Saturday, July 10, 2010

A few words (or maybe more) about LeBron

In the days and hours preceding The Desaster, a common refrain emerged in response to widespread criticism of one of the most shameful media events of our time.

"If you don't like it, don't watch it."

That simple phrase -- a less profane version of the message a certain fallen starlet painted above the cuticle on her middle finger -- ignores the extent to which human nature factors into matters of this nature.

We had to watch it, whether we liked it or not. It was a car accident. A train wreck. A solar eclipse. A long, tall glass of funky, cold Medusa.

Since I gave in to the overwhelming desire to watch, I've been unable to shake an overwhelming desire to write about that which I saw, if only to make sense of an event that will leave us all feeling differently about professional sports from this point forward.

So even though this isn't about professional football, if affects every American spectator sport in ways that won't become apparent for a while, possibly for years. For those of you who simply have no interest in the topic (or who have read plenty of takes from folks more qualified to talk about the subject than me), keep scrolling. I've placed my specific observations after the jump.

1. Water skiing in a leather jacket.

At the PFT Twitter page on Thursday, I asked whether LeBron James, ESPN, or both would be mimicking Arthur Fonzarelli's shark-infested homage to Evel Knievel.

ESPN arguably lost its credibility years ago, when the firewall between the gathering of news and the generation of revenue exploded like a firecracker. But James lost something on Thursday night. He no longer seems special or different. Both with his Decision and, more importantly, the manner in which he went about communicating it, LeBron has surrendered part of what made him unique in American sports.

Regardless of how many championships LeBron wins with the Heat, he'll likely never recover that.

2. The revenge of Pete Rose.

Even before Darren Rovell of CNBC reported that Jim Gray was paid not by ESPN but by LeBron's camp to serve Seacrest-style softballs to the King, Gray's performance was memorable because it was so damn horrendous.

We don't need fancy words or metaphors to prove our point. As Andy Bernard, Food Critic, would say, "This muffin . . . tastes bad."

And Gray was the same guy who once sunk his teeth into Pete Rose's ass on national television like the prized pooch of the Bad Newz Kennels. On Thursday night, Gray sold out his tenacity to sell Slap Chops, repeatedly beating around the bush so badly we expected him to start asking LeBron to eliminate teams one at a time, with the choice between the final two coming "after the break."

Though the casual observer likely won't comprehend (or care about) the serious ethical questions raised by the fact that Gray was paid not by ESPN but by LeBron, it's the kind of thing that will stick to both reporter and network like a tattoo of Chris Johnson's face.

3. LeBron can never return to Ohio.

When Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, Modell knew he could never return to Cleveland. Since he didn't play for or coach the team, the situation merely created a minor annual inconvenience.

LeBron won't have that luxury. He has to come back to Cleveland for basketball games (the first one possibly coming on Christmas Day), where he'll face the kind of abuse no pro athlete ever has encountered.

If he'd merely left without fanfare or if he'd shed a tear or two for his hometown while tearing out its heart and soul, things may have been different. But he strung this out for the glorification of his massive ego, giving folks in Cleveland false hope until announcing the breakup on the set of Jerry Springer.

No matter how long he plays basketball and no matter how much money he pumps back into the community in an effort to make amends, he's done in Ohio. The harder he tries to make things right, the more the locals will resist.

4. The Lord of the Flies factor.

LeBron always has looked much older than he is. But his public appearance and demeanor suggests a level of wisdom that can't be obtained with a decade of widespread worship and no years of college.

He's still an overgrown kid, with limited life experiences and little or no real-world savvy. And he has surrounded himself with friends who likewise have lived sheltered lives, never having to learn hard lessons when constantly able to get out of jams by playing the LeBron card.

The end result? A bunch of kids pretending to be grown ups. Though LeBron and his trio of childhood friends wisely opted not to use LeBron's money for fighting dogs, LeBron is no different than any other high-profile athlete who lacks the capacity to trust non-athletes he didn't know before he was a star, and who instead relies blindly on the advice of others who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

But, hey, it works on Entourage.

5. Who's on third?

With LeBron invading Dwayne Wade's championship turf in South Florida, the situation instantly became the basketball equivalent of Alex Rodriguez joining Derek Jeter's Yankees.

And so we asked on Twitter moments after the last seal was removed from the scroll, "[W]ill LeBron play shortstop or third base?"

Miami is Wade's world. LeBron is horning in on the party. Though both may be sufficiently mature to handle the fact that the rules don't contemplate a flippers-and-plunger multiball feature, every team has a pecking order.

In New York, Rodriguez yielded to Jeter, moving to third base. In Miami, will LeBron stand down and let Wade lead the team?

More importantly, will the fans and the media let LeBron be anything other than the focal point of the franchise, just as he was in Cleveland?

6. Stephen A. Smith nailed this one.

We don't really care much for Stephen A. Smith's style, or his general lack of substance. Most of you agree; otherwise, he'd still be at ESPN.

But he absolutely nailed it on this one, days before anyone had connected the dots. Wade, LeBron, and Chris Bosh, all in Miami.

So Smith really was right. And he's not getting nearly enough credit for it from the rest of the media.

7. Maybe Randy Lerner will sell to Dan Gilbert.

The biggest surprise of Thursday night came not from LeBron but from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who unloaded on LeBron via an open letter posted on in a font that we previously had determined to be the only real victim of the Y2K bug.

Richard Deitsch of expressed on Twitter an interest in seeing the first draft of Gilbert's gripe. Frankly, we think the first draft was the only draft.

The rhetoric potentially allows James to recapture the low shoulder of the high road, but it will serve to galvanize Clevelanders who desperately need someone, anyone to stand up for them and fight. And we admire Gilbert for blowing a gasket and taking two T's in the hopes of getting others in Cleveland to be as passionate as he is about building a winner in LeBron's wake.

For that reason alone, we'd love to see Gilbert get his hands on the Browns.

8. The wisdom of "The Warriors."

More than 30 years ago, I saw The Warriors at the local drive-in theater. (The one, that is, that wasn't showing "The Whorriors.") The movie was rated R, I was only 14, and so it was the greatest moment of my life.

Only seven years later, I saw The Warriors again, this time on videotape. And it sucked.

Apparently, LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Wade decided to find their way onto the same NBA team based upon their magical experiences in the Beijing Olympics, which culminated in a gold medal for the U.S. team. And while they may not conclude that their time together in the 82-game U.S. grind sucks like The Warriors, they'll quickly realize that the experiences from two weeks together in 2008 don't translate to six months or more per year of euphoria.

But LeBron's decision to latch onto two of the only guys he ever has bonded with beyond the borders of Ohio makes sense. It gets back to the fact that, while the birth certificate says he's 25 and the mirror suggests he's much older than that, LeBron still has a lot to learn.

And one thing he'll learn within the next year or so is that his time on the Olympic team wasn't necessarily special because he was playing with Bosh and Wade.

9. The return of the villains.

No story commands serious attention absent a credible villain. And the NBA really hasn't had a good villain since the Pistons of the late '80s and early '90s.

Now, the villains return. The Heat instantly become the most hated team in the league, with anyone not already a fan of the franchise inclined to hope it fails.

And that's the most tangible thing LeBron has lost. Previously, King James had been the rare figure for whom we all rooted so that we collectively could witness something historical. Now, with a similar outcome but an entirely different method, James will be regarded as Tiger Woods -- someone to collectively root against.

10. In the end, the NBA wins.

Despite the shameful me-first frenzy that characterized the NBA's free-agency period, the unprecedented interest in the second-tier sports league lays the foundation for a compelling 2010-11 season.

Come 2011-12, basketball could have the pro sports palette primarily to itself, if the NFL shuts down next year.

Though the NBA needs to work through its own labor issues before it can fill the potential vacuum the NFL may create, the league and its players would be wise to recognize the birth of a new golden age that will spawn a large golden goose, just as the folks who run pro football risk throttling theirs.

But what the hell do I know about any of this? When I was five, my dad told me that watching anything more than the last four minutes of a basketball game is a waste of time. It's advice I've followed for nearly 40 years.

Last night, he would have said the same thing about the last 50 minutes of The Desaster. And the first 10.

Still, we had to watch.

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