The Image And The Legacy Of LeBron James
Other than somebody pulling a Tiger Woods, it’s difficult to imagine any athlete torching their image and their legacy as quickly as LeBron James.
That will be the fallout from the past week. That will be the lasting result from the dog-and-pony show that was The Decision (ESPN’s capitals, not mine). James has forever altered the way he will be viewed, and there’s no turning back.
So while James has signed with the Miami Heat, delivering a dagger that Trail Blazers fans are uniquely equipped to understand (more on that later), the ramifications are endlessly fascinating.
Let’s start with the image, because James shall never live down the narcissistic manner in which he announced his decision. You’re about to stab Cleveland in the back, thumbing your nose not only at your fan base but your hometown, and you decide to do it in a dreadful one-hour TV special? You decide to wait 28 minutes into that special before announcing your decision?
That’s not just cold-hearted, it’s cruel. And considering that Cleveland sports fans have suffered through The Fumble and The Drive in past decades, you half expected James to say, “And now to help me announce my decision, here are Earnest Byner and John Elway.”
James not only stuck in the knife, he twisted it around and let it linger and went to have a sandwich before finishing the job.
The result is an abject lesson in just how disconnected athletes are from the fans. James clearly had no understanding of Cavaliers fans, no sense of the fact that while sports are a business, fans view them as a marriage.
James has every right to sign with Miami. But the manner in which he did so, the utter disregard he demonstrated for Cleveland, was enough to make even Kobe Bryant appear to be a decent bloke.
That is the part where the legacy comes in.
Until recently, James appeared well on his way to being perhaps the greatest player in NBA history. Right up until May 11, when he delivered a bizarre performance against Boston in Game 5 of their playoff series, so bizarre that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert last week accused James of quitting on his team.
That night will weigh heavily on James’ legacy. But it won’t weigh as heavily as Thursday’s decision.
Regardless of how many championships James wins with the Heat, there always will be an asterisk. There always will be a wink and a nod that, “Yeah, he won some titles, but he knew he couldn’t do it without Dwyane Wade.”
This is different from Michael Jordan winning championships with Scottie Pippen. Jordan couldn’t have won those titles by himself, but there never was any question about who was the Alpha Dog on those teams. There never was any doubt that Jordan’s will to win was a crucial factor in those titles.
As ESPN’s Bill Simmons puts it, Jordan was “homicidally competitive.” That doesn’t make him the most likable person, but it’s a heck of a positive trait for an athlete to have.
James, by choosing to join a superstar and another All-Star in Miami, has forfeited any opportunity to join Jordan and Bill Russell and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the basketball pantheon. He has revealed the underlying self-doubt that will keep him from reaching that level.
And that is disappointing. It’s not necessarily bad, just disappointing. If you’re a sports fan, you live to watch transcendent athletes. You live to see the people who do things you never imagine they can do. You live for the drama that comes with watching a LeBron James trying to will his team to a championship.
James played on a team that reached the Finals in 2007 and then posted the best record in the league each of the past two seasons. And now he has told us that wasn’t enough. That it was just too hard. That he is afraid to fail more than he is driven to be great.
That’s not transcendent. That’s just another great player.
Which brings us to the Blazers connection. Because in 1977 and 1978, the Blazers had a transcendent player in Bill Walton. Championship in ’77; MVP award in ’78. But Walton sat out the 1978-79 season because of injuries, signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, and sued the Blazers over his medical treatment.
Walton’s departure perhaps is the closest analogy for what the Cavaliers are going through. He callously ripped the heart out of Blazer fans, to the extent where he felt compelled 30 years later to return to town and issue a public apology.
So maybe Cleveland fans have something to look forward to in 2040.