There were a number of ways LeBron James’ decision could have gone that would have made a great story. If he re-signed with Cleveland, the state of Ohio would embrace him as their greatest citizen. If he signed with the Knicks, most NBA fans would have to admire his desire to resurrect the basketball mecca. If he signed with the Bulls, he would be trying to follow in Jordan’s footsteps. Any of these outcomes would have been great because of the compelling storylines they would create.
Unfortunately for people like me, LeBron isn’t interested in narratives as much he’s interested in winning titles, building his brand and making as much money as possible. He chose to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat next season, and now we’re faced with the possibility that a city that was 15th in the league in attendance last season could be the host to the next great NBA dynasty.
I’ve been to Miami and there’s no denying it’s a great city — fantastic weather, beautiful women, exciting nightlife. What’s not to like if you’re a rich and famous athlete? It’s not hard to figure what would draw LeBron and Bosh to join D-Wade in South Beach.
But when it comes to the “legend of LeBron”, millions of NBA fans wanted him to be more than a great basketball player and lucrative corporate pitchman. Everybody following this story had their own reasons for rooting for LeBron to end up somewhere — even if you knew your favorite team wasn’t in the running. You could have admired his loyalty if he stayed in Cleveland or his ambition if he signed with the Knicks or his respect for NBA history if he signed with the Bulls. When he announced that he was joining Wade and Bosh with the Heat, it wasn’t just anti-climactic, it was a colossal bummer.
Unless you’re already a Heat fan, what kind of person is going to root for LeBron and the Heat now? A frontrunner, a bandwagoner, somebody who only cares about being on the winning side and doesn’t care about what it takes to get there. With his announcement Thursday night, LeBron James succeeded in galvanizing the fans of the other 29 teams against the Miami Heat. Every championship they win will be nauseating to the majority. As I tweeted last night: “The Miami Heat LeBron jersey is about to surpass Ed Hardy t-shirts as the de rigueur clothing item for douchebags.”
I was talking to a colleague, Aaron King, about LeBron’s imminent decision yesterday and he pointed out that if LeBron joined the Heat, he would be like the “A-Rod” to D-Wade’s “Jeter”. Like Alex Rodriguez, LeBron comes off as a soulless mercenary — someone who has become very difficult to admire and very easy for most fans to hate. Yes, I know that “great attracts hate”, but you can hate somone like Kobe Bryant and still respect his accomplishments. No matter how many titles LeBron wins in Miami, most people will see him as somebody who tried to take a shortcut to the top rather than trying to create his own legacy.
With his decision to join Wade and Bosh with the Heat, LeBron accomplished the seemingly impossible by making Kobe Bryant an underdog that many NBA fans will be rooting for next season. It’s certainly possible that the 2011 NBA Finals are not an already predetermined Lakers-Heat matchup, but how much money would you be willing to bet on any other scenario? And wouldn’t any other result be kind of a letdown?
I’d like to think that Kobe watched LeBron’s announcement with his hands bridged under his chin in anticipation, and that his cold eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a thin smile when the decision was revealed. Say what you will about Kobe, but I guarantee you that he’s not afraid. On the contrary, he fully realizes how his legend will grow if he can conquer this three-headed beast.
Just when I thought he was about to begin a gradual fade into retirement over the remaining four seasons on his contract, Kobe now becomes a more compelling figure than ever. He has a new challenge to inspire him in case he needed a reason to keep working hard for that sixth ring. Now that he’s beaten the Celtics, LeBron could be his final great conquest — and that’s all the motivation he’ll need to wring every last ounce of greatness out of himself.