Commentary

Gilbert lets out his frustration

Originally Published: July 9, 2010
By Brian Windhorst | Special to ESPN.com

Once a Cleveland Cavaliers fan upset over a decision the team made e-mailed owner Dan Gilbert to complain. After an escalating exchange, Gilbert challenged him to a wrestling match.

After calming down, Gilbert later offered the guy a job.

This is a typical Gilbert story because it shows his competitiveness, his short temper, his stream-of-consciousness e-mailing style and even his business acumen. Often those traits, ones that serve him well yet sometimes undermine him, all come out at once.

All of that was there for the world to see late Thursday night with an extra, edgy layer, the product of being jilted by his superstar player and perhaps losing $200 million in franchise value at the same moment.

Gilbert's scathing and fierce response to LeBron James' nationally televised departure came in a statement to Cavs fans that had all the makings of a Dear John letter -- and in comic sans typeface.

The moment Gilbert blasted it out to media outlets and had it posted on the team website, he probably didn't regret writing any of it. That's probably true of even the part where he seemed to deliriously yell -- which can be assumed because the words were written in all capital letters -- a promise that his Cavs would win a championship before the newly minted triumvirate of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh get one in Miami.

Gilbert may regret that part of the letter but his personality probably won't allow him to ever take it back. It is part of the aggressive optimism that he wears on his sleeve and demands in his various companies.

James' method of breaking up with the Cavs was much more high profile and calculated, if more emotionless, than expected. Cavs fans immediately picked up on the fact James did not offer a "thank you" but instead hoped for understanding when he returns to his hometown, which may not be until he comes back as a member of the Heat.

But even if Gilbert's missive may have been misconceived -- some would call it a public relations mistake even if it played to the flowing anger of Cavs fans -- he felt the anger had foundation. It isn't just because James decided to leave but because he seemingly couldn't give a legitimate reason as to why he was dropping the Cavs.

There is a great opportunity to win championships in Miami. But those, as James found out the past two seasons when he played on the No. 1-seeded playoff team, aren't guaranteed.

Meanwhile Gilbert was left to go back and look at the past three years, the term of James' most recent contract, and attempt to figure out what he could have done differently to get James to stay. The short answer is winning a title but James' own shortcomings contributed to that failure, especially his performance against the Celtics in the playoffs this past season.

In every trade Gilbert made, he took on more money than he sent out, his payroll spiraling into the luxury tax and then more deeply into the tax. Each, whether it was for Ben Wallace or Mo Williams or Shaquille O'Neal or Antawn Jamison, came only as James signed off. Yet when it was time to sign free agents, James would not commit to the future.

It left the team being forced to improve mostly through trades, deals they often made with the short term in mind that required them to give up future assets in the form of draft picks and prospects. Largely it worked, as the Cavs became one of the league's most successful teams.

Gilbert hired one of James' friends and paid him more than some assistant coaches to hang out with the team so James would be comfortable. Gilbert allowed members of James' management team to fly on the team jet. He spent $25 million to construct a practice facility that was located 20 minutes closer to James' home than the old one. He rebuilt the locker room. He hired a masseur to travel on the road because James likes massages.

He even fired his head coach, somewhat on spec, with the belief that James wanted a change.

It is because of all of that that James' decision to walk was such a gut punch to the owner. It wasn't that he didn't see it coming, it was he didn't know what he could do to stop it.

Gilbert thought that what James wanted in his team was a partnership. James' entire marketing company is branded as a partnership generator.

The owner thought a commitment that was deeper than the standard player contract and much greater than just the salary was the sort of partnership James wanted. For years, all the indications were that it was.

Until Thursday night.

Then the partnership was broken and Gilbert was left looking at a jagged piece, wondering how he could have prevented it. When he realized there wasn't a way and that James was probably going to bolt his hometown no matter what the owner had done, the anger rose to the surface and then spilled out onto the keyboard.

And Gilbert, who is known for pushing the envelope, may not be done with his ranting.

Had James been in the same room to deliver the news instead of having his friend call the team about two minutes before the announcement, Gilbert just may have wanted to wrestle.

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.