Commentary

Exiting via the low road

It wasn't a sin that LeBron left Cleveland, but the way he did it earned him much scorn

Updated: July 9, 2010, 2:50 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

"It's OK. (Forget) Him. We'll move on as always. Just can't believe he is so cold hearted."

-- Matt G., lifelong Cavs fan, via text message

CHICAGO -- When NBA teams win championships, cars are flipped and fires are started.

It's pretty standard business in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston.

LeBron James wanted to bring that kind of chaos to Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, the cities he called home his entire life, from cradle to a quarter-century.

[+] EnlargeCleveland Fans
AP Photo/Paul BeatyLeBron James is Public Enemy No. 1 in Cleveland after skipping town for Miami on Thursday night.

He never could win a championship for Cleveland, but he succeeded in bringing the aftermath of a championship, if only partially.

While the King parried and lobbed lame platitudes with reporters and rented hosts on national TV in an unglamorous outfit of checkered shirt, jeans and high-end boots in a Boys & Girls Club in one of the richest city in America, his subjects rebelled in Cleveland.

LeBron James jerseys went up in smoke like the Cuyahoga River of old, and police had to protect the "Witness" billboard downtown. I only know this from Twitter and the muted TV in front of me.

"I hoped fans would understand and maybe they won't," James said. "I feel awful that I'm leaving, but I feel even worse that I wasn't able to bring a championship to that city. I hope my real fans will continue to support me, and I'll see you this fall."

Let's be fair: James had every right to leave Cleveland and join Pat Riley (the unquestioned winner in this scenario), Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat, which will now by the most hated team in the NBA, perhaps in the league's storied history, and certainly the biggest road draw since Michael Jordan's heyday.

Still, with all the money and fame he has at his giant fingertips, in James' situation, the term "free" in front of agent is still not negotiable. I'll get into that train of thought more, but first, let's not let LeSpock off the hook so quickly.

Leaving the Cavaliers, a team that made millions upon millions on James after throwing a season or two to get the rights to draft him, isn't a sin.

But to spurn the most miserable, unlucky collection of fans in all of North American sports on live TV, to rub it in their faces like that, to say you couldn't be "emotional" on the decision, to say that you understood if fans have "mixed emotions," it was all pretty low-rent and immature. James isn't unaware of his relative importance in a city that's regularly disappointed by its sports teams, its industry and a declining quality of life. But he sure acted like it, and that's why fans will hate him forever, lumping him with Art Modell.

Even if he would have signed with Chicago, I would still think this.

"I can't get involved in that," James said in the ESPN interview after watching video of fans burning his jersey. "One thing I didn't want to do was make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what's best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy."

I'll admit I cherry picked that quote over the bland drivel that peppered his interview. James did admit the decision was tough and that he loves Cleveland and his "true fans" and blah, blah, blah. But how can you pass up a stereotypical egotist athlete referring to himself in third person twice after being informed that fans are reeling because he left?

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyDwyane Wade and the Heat probably offer LeBron his best chance at a title.

Heck, even Joakim Noah, who thrilled in ripping Cleveland in the playoffs, told reporters he felt bad for Cavs fans.

And if you think we're making too much of this story, remember the uproar when Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie? Imagine how it would've looked if he did it live on "Entertainment Tonight."

Maybe James, like Pitt, was just unhappy in his current relationship. Maybe he was being proactive, knowing it was going to end badly with Cleveland sometime. Why not get out while he was still young, with such a rare opportunity at his feet?

James isn't the first icon to leave a city identified through him. You might remember a guy named Brett Favre, who had to be kicked out of Green Bay. It was in the news. Before that, Michael Jordan was all-but pushed out of Chicago and into retirement, and before that, Joe Montana was shunted aside in San Francisco. Willie Mays in New York, Joe Namath with the Rams.

But LeBron, just in the prime of his career, had a different situation. None of those players were from the town they played in. You can say Jordan was Chicago, but he wasn't of Chicago. There's a big difference, especially when you consider how much better Chicago is than Cleveland. (No offense, torch-wielding Clevelanders.)

"It's heartfelt for me," James said in the interview. "In my seven years there, I gave that franchise and this city everything. Those 20,000 fans every night have seen me grow from an 18-year-old kid to a 25-year-old man. I never wanted to leave Cleveland. My heart will always be around that area."

I believe James when he said the decision was a tough one for him, but the way he treated his fans in this instance made him look less like a 25-year-old man desperate for respect and more like a walking, talking Brand. And I'm not talking about Elton. (Here's a note to athletes: We know "it's a business." Stop saying it.)

James talked at length about what he gave to Cleveland and how he took Cavs' fans to places they've never been before, and he sounded so out-of-touch you have to wonder whether he's been dying to leave since the team drafted him No. 1 in 2003. Here's a tip LeBron, Cleveland fans have been to the brink of sports euphoria before. You didn't invent disappointing losses either.

In return, the Cavs, now as lively as a deflated basketball, released a two-paragraph statement that didn't mention James' name, before owner Dan Gilbert torched him in an emotionally raw open letter to Cavs fans on the team's website that almost defies belief.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
AP Photo/Mark DuncanEven if it was a business decision, LeBron James could've been a bit more tactful in making this move.

I'm going to assume Bulls fans won't have this problem with Derrick Rose, whom, I'm guessing, sent or received 1,000 text messages about this situation in the past day.

I've said all along that if James left Cleveland, even for Chicago, it would chip away at his realness, but I'm probably wrong. James is still the same guy he was before, confident, cocksure and hungry for that ultimate validation in his field, "winning a 'ship," as they say.

He wasn't in love with Cleveland. He was drafted there at 18, he tried real hard for eight years (except for his last game) and now he's ready to move on. People leave Ohio all the time. Trust me, it's not that tough.

He starred in a documentary (a grad student started it when James was in high school) and commissioned a book about his relationship with his friends. Doesn't his decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami echo that need for a surrogate family?

Chicago fans, the ones who don't give a Dalibor Bagaric about sentimentality and dime-store psychology, are probably wondering why James didn't pick the Bulls, if he cares so much about winning.

Wade and Bosh are more accomplished, more mature, than the Bulls' returning core of Rose, Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, with Wade one of the few legitimate superstars in the league.

After some early rose-colored dreaming, no one with any sense of reality thought James was coming here. Jerry Reinsdorf said he gave James an honest assessment of why the Bulls are the best choice if he decided to leave Cleveland.

"I opened the meeting saying, 'If it's in the best interest of your family, and for loyalty reasons, you want to stay in Cleveland, you should stay in Cleveland. I am not here to tell you to leave Cleveland, but to let you know that if you decide to leave Cleveland, we're the best place for you to go,'" Reinsdorf told ESPNChicago.com's Melissa Isaacson.

All I can say to that is, good for Jerry.

Carlos Boozer, inked to a five-year deal Thursday, likely came in the picture too late to sway James' mind, which he said was only finally made up this morning. I guess he didn't listen to Boozer on "Waddle & Silvy."

And while the Heat are going to have to cobble together the rest of this roster almost from scratch, you can't tell me with a straight face that Miami isn't going to run ragged on some teams in the regular season. If they win fewer than 65 games, I'll be shocked.

But in the wake of an obfuscating week that saw the Bulls entertain Bosh and Wade and schlep to Ohio to see the King, you can say this: The Bulls are better with the addition of Boozer.

The 28-year-old bruiser gives the team a legitimate offensive threat in the post, and a needed dose of veteran presence. Think he's scared of Bosh, who was once called the "RuPaul of big men" by the Big Aristotle?

The Bulls have the money and space to add some more free agents, with Mike Miller or Kyle Korver probably next on the radar. This is a good team that will be fun to watch.

Now that this sideshow is over, I'm glad the Bulls will get back to playing for the now, rather than planning for the future. I agreed with the decision to make space for a run at the so-called "big three," but it was a drag too.

The future is now, Bulls fans, and just remember you have a superstar in Rose, a gifted, athletic point guard who won't leave his city hanging.

If there is karma in this world, Rose will lead his town to a title or two and we will love him for it.

I'm sure The King will get his bauble soon enough, but what will it mean? In my mind, not enough.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.