Friday, July 09, 2010

Losing Lebron

I never paid any attention to the NBA until Lebron James came into the league. When I did start to care, it happened mostly by accident.

It went like this. As you may recall, the hype machine was in full effect even then, making "Lebron James" a household name while he was still in high school. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and other sporting magazines, and his high school team went on a national tour his senior year, with many of the games being televised on ESPN. I was interested in seeing how good he actually was, but I'm uncomfortable with the concept of high school games being televised nationwide, so I didn't watch. When he got drafted by the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, however, I tuned into his first game to see what the fuss was all about.

As an impartial observer, I liked what I saw. The kid really did have some game. I liked not only how copiously he scored, but how good he was at making his teammates better. Impressive. So I tuned into his next game, too...and the one after that...and the one after that...and so on. Eventually I realized I wasn't just observing anymore; I was actively cheering for the Cavs and Lebron. Which I suppose was inevitable, being an Ohio native myself and a fan of the city of Cleveland (although decidedly not their sports teams) from some good experiences there. At any rate, I developed an interest, and Brandi and I even made it to Gund/Quicken Loans Arena for a few games over the course of Lebron's stay there.

Now "King James" is off to Miami, and he's taking my interest in the NBA with him. I won't miss it. Paying attention to the league confirmed the opinion I had of it before I started paying attention: more spectacle than sport, with rules enforced so arbitrarily that being a fan is more frustrating than anything. I was willing to put up with it because the spectacle of Lebron was worth it, but now that he's no longer associated with the team I'm inclined to care about, I'm done.

The real shame in all of this is what it's going to mean for the Cavaliers franchise and, by extension, downtown Cleveland. As I mentioned, Brandi and I went to several games during Lebron's tenure. They were a lot of fun. The arena was packed, and the atmosphere was electric. Just being in the city and near the arena on a game night was cool. Going out on the town after a game was awesome. Establishments were crowded, buzzing. Now that's all gone. Dan Gilbert's assertions aside, the Cavs are likely to be irrelevant for a while. The arena will be half full, if that, and likewise for downtown. And sure, they can go get another superstar - they can try to trade for Chris Paul, or go after Carmelo next year when it's time for his Decision™. But it won't be Lebron, won't be the hometown boy, won't be the same. I won't be back for any games, I know that much.

Look, I don't have a whole lot to add to the Lebron discussion that hasn't already been said elsewhere. I'm part of the consensus: leaving was fine, but doing it this way, with the drawn-out process and the one-hour televised special, made it ridiculous. Whatever.

One thing I have to take exception with, though, is the idea I've seen expressed by multiple "experts" today that Lebron had to leave Cleveland in order to win a championship, that it wasn't going to happen there. Why not? He had led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals once before. This year the Cavs were the best team in the regular season, and who knows what could have happened in the playoffs if, ahem, certain things had gone a little differently? If he's the player everyone (most importantly himself) thought he was, then yes, he could have won championships in Cleveland. After all, most championship teams consist of one superstar and, more or less, a collection of role players. And most legends build their legacy by being "the man" on a team built around them (hell, remember when Kobe Bryant made the Lakers get rid of Shaq so he could be that guy?). Now Lebron, not just by teaming up with other stars but by actively joining Dwyane Wade on his team, has shattered his chance of ever being that guy.

In Cleveland, the sky was the limit. He would have won rings there, owned that city, been their version of Michael Jordan. In Miami, with Wade, he can only be Scottie Pippen. And for someone nicknamed "King James" and "The Chosen One," and with the skills to back those names up, that seems like such a letdown.

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