Cleveland Fumes Over LeBron's Process, Not His Decision
First, Clevelanders understood better than anyone that James had the right to change teams. They know it's a free country and he was a free agent. They really and truly know what "free" means -- probably better than anyone. Because every day of the last three years they've lived with the notion.
Heck, Cleveland has seen enough people leave, period, to understand that folks don't always stay in town. They get it.
So to quantify their anger the past few days at James' decision to go to Miami is to misplace it. Cleveland was disappointed James left; they were furious with the way he did it. Had he stayed, they'd have taken him back -- he's a rare basketball player, a once-in-a-lifetime talent -- but his stature still would have taken a hit because they wouldn't have appreciated how he went about his "business."
Cleveland would not, though, have welcomed him back the same way Miami welcomed him, with that rock-star, ego-feeding frenzy at American Airlines Arena. Barack Obama was sheepish when he won the Nobel Peace Prize; James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade acted as if the Hall of Fame had just been dedicated to them when all they did was agree to contracts that paid them enough money to feed thousands of hungry kids.
If memory serves correct, when Boston traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join Paul Pierce (note the word "traded"), the three held a quiet, upbeat news conference. They stated their excitement about playing together but never once claimed they'd win six championships (a la James) or touted themselves as arguably the best three players ever on one team (a la Wade, with a casual ignorance to the great Celtics and Lakers and Bulls teams of the past).
James called the free agent process humbling in his TV show. His behavior before and at that arena make that statement laughable. Just like it's laughable for anyone to criticize Cleveland fans, to tell them to "get over it" because "players move on."
They sure don't move on the way James moved on. Reigning two-time MVPs don't leave their team, their hometown, to form a superteam with their buds. They don't do it on a live TV show with all the emotion of a rutabaga. They don't tout their talents and talk in the third person while their former town, their hometown, bleeds.
None of the true winners in NBA history, guys like Magic Johnson and Bill Russell and Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, did what James did, and that's up and leave for another team, join forces with other players. Bryant was tempted; he stayed and won. Tim Duncan considered the option; he stayed and won. James left, a very rare occurrence for a player of his stature, celebrity and ability.
To say Cleveland should not hurt is to say it should not care. Cavs fans did care. They cared about James for each of his seven years, giving him unprecedented adoration and support (clearly a mistake). Only when he let them down -- and make no mistake, he did let them down in Game 5 against Boston -- did they wonder about James, his motivation and his desires.
In hindsight, they wonder a lot. They wonder how he decided to announce he would honor Michael Jordan by giving up the number '23' this season, then joining the only team in the league other than Chicago that had retired '23.' They wonder how James and Wade and Bosh had talked for years about joining forces on the same team. How the three met in Akron a couple of weeks prior to the start of free agency and talked about where they could be together. How James met with Pat Riley of the Heat in November. How Bosh said at that rally in Miami that the two had talked for "months" about playing together, then quickly corrected it to say days.
NBA commissioner David Stern fined Steve Kerr (then of Phoenix) for making a joke about James prior to the start of free agency. Yet three players appear to have manipulated an entire league. Turning a blind eye to what the players did would be an insult to every fan in Cleveland who paid for a ticket the last seven years. Is it difficult to prove wrongdoing? Of course. Worth investigating? Absolutely, whether a team complains or not. If the league doesn't look into what happened, its anyone's guess the next team and city to be buried because of some prearranged deal between players.
Too, Stern has acted in the past. Years ago Juwan Howard signed a free agent contract with the Heat when they had a young Alonzo Mourning. Howard and Miami (including Pat Riley) celebrated. Stern investigated, found tampering, and sent Howard back to Washington.
This does not make the letter written by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert perfect. It was over the top in some ways. But ... it also was honest, and knowing a fraction of what happened does explain Gilbert's anger and raw emotions. Too, Gilbert voiced the feelings and frustrations of almost every Cavaliers fan. That he's admired by those fans doesn't make the vitriol OK, but it also doesn't make it a "slave" relationship, as Jesse Jackson described.
Slaves don't make the millions James did, in Cleveland, for a good team. James is a high-paid athlete who, as Jackson properly said, lived up to his contract, then left. He's not a slave, and never was.
Too, those who say Gilbert tried to sign the same guy he ripped ... well ... no kidding. He's going to let a talent as rare as James leave because he's upset with some of the things he did? Yes, Gilbert helped enable James in his seven years in Cleveland. But to turn away from that talent, a guy who grew up in Akron, would have brought Gilbert more ridicule and scorn than James is getting now.
One point Gilbert made was absolutely right on: Nobody would want their kids to act the way James acted in the process. His behavior and actions ranged from spoiled to selfish to entitled to downright sickening, and it's hard to see Stern or any NBA owner appreciating any part of the process that took place.
But let's not kid ourselves and pretend it endangered James or his family. It didn't. Cleveland fans were upset, angry, frustrated and disappointed. They felt, and feel, betrayed and misled. But they did not riot, did not threaten anyone's home, did not cause any civil unrest. They were just angry, hurt and disillusioned by someone they thought they could believe in.
To expect fans not to be angry is to expect them not to care, and players can't have it both ways -- praise the adulation and expect a shrug if he does something that disappoints or leaves. Fans get mad at trades too, as any owner can attest. By not communicating with his team -- something super-agent David Falk said should have happened two weeks into free agency -- James cost a coach and GM their jobs, cost a city a huge hit economically, cost a fan base the heart of their team. Had the Cavs known earlier, they could have acted in free agency. Instead, they waited for a hope that never truly existed. Had James stayed in Cleveland, Miami would have gritted its teeth and said, "Darn." It would not have lost anything. Cleveland lost in huge ways.
Also, it's time to simply stop the claim that the Cavs were not good enough to keep James. This apparent team of a superstar and a bunch of CBA rejects won more games than any team in the league for two seasons in a row. It was not LeBron and the Washington Generals. It was a good team that simply was either not good enough to win in the playoffs, or had a star not good enough to carry it in the playoffs.
It's also past time to put to rest the notion that James somehow "sacrificed" by going to Miami. That's the way his signing has been portrayed, because he didn't get the maximum contract. Any individual who signs a contract worth $1 million, let alone $100 million, has done no sacrifice whatsoever. To equate the two while unemployment benefits run out for the jobless borders on the absurd.
James made another curious statement when he saw the burning '23' jersey on live TV. If I were traded, he said, my family and I would not burn down the organization. Well, no kidding. Nobody burned down LeBron James, his home or his life. They burned some of his stuff, but not him. It's also not unreasonable to think that if he were traded against his will he might have been angry enough to tear up some of his memories, some pictures, some cards.
People in Cleveland believed James when he said he was loyal. They believed him when he said he was about team. They found out he's like the other athletes who want the fame, the money, the endorsements, the global icon status. But they want them on their terms and they don't want anger or frustration when they disappoint people. It doesn't work that way. Yes, James is 25 and should not be expected to be perfect. But in the end we are all responsible for our actions.
Clevelanders have even dug out reasons for their anger. An ESPN: The Magazine story a couple years ago quoted James saying he'd never go chasing rings. A YouTube video at an Obama rally in Cleveland had him ending it by saying he loved Cleveland and he wasn't going anywhere. He told Larry King his hometown had an edge, then cloistered himself with his advisers and left Cleveland feeling totally and completely duped and leaving the NBA with a mess of a two weeks to address.
James said the morning after the decision that leaving Cleveland was like breaking up with a first girlfriend. Something silly like that. Except for Cleveland and the fans it was a marriage. And when one person walks out of a marriage against the other's wishes, the ending is messy, painful and it lingers.
It lingers for a long, long time.