Time Out: July 21, 2010

The King’s crown is showing tarnish. America’s love affair with professional basketball icon, LeBron James hit its first big time snag last week as James orchestrated a free agency free-for-all involving at least six cities that dominated the sports world for a week and sure wasn’t basketball’s or the young star’s one shining moment. In the end, James may have positioned his throne to capture his first NBA crown, but his All-American, rags to riches, love-of-the-game- first persona took a major hit.

The product of a single mom, James grew up in Akron, Ohio, and became a high school basketball sensation when, during his junior year, Sports Illustrated made him a front-page story called “The Chosen One.” The James legend grew when he elected to become a professional directly out of high school and signed with the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.

The bigger than life superstar became Cleveland’s most noted citizen, a 100-foot high billboard heralding James located in the middle of the city. James seemed to single-handedly alter the image of the much-maligned city, bringing a swagger to the locals’ step and an additional $48 million annually to the city coffers. And, James trumpeted up his loyalty to his hometown, alleging in interviews to understand his impact on Cleveland’s psyche and his responsibility to bolster The Forest City’s spirits and image.

The James/Cleveland union seemed a perfect match, the small town, working class, up-by- your-boot-straps kind of story Americans love to embrace. Yet, after seven years of riveting action that included divisional championships, LeBron had failed to bring an NBA title to C-Town. The Clevelanders were patient, confident that in time LeBron would take them to the Promised Land. But, LeBron was not, hungry for the glory that comes with his first world championship.

No one can fault James for wanting to take the fast lane to an NBA title. After seven years James had earned the right of free agency and could negotiate with whatever teams he chose for his services. It was the self-promotional build up, the almost narcissistic obsession of James, and the boorish one-hour ESPN special to announce ‘the decision’ that left many people with a foul taste in their mouths.

Day after day, representatives from several teams journeyed to Cleveland to make elaborate presentations to James and his team of advisors. Both New York teams were included in the LeBron Sweepstakes.

On the day before ‘the decision,’ the story line shifted. It was rumored that LeBron would abandon Cleveland and elect to play for the Miami Heat. An uncomfortable veil covered basketball fans watching the drama. Miami had already signed two superstars, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Adding LeBron to the Miami roster seemed to violate a sense of fairness and smelled a whole lot like collusion. It was well established that the three superstars, all teammates on the US Olympic team, were good friends who had discussed their desire to play on the same team.

A 15-second announcement was stretched into an hour-long television special to announce that LeBron would follow Wade and Bosh to Miami. Any pretense of innocence was gone when I learned that all three superstars and the Heat coach and general manager are all represented by CAA (Creative Action Agency). The city of Cleveland was devastated.

To my way of thinking, the entire signing was a too-good-to-be-true transaction. In signing with the Heat, should Miami win the title, LeBron’s role will be minimized. The title will be tarnished like his crown, the result of a stacked deck, devoid of the satisfaction that comes with working incredibly hard, against great odds to break through and take the championship after several failed attempts. Should the Heat fail to win the title next year, LeBron will be crowned a paper tiger. Nothing in life is guaranteed.

Last week’s free agency theatrics ended with LeBron walking away from his team, walking away from his city, and placing himself above the great game of basketball.