I know we don’t write much about sports here at Earn This, but I’m going to file it under the “pop culture” part of our description.
Let’s rewind a decade. A dominant Shaq-Kobe Lakers team stifled MVP Allen Iverson in the Finals to go 15-1 in the playoffs. Chris Webber and Gary Payton were still two of the best players in the league. Tim Donaghy was just another NBA referee.
Now, suppose I described the following to you:
- In a few years, the best basketball talent since Hakeem and MJ were drafted in 1984 would be taken first overall by his hometown team in the NBA draft.
- For seven years, he would play hard every night, bring them to five playoffs, win two MVP awards, go down in history as by FAR the franchise’s best player, and bring millions (if not billions) of dollars to the city he plays for.
- That summer, he decides to sign with a different team where he can play more of a Larry Bird/Magic Johnson facilitator role instead of being an MJ-like primary scorer. He takes a pay cut and moves to a team with another star scorer. That team also signs a rising star rebounder/scorer.
- To signal his shift from being a scoring-focused player to being a winning- and leading-focused player, he changes his jersey number from Michael Jordan’s to Bill Russell’s.
- As he announces his intent to take a pay cut to try and go win a title elsewhere, he makes a public address — and uses it to raise $2.5 million for a children’s charity (that has a chapter near his hometown).
If I’d told you all of that a decade ago, there’s no way in hell you would have guessed that the transition I described would cause the athlete to become one of the top five most hated athletes in the world. Or that the fans from his hometown would burn his jersey. Or that the owner of the team he left would write a few days later: “This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.”
You certainly wouldn’t have guessed that taking a pay cut and going to a team where he has a better chance to win it all would have him denounced as an uncompetitive wimp or that he’d irreperably tarnished his chance to become one of the all-time greats.
Yet, this is exactly what happened to LeBron James. Granted, my bullet points left out a few key details, like the tremendous level of hubris in “The Decision” and the “Three Kings” vanity press event. It’s also true that LeBron didn’t pay much courtesy to Cleveland as he prepared to move to a different team.
But you know what? LeBron had already given all he had to Cleveland. He made the Cavaliers far more money than he cost them. He didn’t “owe” the team anything. Leaving without much notice wasn’t the classy way to handle his departure, but it wasn’t evil or “ungrateful.”
The betrayal here wasn’t LeBron’s Decision; it was Cleveland betraying LeBron’s prodigious legacy. Why is the question “Should Cleveland retire LeBron’s jersey?” greeted with laughter? It should be retired the moment LeBron leaves the league. He’s their best player ever by a huge margin.
It really seems like Cleveland just wants to feed its self-suffering complex. It would suck to be a Cleveland fan, but here’s some news, guys: You have an excellent baseball team, you got your Browns back, and LeBron gave you seven years of basketball that ranged from excellent to transcendent.
I’m rooting for LeBron because he’s not only (somehow) underrated as a player, but he’s the most overhated person in the world right now. I told my dad this earlier and he responded with something like “I don’t hate him, I just think he has a huge ego, and I don’t want him to win.” That’s not hate in a traditional sense, but it’s sports hate, and it’s what most of the world has for the Heat.
We should be celebrating the opportunity to not only witness one of the league’s all-time great talents, but to see him paired with another future hall-of-famer. Will they win a title? Will they win five titles? I don’t know. But I’m going to have a blast watching them try.
There are still heroes left in the NBA. Kevin Durant, for example. LeBron is something else: a misunderstood “villain” with plenty of good left in him. It’s a redemption story waiting to happen, except he doesn’t actually need any redemption. I’m rooting for him because most of the world doesn’t seem to realize this.