LeBron's TV spectacle a fitting end to outlandish free-agent process
The free-agent process, headlined by LeBron and Dwyane Wade, has been absurd
James has no clue how ridiculous this whole where-will-he-sign? saga has been
The cult of celebrity now reigns -- and the media have been complicit in that
In those anxious, heart-stopping moments before LeBron James addresses the nation on the state of the war in Afghanistan, I'd like to ... wait a minute [this is where Jon Stewart puts the fake phone to his ear] ... I've just been informed that the King's special is not about Afghanistan. It is about his deciding in which American city he will pursue his dream -- our dream, really, the dream of our collective nation, or more like the dream of the world, that's it, the whole world, the universe, that dream. Which is to play basketball, make a lot of money, and, dammit, just maybe change humankind for the better.
But ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, as much as we are tingling with anticipation about LeBron's decision, to be announced in a one-hour ESPN special cleverly called "The Decision," you do realize that we are staring into the abyss. Because think of it: What will we do when "The Decision" has been, you know, decided? How will we fill the empty hours, the endless, malaise-driven days when there is no longer video of LeBron arriving at his basketball camp, LeBron posting delectable tidbits on his Web site, LeBron tapping out messages on his new Twitter account? We got nothing. An irritating war, something about an oil spill down South, a crumbling job market. But, man, that stuff is hard to tweet about. LeBR plz stay w. homeeeez!!! LOL!!
Sure, there are a couple of free-agent mysteries still to be solved, a Mike Miller here, a Raymond Felton there. But nothing like the captivating saga of the King and, before that, his Court, the Butch-and-Sundance duo of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who announced on Tuesday that they will pursue their dream jointly, which is, in a smaller way, our dream, too, the LeBron dream: to play basketball, make a lot of money and, dammit, just maybe change humankind for the better.
All right, let me stop right here. I have not been immune from the protracted free-agent pornfest. I've made a few phone calls and dropped a few hints to sources that I would love to be the one to announce LeBron's destination, get my name on that endlessly spooling crawl across the bottom of the TV. But all the while I've been a little heartsick, half-angry and half-sad at the devolution of this process, what it says about the NBA, the cult of celebrity that has overtaken our country and the whole out-of-whack state of sports journalism.
The Amar'e Stoudemire welcome that was plastered on the Madison Square Garden billboard -- incidentally, the same place they advertise the circus every year -- was an interesting diversion, as was his chest-pounding calls for Carmelo Anthony and Tony Parker to join him on the Knicks. But the over-the-top part began with Wade and Bosh, whose nauseatingly orchestrated we-are-the-world pas de deux was, in the final analysis, a middle school kickball game. Miss Miller, we want to play on the same team. Can we? Can we? Pleeeeeeeeze? If LeBron joins them in Miami, it'll be all the cool kids on one side, taking over the playground, geeks over there against the wall.
Look, Wade is a great talent and he won an NBA championship in 2006 practically by himself. (Along with a few whistles that put him at the foul line a few thousand times.) But his diva act has been way, way over the top -- bringing your own documentary crew to a free-agent negotiation sounds like a story in The Onion -- and, though we have no idea how difficult his custody battle might be for him, his I-want-to-be-in-Chicago-to-be-near-my-kids pronouncements did ultimately ring hollow. I'd lay you odds right now that sometime in the near future D-Wade is romantically linked to L-Gaga. They deserve each other.
And while Bosh is a solid player, the attention foisted upon a guy who at this point is about the 100th best interior player in NBA history defied belief. In his seven seasons with the Raptors, Bosh led them to exactly two playoff appearances, both of which resulted in first-round exits. If you were starting a team right now, is there anyone -- outside of Wade and Bosh -- who would pick Bosh over Kevin Durant, a player who, sans fanfare, signed a five-year extension with Oklahoma City this week, a move that went unnoticed during the free-agent orgy? You would? Congratulations -- the Clippers want you to start in the front office next Monday.
But the big story, of course, was LeBron, who, drunk on the magnificence of his own LeBron-ness, is utterly clueless of how ridiculous this whole process has been, the monumental amount of self-importance attached to scheduling a one-hour show when you have zero championship rings and, at last glance, were seen folding like a beach chair against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy termed the whole LeBron tease "almost like a parody of itself," which would be accurate if he removed the word "almost." I'm sure Team LeBron is claiming that "The Decision" is mostly about raising money for charity, but here's a simpler way he could do that -- take a million or two of the 100 he's going to get and write a check to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. And if he's already done it, do it again.
But given the media's mindless acquiescence, why should these guys treat this as anything but business as usual? As I said before, SI has played its part -- my intrepid colleague Ian Thomsen has spent the last few weeks with a cell phone surgically attached to his ear -- but ESPN has truly jumped the shark. One might've thought that the walk-up to David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy debut set the standard for over-coverage (how did that work out, by the way?), but this is indeed a brave new world. A half dozen of ESPN's best reporters on the story. Endless bulletins. Endless crawls. Endless "according to sources." Endless "ESPN has learneds." Even a 24-hour sports network should have some sense of perspective about sports, and The Worldwide Leader utterly lost it on this one. The only thing missing has been Brett Favre. I keep hoping that sometime Thursday the Favre-ster will weigh in with his opinion on where LeBron should go, and ESPN will halt regular broadcasting to bring us his thoughts.
What this plugs into, needless to say, is our obsession with celebrity, the idea that the sizzle is absolutely more important than the steak. I guarantee you that once Wade and Bosh (and maybe James) actually put on a Miami uniform and begin the difficult process of trying to win a championship, there will be zero interest outside of NBA fans and journalists. The story is not about making the Heat better or about the inner workings of an inside/outside combo; it's about the tweets and the marketing and the seductive dance and the chest-pounding drumbeat of me-me-me, or, in this case, we-we-we.
Despite the amount of publicity being generated for the NBA, I can only imagine how embarrassing these weeks must have been for the old-schoolers in the league office. The commissioner fines Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $100,000 for making the utterly obvious suggestion that he would like to have LeBron on his team, yet James, Wade and Bosh can pick up the whole Eastern Conference in their hands and mold it like a lump of clay. Since the Finals ended with the Lakers' victory -- hey, remember them? -- it hasn't been a league; it's been a summer camp for the marquee masters of the universe, the adult version of AAU ball.
What I kept longing for was the offseason of 2000, the free-agent summer that truly shaped what happened in the NBA for the next decade. Oh, you don't remember it? That's when Tim Duncan chose to stay in San Antonio, a decision he announced -- and I'm probably not far from the truth here -- by putting down the car magazine he was reading, dialing Gregg Popovich and saying, "Pop, I'm coming back."
As I write this, there are still about 12 hours until this newest reality show hits the airwaves. Still time for 100 more crawls, 1,000 more educated projections, a million more tweets. I'll probably watch "The Decision," because, like so many others in my business, I am a prisoner of the process. I told my wife to buy the popcorn, and I'll bring the Pepto-Bismol.
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