The new Lebron James Beats commercial concludes with a voice-over from his mother: “Don’t ever forget where you came from.” But, of course, that’s not what she really means. A more accurate assertion would have been, “Don’t forget where you came from, as long as it’s convenient for you.” Lebron James is not a bad guy, but this newly constructed identity of an Akron through-and-through hometown hero is ridiculous.
Lebron’s decision to leave the Cavs to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami was not a betrayal. He wanted to win championships, and should not be faulted for that. “The Decision,” however, was questionable. The seventy-five minute special tortured fans across the country, especially in Cleveland. This is not how a role model handles free agency. Yes, “The Decision” did raise millions for several charities, including the Boys and Girls Club of America, but we all know Lebron was no longer wanting for money in 2010. Nothing was stopping him from making a donation without playing into the hype of his free agency. Lebron would later regret his actions, “If I had to go back on it, I probably would do it a little bit different.” If Lebron had quietly released a simple statement explaining his decision, there may have still been an uproar among Cleveland fans. But at least he would have done all he could to make a smooth and humble transition. Instead, his, dare I say, cavalier departure left a bad taste in the mouth of Cavs fans that even his return will never completely wash away.
Following Lebron’s departure in 2010, Cavaliers president Dan Gilbert reacted with a furious letter directed to Cavs fans in which he vehemently condemned Lebron for his “cowardly betrayal.” This was an unwarranted accusation, but you have to feel for Gilbert and Cavs fans following what Gilbert described as a “narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special unlike anything ever ‘witnessed’ in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.” Gilbert’s characterization of Lebron may have been inaccurate, but his description of Lebron’s free agency was on the right track. It only took four years for Gilbert to change his mind about his former star. It’s hard to believe that Gilbert would welcome back Lebron after the denouncements and jersey burnings of seemingly the entire city of Cleveland. But apparently prospective championships are the greatest healer of them all.
Lebron learned from his mistakes, ditching the camera crew to announce his return to the Cavaliers. Lebron and Gilbert have apparently forgiven each other, but can they really forget? Lebron screwed up. That does not make him evil, or a coward. It makes him human. But it also bars him from the ranks of the true role models of sports, who conduct themselves with unwavering humility and class from the very beginning of their careers. Cavaliers fans should celebrate Lebron’s return, but they can’t turn him into something that he’s not.
The Beats commercial is just one piece of a media campaign that took off in July. The consensus is that the loyal Lebron heroically returned to his friends and neighbors to win a championship for the city in which he grew up. Just as Lebron played into his dramatic free agency in 2010, he is playing into this new role.
The truth is that Lebron would not have returned if not for Kyrie Irving. The Heat’s loss to the Spurs in the NBA finals revealed the chinks in the armor of the James-Wade-Bosh trio. Lebron is now changing course to pursue his best chance of winning a championship, just as he did when leaving the Cavaliers in 2010. With Irving at the helm, the Cavs have made steady progress, and were on track for playoff contention even without the addition of Lebron. Lebron’s decision to join Kyrie attracted former Timberwolves star Kevin Love, the focal point of an anticipated August trade. The James-Irving-Love group is now the most intimidating trio in the NBA going into the season. This group is eerily reminiscent of the James’ former partnership with Wade and Bosh. Once again, Lebron and a three-point-shooting big-man are joining a star guard to form a championship-caliber trio. Lebron never would have rejoined the 19-63 Cavs of 2010-2011. His driving motivation was not to return home, but to give himself the best opportunity of winning rings. The fact that he gets to make good with Cleveland is just an added bonus.
Like all professional athletes, Lebron wants to win championships. He would have signed with any team that gave him the best chance to win. There’s nothing wrong with that. But with Lebron’s help, the media is blurring the truth. If Lebron were truly as enamored with his hometown as his new commercial portrays, he never would have left. His decision was not sentimental, but practical. Don’t let the advertisements and tattoos fool you. No matter how many championship Lebron wins in Cleveland, he will never be a model of loyalty along the lines of Tim Duncan, Tony Gwynn, or John Stockton, who stuck it out with their clubs through thick and thin. The best player in the world does not have to have the best character in the game. Mr. James should quit the commercials and stick to what he does best: playing basketball.
Photo: Keith Allison