LeBron James: welcome to the Punk Hall of Fame
Let’s say you’re a guy and you’ve been involved with a woman. Long-term, committed, exclusive relationship. Several years together. You loved her dearly through the years and she’s simply gaga over you, for reasons none of your friends fully understand. But now, now you’ve realized that it isn’t going to work any longer. Maybe you have different priorities. Maybe you want kids and she doesn’t. Maybe the fire has died in the bedroom. Maybe you’ve grown apart and your life together just doesn’t satisfy you anymore.
Whatever the reason, you realize that the relationship has to end. For better or worse you have a right to be happy and she shouldn’t have to live with a guy who sees her as something he’s settling for. You have all kinds of misgivings, but you’ve thought about it long and hard and, while it’s going to hurt like hell, it’s the right thing to do.
Now you have to figure out the best way to break up. You know that face-to-face is what she deserves. But a telephone call would be easier on you, providing you with some distance from the pain. An e-mail would be easier still. And you know that sometimes kids even break up with a text message.
Finally, you figure out what to do. “Honey, flip on Lifetime at 9pm Eastern. I have something I want to tell you.” When she tunes in, you announce to her, and to an audience of millions, that you’re dumping her and marrying a sexy Cubana chick from South Florida.
That’s exactly what happened last night, folks. Metaphorically speaking.
I have no problems with LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, I’d probably have criticized him had he decided to stay. Pro sports is a business, and when you’re gifted with all-planet talent the likes of which nobody has ever seen before, you need to be in the game for one reason: to win. We see athletes all the time signing for the big dollars with teams that have zero chance of ever winning a damn thing (you know, like Joe Johnson just did), and when that happens there’s no reason for you or me or anyone else to ever take them seriously again. They passed up the chance to be a competitor and instead chose to be an entertainer, taking the man’s cash and putting on a show that most nights is the moral equivalent of the WWE. Sure, you’re playing, but you’re playing for eighth. You’re not even one of the top losers.
Good for you. Now, pass me the remote.
Let’s be clear: LeBron tried. He threw his heart and soul into trying to win a title for his hometown. Up until the Celtics series, anyway. By the end, he had proven conclusively that he couldn’t get the job done…by himself. While it’s not fair to characterize Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Delonte “New Daddy” West, a way-over-the-hill Shaq and Sideshow Andy Varejao as a second-rate pickup squad, it’s also unreasonable to look at the supporting cast that Cavs management provided Bron and conclude that he should have won with it. If he had, it would have been one of the most epic accomplishments in American professional sports history.
Lately the picture has gotten even bleaker. When you looked at where the franchise is talent-wise today, and where it seemed likely to be in the coming years, it was hard to see how things were going to get much better. With LeBron, the team is always going to be too good to land a top draft pick. It doesn’t have the chips you need to trade for that top-tier sidekick. And as this free agency period made brutally clear, ain’t nobody coming to Cleveland of their own free will. Not Amar’e. Not Boozer. Chris Bosh wasn’t going to Cleveland even if they guaranteed him $120M and threw in a pony. The sad truth is that Cleveland isn’t a destination. It’s the place you go when you don’t have options. I don’t say this to be mean. I have wonderful friends from that neck of the woods, and I know what it is myself to grow up in and love a place that’s not exactly everybody’s idea of a killer Plan A. Ain’t no free agents dying to go to Winston-Salem, NC, either.
So whatever we may say – and we’re going to have things to say, aren’t we? – let’s at least admit that this relationship didn’t fail because LeBron James didn’t try. He was in love. Madly in love. And he gave his heart unconditionally for almost seven years.
But. They say that crisis reveals character. When the end came, LeBron taught us a lot about the man he really is inside. You watched the man for seven years, watched his passion for the game and his obvious love of his community. You watched his ability to elevate his teammates, making them better than they’d ever be without him. And you’d have been justified in concluding, probably, that he’s a class act. Smart business guy, too. There’s a lot there to admire, as athletes go. He didn’t act like an entitled prima donna, at least not where the public could see it.
But when it came time to move on, he behaved not just in the worst way imaginable, he behaved in a way that was worse than you could have imagined. He didn’t break up face to face, like a man. He didn’t call her. He didn’t even opt for an e-mail or text message. No. He used his status and his leverage as The Chosen One® to dump her on television.
This would be indefensibly gutless and immature under any circumstances, but let’s remember that this particular girlfriend hasn’t exactly been lucky in love. Willie Mays broke her heart. John Elway used to take some kind of perverse glee in dragging her out in front of all her friends every year around the holidays and treating her like a public urinal. And what Art Modell did to her…well, it’s a good thing he got out of town where her brothers couldn’t get their hands on him, isn’t it?
A lot of people have a unkind words for LeBron James right about now. Drew Magary went nuclear on him at Deadspin the other day. Cleveland fans burned his laundry. And Cavs owner Dan Gilbert went positively Alanis Morissette. (If you haven’t seen this full statement yet, you owe it to yourself. It’s the damnedest flamethrower I’ve ever seen from a sports executive.)
I’m personally not going to get emotional about it, but I can’t really find much in Magary’s rant to quibble with. As for Gilbert, well, he had seven years to give Bron what he needed and for whatever reason he wasn’t able to get the job done. I understand that he’s mad and that he feels betrayed, but I also get that he’s a multi-millionaire who just lost more money than most of us will ever see. When all is said and done, much of the responsibility for James leaving lies with the failures of the owner and the people he put in charge of personnel and basketball operations. I’m sure Gilbert hopes that his unprecedented display of righteous outrage will cause everyone to lose sight of that fact.
In the final analysis, there are a couple of things I’ll remember about what we saw on ESPN last night. First, it was arguably the most despicable public relations gaffe we’ve ever seen from an athlete. We don’t need to wait until his playing days are over. LeBron James goes into the Punk Hall of Fame today.
Second, I can’t help feeling heartbroken for the jilted girlfriend. I imagine a woman, sitting on a slightly worn couch in a living room that could use a fresh a coat of paint. She’s not the prettiest girl in the world and she doesn’t live in a sexy neighborhood like South Beach. But she has a great heart and she damned sure deserves better than she’s gotten from the men in her life. She’s staring at the TV set, shellshocked, sobbing uncontrollably as the man she’s given everything to matter-of-factly explains to the world why another woman is better for him than she is.
She can’t help wondering – didn’t I at least deserve a phone call?