wrote in an essay. “This surprised. It had never before occurred to me that they’d published what I wrote, two or three times a week, out of the kindness of their hearts — that we hadn’t been somehow even every day.”
For the Cavs and the city of Cleveland, James more than delivered his share of the bargain, day in and day out. Sadly and tellingly, no one was coming to join James in Cleveland, even though the team had won 61 games in the 2009-10 season, 66 the year before, and made it to the NBA finals in 2007.
So he took the show to Miami with the hope of winning rings, which, we are told is the true measure of a player’s worth.
The beatification of James started when he was a super prep in Akron, and his drafting by the Cavs was divine intervention. Here was Prometheus scoring 27 points a game and raising Cleveland’s sagging image. It’s no wonder that as James looked toward Miami on July 8, Gilbert turned inward and his rage was digitized and sent forth in a missive designed to tear down what he believed he built up.
However, James should never have been given, much less accepted, the savior status. Saving a city is not up to an athlete, no matter how talented. Nor is it up to an owner. Rather it is the work of the citizen.
Cleveland didn’t own James. And James didn’t owe Cleveland.
John Leonard posited the theory that his bosses at the New York Times viewed themselves as his fathers. And few things in life are more painful in fact or fiction than a child’s betrayal of a father. Fans are willing participants in this disturbing fantasy of family, although they hold no rights beyond the ability to walk away.
Maybe it’s time for everyone to grow up.
Fred McKissack is a former Progressive magazine editor and editorial writer who lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you liked this article by Fred McKissack, check out his piece "Sarah Palin’s defense of Rand Paul is indefensible."