"It's been a real humbling experience to be in this position." -- LeBron James on his self-requested, one hour made-for-LeBron TV special on ESPN
If you lived in Houston at the time, you remember September 13, 2008. That was the morning after Hurricane Ike. I remember going outside for the first time that morning. There was literally no one on the roads. Westheimer was empty. Trees, signs, entire walls of buildings were strewn about. There were no lights on anywhere and the sky still looked like grim, gray death amidst a steady drizzle. It wasn't the end of the world, but you could see it from there and you wondered how long it would take to put everything back together again.
That's Cleveland this morning.
Sure, nobody died (that we know of), the lights all came on, and I'll assume that rush hour traffic (even for a Friday) was formidable. But a big chunk of Cleveland died last night, and unfortunately LeBron James and ESPN didn't let it die peacefully with its pride or dignity intact.
Last night, LeBron James chose to move on. After seven seasons of playing professional basketball in his de facto hometown of Cleveland, LeBron decided to move south and play for the Miami Heat. On the surface, no harm, no foul. Even if it's your hometown, free agency is in place to give players the right to change two things -- tax brackets and area codes.
However, free agency was not put in place to callously humiliate the city that supported you through your formative years. Despite all evidence last night to the contrary, LeBron said himself that Cleveland saw him grow from "an 18-year-old kid to a 25-year-old man." Sorry, LeBron, but after watching you stumble your way through your ESPN after-school special last night, the best I can concede is that you grew into a "bigger, way more entitled 25-year-old kid."
Forget about the fact that this overly friendly collusion between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris "Turtle" Bosh has the juvenile, junior-high school aura of LeBron getting tired of sitting in the cafeteria with the math dorks like Anderson Varajeo and Mo Williams, instead opting to go finally sit with the cool kids like D-Wade and C-Bosh.
Forget about the fact that when he finally answered the question of where he was going to play next season (and in LeBron's defense, even he probably didn't think Jim Gray would take ten extra minutes asking such hard hitting questions like "Do you need to sleep on it some more?" I mean, Jim Gray? Really?) that LeBron's answer led off not with "Miami Heat" or "the city of Miami," but instead with "South Beach."
Forget about all of those things. The one-hour LeBron special on ESPN unequivocally proved one thing. LeBron James is mean. He's a bad person, and disguising his quest for hero worship as a charity event only makes him worse.
Any way you slice it, in the end LeBron: The Decision evolved into, above all else, a one-hour public flogging of the city of Cleveland. The only thing missing was footage of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert tied to a wooden post a la William Wallace in Braveheart, walked down A1A in Miami and allowing all of the Heat fans to throw garbage at him. (Ironically, based on the vitriol spewed forth in his letter to the Cavs fan base last night, Gilbert would have probably been as vigilant as Wallace if Heat fans had tried to kill him, perhaps even screaming "FREEEEDOM" -- or another F-word -- at LeBron.)
It was a collective kick in Cleveland's nuts that was as undeserved as it was nauseating, LeBron swinging a Miami Heat gym sock full of quarters to the grill of half a million Cavs fans and then handing the sock over to Sportscenter at 10 p.m. Eastern Time, and telling them to go ahead and take a whack. LeBron never outwardly said words that trashed Cleveland; he didn't have to. Televising the celebration of his exit was enough.
Thursday night was more inauguration than it was announcement. What could have been accomplished in a tweet, a published statement, or a brief radio interview was a one-hour atomic wedgie on the 216 area code wrapped in a LeBron infomercial disguised as a charitable endeavor for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in front of a room full of boys and girls in Greenwich, CT who may or may not have driven to and from the event in their own BMW's.
LeBron did interviews with three different sets of ESPN talking heads in an hour -- a total collection of roughly 50 questions of which 45 had the same answer (something about "just want to win titles" and "getting better every day",,,blah blah blah be dee blah) and of which exactly none were "Why did you decide to go on television and crush the very souls of the fans in the city that has adored you since you were a precocious teenager, right?"
He literally said the process was "everything he thought it would be and more" three times in 56 seconds. I don't even know what that means. He told Cleveland everything short of "It's not you, it's me" and Stuart Scott called him "King" roughly a dozen times in between Stu bragging about playing H-O-R-S-E with Obama and checking LeBron's rectum to see what the "King" ate for breakfast.
In short, it was a travesty, a trainwreck, and the final nail in the coffin of whatever shred of credibility as a balanced news organization ESPN may have had left. A free-agency journey that was begging for a million questions about betrayal, about collusion, about Delonte West, about open disregard for the emotions of his hometown fans turned into a one-hour fluffing by Jim Gray with the hot tag to Michael Wilbon who then allowed Stuart Scott to massage the King's inner thighs for the rest of the show.
Of course, the ESPN crew had to take it easy on LeBron. I mean you could see the stress etched on his face -- because deciding which billionaire owner's $100 million to take over the next five years can be very draining to a 25-year-old; I can only imagine how difficult that whole process must have been.
After it the interviews were over, LeBron actually had ESPN return to the mean streets of Greenwich twice -- once so we could be reminded that the proceeds from the telecast were going to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and a second time to remind us that five "privileged" (LeBron's word, not mine) kids would be getting full rides to the University of Phoenix. You know, because it's all about the kids.
At least when LeBron listed exactly which Boys and Girls Clubs would benefit from last night's telecast, he listed Akron and Cleveland first. So there's that, Ohio. I mean he did publicly bend you over a chair on international television, but the good news is he tips well!
Sportscenter after the show was not much better as anchor John Anderson chastised Cleveland fans for burning LeBron's jersey, called Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert a whiner, and spent entire segments with Tim Legler and J.A. Adande trying to paint LeBron as a babyface -- because apparently Cleveland fans are the ones with the problem, not LeBron.
As if it couldn't get any more absurd, NBA analyst Mark Jackson (and frankly, if you need absurdity, calling in Jackson is like calling in Mariano Rivera to get the save) called in on the phone for an interview and said he gathered his sons around the television so they could show them the example LeBron is setting for kids everywhere. I can only assume that Jackson wants his kids to grow up to be callous douche bags.
Thankfully, the one shining beacon of honesty ESPN has in its NBA arsenal, the one guy who won't throw on a set of knee pads and start working the "King's" royal zipper -- former Rockets' coach Jeff Van Gundy -- came in and cleaned up Jackson's mess (for roughly the 2,000th time this season) by questioning LeBron's competitive manhood because of his teaming up with Wade and Bosh as opposed to taking them on. He also was the first one to come up with actual tactical reasons these three uber-stars might not get it done (You can zone them up and make them shoot jumpers.). If this night of broadcasting on ESPN was a quest for insight, Van Gundy broke up the no-hitter in the ninth inning. Thank you, Coach.
There's a lot to like about ESPN -- college football, 30 for 30, Bill Simmons' columns, sports news any time I want it, Howie Schwab. Thursday night will not make that list.
Ostensibly last night, a few charities got paid. LeBron needed that to happen so he could rationalize what the night was really all about -- sending a message to his new teammates, the rest of the league, to the sports viewing public: "Yeah, I know I don't have any rings, but you're all watching me right this very minute. I am the man, don't you forget it." And guess what? We all watched. And we all hate ourselves for it. And sadly, we'll watch again when the next free agent decides to carve out an hour of dead time in July to announce on ESPN where they're going and why we should care -- by signing with LeBron's marketing company yesterday, Chris Paul just moved to -500 for "next free agency infomercial," although admittedly I'd still pay $50 to watch Brian Scalabrine's.
Assessing the big picture, this sucks for Cleveland, but let's face it, the league has plenty of struggling, irrelevant teams -- that fraternity gets to welcome the Cavs back into the fold. I would imagine seeing the Clippers, Warriors, Kings, and Nets at the draft lottery next year will have sort of a "ten-year high school reunion" feel to it for whomever the Cavs send as their representative. "Hey man what have you been up to the last few years? I figured I might see you here after I heard you and LeBron broke up!"
At the risk of stepping over Cleveland's battered carcass (it sucks, but the show must go on), the NBA now has its villain. And that's a good thing. Privately, David Stern is thrilled. Other than in Miami, only the most diehard Wade or LeBron fans (Is there such thing as a diehard Bosh fan?) could possibly root for this unsavory alliance brought together by some sort of playground, pinky swear at the Beijing Olympics.
Anyone who respects competition and enjoys at least the facade that all of these guys should professionally hate each other, has to hate "LeDwyane Bosh". You just have to. "LeDwyane Bosh" represents short cuts, cliques, and trying to take the easy way to a title. Real fans should hate this, especially when LeDwyane wears it on their sleeve. Miraculously, I find myself now caring about the Eastern Conference, about Orlando, about Boston, hell even Atlanta. Atlanta people don't even care about Atlanta -- now I want them to beat the piss out of LeDwyane Bosh.
And then there's Kobe Bryant. It's ironic that the very quality for which we rapped Kobe for years is all of a sudden the reason I've done a 180 on him the last few days -- he's always had such a burning desire to be "The Man", he would step over anyone to get there. It's that hubris that made Kobe push for Shaq to get shipped out of Los Angeles. This made Kobe the villain.
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But what we didn't realize is that the polar opposite of Kobe -- guys with alpha dog talent having to contrive ways to actually collaborate because they just can't do it themselves -- is way more offensive than Kobe's desire to do it all by himself. At least with Kobe, there's a fight about him that ultimately you realize pisses you off because, above all else, he wins a lot of those fights. With LeBron and Bosh (and to a lesser extent, Wade), there's a feeling that if they watched The Karate Kid they would root for the Kobra Kai when they outnumbered Daniel five to one.
"Championships are championships". LeBron said it last night. The journey doesn't matter to LeBron. "Just give me my rings already." In short, Kobe has unwittingly found himself as the biggest fan favorite repping anyone who's had to fight for anything by merely sitting back, doing nothing, and letting Lebron be LeBron. Kobe's "selfish" is the new "admirable."
So yeah, I now live in a world where I love Kobe Bryant, and I hate myself. If LeBron is in Miami to do the impossible, he's off to a pretty good start.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" on 1560 The Game and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.