Tuesday, December 21, 2010

LeBron’s decisive backlash topped all stories

The Decision.

The mere term now inspires deep passions – of hubris and hope, of decadence and disloyalty. The event – LeBron James making his free agency choice on a self-produced, hour-long, nationally televised live infomercial – was unnecessary, gratuitous and, ultimately, disastrous.

James chose the Miami Heat over his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and while fans long ago got used to players jumping to perceived greener (or sunnier) pastures, never before had they seen this.

It wasn’t what LeBron James did, but how he did it.

It was enough of a confluence of modern stardom, media and manufactured drama that it was the runaway choice for Yahoo! Sports’ 2010 story of the year.

This is despite it not producing a single point, victory or championship (at least not yet). This is despite it competing with the New Orleans Saints and the Butler Bulldogs and Kobe Bryant and Cam Newton and Phil Mickelson at the Masters and Jimmie Johnson at Homestead and Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in the playoffs and Tiger Woods’ winless year and a couple of small events known as the Winter Olympics and World Cup.

Yes, those were more about sports in the traditional sense. In a new-age way, The Decision may tell us more. Put it this way: You didn’t click on this story because you didn’t care.

James had played up his pending July 1, 2010 free agency for years. He teased NBA franchises across the league with the possibility he might bolt Cleveland after seven seasons without a title.

He flirted with the fans at Madison Square Garden. He batted his eyelashes at the Bulls and Clippers. And through it all he made people back in Northeast Ohio think he’d never leave them.

He was going to, of course. He and Heat star Dwyane Wade had discussed playing together since they teamed up on the 2008 Olympic team, and now was the time to make it happen.

LeBron’s reason for leaving could’ve been easily spun. He wanted to win. He was willing to share the spotlight. It wasn’t just a money grab.

Instead, The Decision overwhelmed the decision. An out-of-touch Hollywood agency and LeBron’s marketing team, made up of his unseasoned high school friends, hatched a one-hour special designed to deify the King. Jim Gray hosted it. ESPN broadcasted it. LeBron starred in it.

And America darn near vomited because of it.

The signature quote – “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” – became a punch line. The show was parodied everywhere. LeBron saw his jersey burned, his fans denounce him and, one night in early December, a city come unglued booing his return.

In a swift 60 minutes, LeBron James went from popular star to a mocked caricature of modern superstardom. He’d later complain in a Nike commercial about being “the villain,” and he wasn’t wrong.

A guy who always coveted positive attention, who through his career had made nary a public misstep – no arrests, no scandals, little controversy – was suddenly public enemy No. 1.

The Decision became a pop-culture moment that no one could’ve envisioned, and James continues to come to grips with the fallout.

In basketball terms, the teaming of James, Wade and sidekick Chris Bosh has reinvigorated the NBA. The Heat are a traveling rock band, their games must-see TV win or lose. The playoffs could be epic, the James Gang turning even the Lakers and Celtics into loveable underdogs.

However, no matter what happens on the court in 2011 and beyond, it’ll be a long time before any athlete tries to stage an announcement like LeBron James did. The fallout was too great, the mistake too profound, the damage too long lasting.

The real LeBron was uncovered – a naive, uncertain kid still thinking he was playing the role of goofy high school recruit. He never did anything wrong. It just came across that way.

It was a mistake from which James will need time to recover.

The rest of the sports world, too.

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