Yesterday, a guy who spent seven seasons with the team that drafted him announced he wanted to play basketball with his friends and win a lot of games. He wanted this so badly that he was willing to take a pay cut.
Today, everyone hates LeBron James.
Nearly a day later, I still don't get it. In almost every way, LeBron did what fans always demand of their stars: that they elevate winning above all else, that they privilege the team above personal gain, that they be Not Just About The Money. Miami was a cold-eyed basketball decision, made strictly on those terms. (You could argue that Chicago would've been the better pick, as Jon Barry was made to do roughly 7,842 times last night, and you might even be right, but that's beside the point.) This was the best player in the world knocking a few large off the price tag because he wanted to win. The tight-ass moralists on press row usually love this sort of thing; Mike Lupica's socks should be rolling up and down right now. But the national freakout is upon us anyway, and the only reason for that, so far as I can tell, is that LeBron put on a bad show last night. He fumbled the script. He is the most hated man in basketball right now because he went on live television and blew his lines.
What else did he do wrong, really? He was a free agent for all of a week, a 25-year-old at the top of his profession with real leverage for the first time in his career. He waited for the market to settle and announced his decision the day after the two other top-shelf free agents had made theirs known, which is exactly what he should've done. He didn't owe anyone an immediate decision. The allegedly unique circumstances of Cleveland fandom didn't obligate him to the Cavs any more than the unique circumstances of Michael Beasley obligated Miami to keep him around. If LeBron was disloyal to anything last night, it was to a public image that had been painstakingly fashioned for him by useful idiots like Buzz Bissinger. Witness:
In an age of sports-star egoism, LeBron seemed to have defied the trend. He had not lost his Midwestern Akron roots and he had not lost his humility.
This is the same kid who in high school responded hilariously to a state investigation into his new Humvee by piloting a remote-controlled Hummer around a basketball court. He was not humble then, and he is not humble now, and I think by this point we should realize that being a great athlete and being an arrogant shit very often attend one another. (And Buzz's "age of sports-star egoism"? I realize Buzz's dunk-tank-clown shtick wouldn't work so well if he didn't have a fallen world to scream at, but sports-star egoism has been around as long as there have been sports.)
LeBron's failure last night was not in the decision itself, but in screwing up the theatrics of it. The show, as we all know, turned out to be a tone-deaf festival of self-mythologizing that couldn't have been tackier if Jim Gray had banged a gong at irregular intervals. But it didn't have to be like that. Imagine what today's response would've been if, for instance, LeBron had arrived on set with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, arms linked, all of them extolling the glories of friendship and teamwork and otherwise capering about like the sailors from On the Town. The show would've been plenty obnoxious still, particularly to Cleveland fans, but LeBron wouldn't have looked so much like a smirking kid throwing the world's most lavish birthday party for himself. The problem wasn't that he was selling himself on television. It was that he sold himself so poorly. Last night, Leitch wrote:
No, tonight, it felt like everyone involved — LeBron, ESPN, Bing, the University of Phoenix, Stuart Scott, the man who once chastised fans for having the audacity to boo, Jim freaking Gray — treated the millions of people watching like stupid, mindless consumers, empty lemmings ready to follow Sport into the abyss. Here, here are the Boys & Girls Club props. Here, here is your search engine. Here, here is your online college, Here, here is your Athletic Hero. Eat. Eat. Consume. You like it. You love it. You'll always come back for more.
They're surely right, of course. But never has it been laid more bare, and never did it feel so empty.
The complaint isn't about the fact of the salesmanship so much as its shabbiness. Con us better, in other words. Be slicker. Don't be so obvious. Maintain the illusion. This is the real cause for despair. We've somehow arrived at the point where we evaluate our athletes chiefly according to the quality of their marketing. Not long ago, Rick Reilly and Bill Simmons spent an hour or so yammering about the Tiger Woods apology charade, thus offering the many-mirrored spectacle of two reporters (I use the term loosely) judging a performance that existed only to be reported. I can't bring myself to listen again, but I remember that Reilly's conclusion was that the apology was a success, that Tiger came across as sincere — that is, that Reilly believed Tiger had successfully packaged and sold the notion that he was sincere to the American public. Last night, LeBron couldn't manage the same trick. He put on a bad show. He blew his lines. He made a terrible commercial for himself that had no bearing whatsoever on his brilliance as a basketball player, and now he is being thrown in the stocks around the country, merely for the crime of committing bad television.