PART I: THE ANNOUNCEMENT
Last week the world's most talented basketball star abandoned the story line that could have culminated with him becoming the most triumphant and beloved player of his age: Born and raised in nearby Akron, he was delivered upon the Cavaliers like a basketball Moses to lead the depressed region of northeast Ohio to the promised land. Now it turns out he wanted no part of that. He expressed no kinship to his people, and he didn't want to be the Man. Instead he chose the less stressful path of sharing the burdens of leadership with fellow free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who already had committed to the Heat when James announced he was joining them Thursday during a live broadcast of The Decision, the disastrous ESPN infomercial that revealed that James wasn't the lovable guy that his crossover appearances on Nike ads or Saturday Night Live had made him out to be.
All of the upside was gone, leaving only a 25-year-old small forward who after seven hype-filled seasons had failed to produce a championship; who admitted that he didn't have the grace to personally tell his former team's owner that he was leaving; and who had kept his announcement secret because this spectacle was ultimately more important to him than his relationships with the fans he was abandoning in Ohio. Asked how James should have managed his departure, Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert said, "He would have come in at least a day before and had face-to-face meetings with us. He would have told us what the reasons were and given us the opportunity to make one last argument or move or whatever it might take, even if there was nothing we could do. He should have held a news conference in downtown Cleveland to face the music like a man, let people ask the questions, give his reasons and express gratitude to all of the people in Cleveland who have supported him, knowing this is a blue-collar town and they were going to take it hard.
"There is a difference between Cleveland being deeply disappointed in the decision—which we are—and the feeling of betrayal that only came from his part in the process and the way he communicated it to the world. He crossed the line from disappointment to betrayal."
Teams are occasionally duplicitous in their dealings with players, so should James have owed the Cavs an explanation? The answer is yes, because of how much his relationship with his local team benefited him and Cleveland. "I feel awful that I'm leaving," James admitted as he sat hunched and apprehensive in a director's chair upon a small raised stage, as if he realized he was rendering the only place he's ever lived uninhabitable with his own version of the BP oil spill. Within two hours Gilbert was recklessly ceding the high ground by ripping "our former hero" for his "narcissistic, self-promotional" display. "You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal," wrote Gilbert in an open letter to Cleveland fans.
According to one of his marketing advisers, James did not hold a farewell news conference in Cleveland because he feared for his safety once word got out that he was leaving. But James's tortuous TV appearance, combined with Gilbert's equally regrettable response, only served to enrage the city. That night fans were seen burning JAMES JERSEYS and WITNESS T-shirts on sidewalks and throwing rocks at his 10-story Nike billboard downtown. By Saturday work crews were unpeeling the billboard, strip by strip, while in the Cavs' nearby gift shop all of the LeBron paraphernalia had been removed like mementos of Lenin in the new Russia. "I had this sick sense inside," former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, a native of suburban Youngstown, told The Plain-Dealer's Terry Pluto. "I really thought that as an athlete, your ultimate goal would be to win a title for your hometown team. That's what drove me when I was with the Browns. I wanted to finish what I started."
PART II: THE MAN
There was something deeper in James's decision that set off negative reactions throughout the league. Not only had he forgotten where he came from, but the reigning two-time MVP seemed to be accepting a lesser station alongside Wade, the 6'4" shooting guard who had led Miami to the 2005--06 championship, and Bosh, the 6'10" All-Star power forward who spent the first seven years of his career with the Raptors. "I was surprised that he went [to Miami]," said Orlando G.M. Otis Smith. "I thought he was more of a competitor. The great ones usually stay in one location."
A Western Conference G.M. added, "It sparks a huge debate about how you determine greatness. We put him on this pedestal and we believed he was fulfilling it—and now we're idiots for believing in him. Maybe at his core he isn't a very confident guy."
Up to the moment of his revelation James, who entered the league to unparalleled hype in 2003, had appeared as comfortable with his celebrity as a young Jordan or Julius Erving. He carried himself with prodigious maturity while winning eight postseason series—twice as many as the Cavs had won in the previous 35 years—which made his obliviousness during and after his strained televised farewell all the more surprising. "It is a tough decision because I know how loyal I am," he said on the air on Thursday. The following night he joined Wade and Bosh to say hello to 13,000 Heat fans, as if their frenzied screams absolved James of any responsibility he might have felt to his home state. "The [Heat] organization is a close-knit group," he told his new audience. "It's all about family, and that's what I'm all about." Easy come, easy go.