Commentary

Gilbert's letter signals wider backlash

Updated: July 11, 2010, 7:41 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert went old fashioned, then he got medieval on LeBron James.

Gilbert didn't need his own hour-long televised special to make his point. He sat down at the keyboard the way angry people did it back in the day, then did as much to set the tone of the 2010-11 season as any player move, including you-know-whose. On the night "The Decision" became as painful a part of Cleveland sports history as "The Drive," "The Shot" and "The Fumble," northeast Ohio sports fans finally got a two-word title they can associate with victory.

The Letter.

Gilbert unloaded on LeBron. Smacked him with every keystroke. He called the Cavaliers' "former hero" (Gilbert's words) "narcissistic" and "cowardly" and ripped his "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal" and labeled James' decision to flee the banks of Lake Erie for the suddenly star-filled shores of South Beach a "shocking act of disloyalty," a "heartless and callous" action.

Oh, and in case Gilbert didn't make his feelings clear enough, he told an Associated Press reporter that James quit during the playoffs.

Gilbert torched LeBron, like one of those James No. 23 jerseys burning in the streets of Cleveland. LeBron lost the night he tried to sculpt as his own with the unprecedented show he used as the vehicle to announce his long-awaited free-agency decision, the one that confirmed earlier reports he'd be joining the Miami Heat.

Oh, he and Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and the Heat are the winners of the free-agency frenzy. They managed to assemble the three most desirable players on the market in one place. They've got a two-time MVP, a Finals MVP and an All-Star. That's just about all they've got right now, but it's the type of foundation you need to win multiple championships, something akin to the draft lotteries that brought Tim Duncan and David Robinson to San Antonio, or Jerry West's wizardry that brought Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to the Lakers.

But LeBron lost something in the process. James had alienated so many fans with the way he had representatives of six teams trek to Cleveland to play out the entire process, even though, as one of the general managers said, "We knew only two or three teams had a chance to get these guys." He lost even more people by choosing to announce his decision on ESPN in an elaborate show. How could any non-Heat fan watch this thing play out and think, "I wanna root for this guy?"

Sports like to see talent flow strictly to leagues' glamour cities. Most fans didn't even see Bosh play that much while he was in Toronto, but they won't like him, either. Just because he's part of this.

Everyone's going to want to beat "that team down there" as Chicago Bulls big man and LeBron antagonist Joakim Noah called the Heat, unwilling to even say the name. "It's gonna be real Hollywood down there."

Could it be possible that Cavs fans are actually sharing the same sentiments as Noah, who trashed the city of Cleveland repeatedly during the teams' first-round playoff series? That has to be the way they're feeling now. LeBron's gone Hollywood (even if he's physically closer to Hollywood, Fla.).

The funny thing is how Cleveland people still claim Drew Carey and Halle Berry as their own, even though they left for Hollywood. But LeBron? Done.

It speaks to the unnatural, proprietary feelings fans have about their players, that just because they wear their town's jersey they forfeit all of their rights. LeBron is free to go wherever he wants, whatever suits him best. Just because he's always lived in Akron and Cleveland doesn't mean he should always stay there. Everyone leaves home sometime, even if it's only for college. Athletes have an even smaller window than the rest of us. He has perhaps 10 more years to be one of the elite basketball players in the world, and he has a mandate to win championships if he wants to be included in the discussion of the game's all-time greats. It was apparent that wasn't going to happen in Cleveland.

People want loyalty, as if that's going to cover things. Just imagine if LeBron spent an entire, title-free career in Cleveland. In 25 years, when the greats are gathered for a tribute to the all-time legends, the chatter could go like this:

"Hey, it's Tim Duncan, four-time champion."
"Look, it's Kobe, wearing all five of his rings."
"There's LeBron ... he was ... loyal."
Awkward silence.
"Have you seen KG?"

Don't ask James to be loyal if you won't grant him an exception to the ring rule. (As in Jordan, Magic and Bird on one side of the tee at the charity golf tournament, Ewing, Barkley and Malone on the other).

But it's not too much to ask him to be respectful on the way out. In this case promotion took precedence over protocol. He strung everyone along, tried to build the drama at the expense of the common courtesy of notifying teams of his plans so they could get about constructing their teams.

Everyone associated with this looks bad.

We in the media looked bad because sources we trusted kept changing their opinion, and none of those sources was James himself. Even he probably changed his opinion. The public -- not just sports fans -- that got drawn into it were suckers, too. I've had so many "where's LeBron going?" texts from people who haven't bothered to ask me a single other question in months that I just stopped answering. I also stopped because I didn't have a firm answer. No one did. We got sent on a wild ride with a constantly shifting destination.

We got played, but in reality the people in James' camp played themselves. They came off as disrespectful not just to Cleveland, but to New York, Chicago, New Jersey and especially the Los Angeles Clippers (who had nothing more than frequent flier miles to show for their trip to Cleveland).

They were brought in, then shut out as the process entered its final hours. And the boss who had tailored his franchise to LeBron's every whim, whether it be granting his wishes to let members of his circle fly on the team charter or sit behind the bench, or whatever suited the star player, wasn't repaid with a little courtesy on the way out.

Of course, James had already given Gilbert plenty. Gilbert was repaid nightly in the form of fans occupying every seat in Quicken Loans Arena. According to Forbes, the franchise's value increased by $100 million during Gilbert's ownership -- and you know that wasn't because of Boobie Gibson.

So yes, Gilbert was being petulant when he posted that letter on the Cavaliers' website in cartoonish script. But he was expressing the feeling of all the Cleveland fans -- and a number of non-invested observers who were put off by James' whole display.

And he was firing the first shot of next season and beyond. He guaranteed the Cavaliers would win a championship before LeBron does.

LeBron's just ramped up. Now it's not just a quest for a championship, it's a race. He got called out by the man who used to sign his checks.

Gilbert is leading the anti-LeBron brigade, which after Thursday night is the largest sub-group of the National Basketball Association.