LeBron James: Businessman first
For more than seven years, the sports world has wondered about the full extent of LeBron James' significance. His biggest business partner, Nike, said we were all "witnesses." But to what?
On its face, the answer was supposed to be simple: James would be the next great basketball star and more, the perfectly blended hybrid of the great stars who came before him.
While Michael Jordan was his corporate forerunner, the NBA had never seen an athletic predecessor to James. He possessed the ballhandling skills and court vision of Magic Johnson, the size of Larry Bird. He had the elevation and balance of Jordan, the open-court speed of Isiah Thomas but the power of Charles Barkley. Thanks to Jordan, LeBron also had enough marketing muscle to single-handedly make Cleveland, of all places, part of the national basketball conversation.
Now that the first act of his pro career is over, the James myth having given way to a body of work based in reality instead of corporate prefabrication, it is clear just what we were witnessing: James represented the perfect storm but on a very different part of the map.
The original forecasts have yet to be fulfilled, and to think James merely wanted to be another great player is misreading the map completely. James is not the ruler of the hardwood; he is a two-time MVP but as of yet has never been the league's best, most reliable championship performer. But he is the king and revolutionary of a movement that has finally and completely broken from the Age of Jordan. He is the declarer of victory of a war for player freedom that began 45 years ago, 20 years before James was born -- a war that concludes with Pyrrhic consequences.
James' kingdom was never the game on the court but the evolving one off it, and even though the intellectual mastermind of the past three weeks appears to be Dwyane Wade and not James, its cumulative repercussions -- reassessing the Cleveland years, the embarrassing and contrived free-agent process culminating in an uncomfortable television special -- will be felt throughout professional sports for decades.
What James embodies is the ultimate victory for Marvin Miller -- the revolutionary director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82 -- and the complete emancipation of athletes in team sports from the paternalistic and condescending structure that dominated the history of American professional sports. James is the talent, the one who moves the needle. His presence creates the value. The team, the league, the press and media, and the fans derive their power from him, and not -- as the game had always wanted athletes to believe -- the other way around.
James has long telegraphed this, with his aloofness toward Cleveland, but no one was listening. We were too busy thinking about what he was going to do for us. We were too busy being witnesses to a phenomenon we did not understand -- until now.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert felt betrayed, but true kings don't serve. They can't be traitors because they demand the loyalty; they don't provide it. Gilbert and the fans realized, too late, that for LeBron James to truly be a king, they by definition had to be the subjects. James knew this. They did not.
As a player and public personality, James did not hide this. From his NBA debut there were obvious clues that James portended to be a very different creature from the line of superstars who predated him. He was always curiously detached as a Cavalier. He was petulant after postseason losses, refusing to shake hands with his opponents, a suggestion that he had no real equal. Now that he has left, Gilbert has telegraphed his fatal servitude with petulance of his own, accusing James of quitting in an infamous letter to fans. And Gilbert had previously acquiesced to James' entourage, allowing James to control the travel schedule of the team.
The hype and narrative suggested James was of Ohio, of Akron, of Cleveland. There was an easy storyline that was being written for him, Joe Mauer style, that the local kid was making good in his backyard but with one critical and humongous exception: James never, ever truly played along.
He never vocally or physically committed to Cleveland, the organization, by signing a contract that would defuse the issue of his suspect loyalties. Nor, in the daily crush of victories and defeats, did James ever offer the kind of support that suggested he was one of 12 players.
Talent does that. It makes you different from the rest. James would never blend in because he's simply too good. The problem was that James believed his talent made him less accountable when things did not go Cleveland's way. He put the organization on the defensive, consistently asking it what it would do for him, even though the team made acquisitions following its 2007 Finals appearance and won 127 games over two seasons.
With his NBA coaches, Mike Brown and Paul Silas, James never offered the kind of support a superstar must. Phil Jackson's tremendous authority stems first and primarily from having three superstar, A-list, Hall of Fame-level players -- Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant -- believe not only in his leadership but also in the necessity of having a coach in the first place.
When James spoke, he did not credit Brown as being an asset, or, for that matter, criticize him as a liability. With James, the coach was rendered invisible. James played basketball the same way whether Brown or Mike Krzyzewski was the coach.
And when he lost, as he did ultimately against the Boston Celtics in his last game as a Cavalier, he spoke in the past tense. When he mentioned his plans, he said he would consult his "team." He was not talking about Delonte West and Mo Williams, but his financial handlers, advisers, Nike and the other components of James Inc.
And when the narrative of the past five years periodically suggested that perhaps the disconnection between Brown and James was a personal one, more warning signals were missed. James was merely signaling publicly what everyone who follows the NBA knew: The coach has no power. It is a player's league. By rejecting the faux deference toward coach and team, James shattered that facade. No one, especially the people in Cleveland and the people who owned the Cavaliers, wanted to listen -- even to their own intuition -- because of what James' presence meant to them, because of the glory his talent could deliver.
The shift now visible is analogous to the political difference between the Cold War and the War on Terror. During the Cold War, states could be classified as allies or enemies. Russia and China were not our friends while England and France were. Today, enemies have no boundaries, for terror is based on ideology instead of geography. It knows no predictable geopolitical space.
In sports, the traditional map had always consisted of the player, the coach and the team. Like the Cold War, it was a construction that could be counted on. Special individuals such as Reggie Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Jim Palmer and Jordan were different, becoming marketing powerhouses in their own right, but the hierarchy was always there. Magic Johnson was of Michigan State and Jud Heathcote and Pat Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan was of North Carolina, raised on the court by Dean Smith, became a Chicago Bull and tied his career to a belief in Jackson.
James reveals the death of that model. He has no nation. He has no allegiances. He is the individual as corporation. He has no college, and thus no coach. As he ages, if it hasn't happened already, his high school will fade and dissolve, as it does for most of us.
And with the surreptitious help of the media, which blindly builds his legend better than his team of handlers, he has revolutionized another front: a fundamental change in language. When James speaks of his "team" and his "brand," he is sending the open letter that he is not an athlete first. Basketball may be his calling card, but it is the financial engine of a larger enterprise -- the main piece of his portfolio, but it is still just a piece, nonetheless.
With Jordan, Nike was always there on the business side, lurking, controlling the marionette. Jordan was always a professional athlete first.
And in James, we now see that instead of futilely looking for the "next Michael," that Jordan was the last vestige of the old, interconnected system of player, coach and team -- sport first, business second. We didn't see the endgame, Marvin Miller's endgame. The player is free to exact as much control over his career as he ever has before.
At his home in New York, Miller must be smiling, for James represents the ultimate victory for the player. He broke no rules. He merely exercised his rights. He articulated that the condescending paternalism that is such an odious part of pro sports (could we cease once and for all with calling owners "mister?") must now give way to full, even cold-blooded partnership. If teams can trade players without the players' consent, the players must then be able to utilize their power to manipulate the free agency process.
Wade, Chris Bosh and James understood that teams were going to wait for James to make his decision before making theirs. This is the clearest example of the power of the player. Wade displayed his dangerous genius in recognizing that free agency need not be only an individual opportunity to change teams and earn more money, but also an occasion to incorporate fellow free agents in the process that will redraw the competitive map. No doubt other players today in multiple sports are conferring with their friends to tailor their contracts to expire simultaneously and control the process during their free-agent years.
Gilbert, unhinged, lashed out after enabling James' behavior. He could have given James a timetable to make his decision before the team moved on. He could have assumed that if James opted for free agency, he would likely change teams. He allowed the king to make him a subject -- the byproduct of seven years of deferential treatment by Gilbert and the Gunds -- and then was upset that he was treated like a serf. Gilbert thought he was showing loyalty to James by giving him everything he wanted without demanding accountability in return. But bowing like a sycophant is not loyalty. It is bribery.
As a 25-year-old, James is the first transcendent superathlete in a team sport born and raised in the age of ESPN. Television has always been the player's medium, and it was journalistically troubling to watch such power on display: James flaunting the common decision to change teams, ESPN sending the message that being on stage is as important to it as it is to the athletes, even at the price of its credibility. Both reaffirmed their considerably muscular market positions that night, and both looked worse for it.
And now it is over, the face behind the mask revealed. James never really hid who he was, and on the day he officially left Cleveland, he showed that he truly did believe he was a king, different from and more important than the greats of the past -- Alex Rodriguez, Reggie, Shaq -- who have signed big free-agent deals. He was beyond the old conventions, set apart -- as he has been his entire life.
James reminded the teams, leagues, fans and media that each has no one to blame but itself. His ex-team, the Cavaliers, treated him as though he were beyond them, undermining its own integrity as an organization, only to feel betrayed when he treated them like subjects. The NBA, chasing the short money created by Bird, Magic and Jordan, allowed players to become so powerful that a bitter lockout looms to restore balance. The fans, whose goals are often the most one-dimensional, wanted to see their team win no matter the cost, even though for the past three years James was telegraphing his distance from them.
The media, which never seems to learn, calls him by his nickname, does not challenge him and does not demand accountability, allowed itself to serve at his behest.
LeBron James did nothing more than complete the metaphor. If you call him a king, it only made sense that he acts like one.
We were all witnesses, but in the end, didn't much like what we were seeing.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- First-place Angels lose Richards 6-9 months
- Sources: Bell, Blount to play despite charges
- Bills' Marrone halts practice after more fights
- Tigers' Price tosses 1-hitter, but loses to Rays