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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In Defense of the King

NBA free agency is in full swing, and LeBron James is the most prized player on the market.  There are no fewer than eight teams, including the Miami Heat, who are legitimately making a push for James' services this summer.  As LeBron quietly weighs his options, the fans and media have loudly voiced their opinions.  The overwhelming sentiment seems to be that if LeBron James even dares to consider leaving Miami for a third team then he is nothing short of a basketball mercenary ... a soulless hired gun with no sense of history and no class.

I disagree, and I feel the need to say a few words in defense of the King.

LeBron James' first NBA team was the Cleveland Cavaliers.  At the tender age of twenty-two, James led the Cavaliers to the only NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.  And yet, what most people remember most about James' time in Cleveland was his decision to leave.  We all remember when James announced, "I'm taking my talents to South Beach."  Not a good P.R. move, to be sure.  But, what is often forgotten is that James spent seven full seasons in Cleveland.  Seven.

How many of the scornful fans and reporters spent seven years at their first jobs?  Based on national trends, I'm guessing not too many.  And, regardless of the years of service, how many of those people would turn down a chance to work with their friends in a more successful organization located in a more glamorous city?  When phrased that way, it is clear that almost no one would have chosen any differently than LeBron did in 2010.

When James came to Miami four years ago, he signed a contract with the Heat that gave him a player option to become a free agent this summer.  Four NBA Finals appearances and two world championships later, LeBron has chosen to exercise that option and is now a free agent.  This does not mean that James is going to leave Miami.  It only means that he is free to explore his options.

Yet, the vilification has begun again.  And again, I feel the need to speak up in defense of the King.  LeBron James has spent four years playing for the Heat.  What started out as the Big Three has now become the Big One.  And, that Big One is not even the highest paid player on the team.  In fact, James has always been by far the best player on his NBA teams, but he has never been the highest paid player on any of those rosters.  Let me say that again.  King James has never been the highest paid player on any team he has played for.

As James considers his options, it seems clear that he wants to be paid the maximum salary allowed under the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement, and he wants to play for a winner while he does it.  In any other walk of life, no one would bat an eyelash at this line of thinking.  If a twenty-nine year old is undeniably the finest lawyer on the planet, would anyone blame him for considering moving to a new firm that would pay more and potentially offer greater chances at success?  Of course not.  Yet, somehow, it's considered unseemly for LeBron James to consider the same options any other young man would consider.

The reason for this double standard is based primarily on two factors: jealousy and revisionist history.

The jealousy factor is easy to understand.  Most fans, and truth be told, most reporters have rooted for a single team for their whole life.  No matter how much writers enjoy their real life jobs, they all believe that being a professional athlete is a truly blessed existence.  Those fans delude themselves  into believing that if they were given that blessing, they would play forever in front of the same fans.  Anything else is viewed by many fans as selfish and ungrateful.  It's jealousy that makes people resent athletes who make a different choice than the mythical one fans never had the opportunity to make.

The second factor is revisionist history.  Maybe "idealist history" is a better term.  LeBron James wants to be considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, players to ever play the game of basketball.  As such, James must rightly be compared to the likes of Kobe, Kareem and Michael.  But, if we are going to make historical comparisons, those comparisons should be fair.

It is true that Kobe Bryant has played his entire career for the Los Angeles Lakers and has won five world championships while wearing the purple and gold.  Let there be no mistake about it, though.  Kobe Bryant did not win all those rings by carrying a team that grew up around him.  Kobe did not move to another city, but he benefitted from other wandering stars.  Bryant did not win any titles in Los Angeles until Shaquille O'Neil, the most glamorous free agent of his era, joined him in L.A.  Together they won three championships.  Kobe did not win a championship as the true lone shining star on a team until his thirteenth season in the league.  LeBron James will just now be heading into his twelfth professional season.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also won five titles in a Lakers uniform.  He won an additional title in 1971 in Milwaukee with the help of all-time great Oscar Robertson.  Jabbar joined the Lakers in 1975 but did not win a title until the arrival of Magic Johnson in the 1979-1980 season.  Through some creative wheeling and dealing and a little bit of luck, the Lakers were able to draft James Worthy with the first pick in 1982 draft.  That was right in the middle of Jabbar's championship run.  Jabbar did not have to move away from Los Angeles to play with talent.  The Lakers brought talent to him.  Neither James' Cavaliers nor his Heat have drafted a phenom anything like Magic or Worthy.

That brings us to Michael Jordan.  Jordan casts a greater shadow than any other player over the league and LeBron James' legacy.  MJ was truly an amazing talent.  Perhaps he was the greatest talent to every play the game, but Jordan also benefited from being the last sports star to exist before the world of PTI, Twitter and blogs.

Michael Jordan won six NBA championships, all with the Chicago Bulls.  Jordan was clearly the best player on all of those six teams.  But, let's not pretend that MJ was purely unselfish and purely loyal to the fans in the Windy City.  True, Michael Jordan did not go to play for another NBA team.  No, Michael left the sport entirely to go play minor league baseball.  Jordan's baseball adventure is quite possibly the only thing that prevented the Bulls from winning eight consecutive championships from 1991 through 1998.  Yet, somehow, it is accepted as fact that Michael Jordan had a total devotion to the game while LeBron is accused of having total devotion only to himself.

LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet, and it's not particularly close.  James has carried two different franchises to five NBA finals, and he has won two world championships.  Along the way, James has not pursued the highest possible salary but has instead pursued a competitive team that included his friends.  When James makes a decision about where he will sign his next contract, there will be plenty of discussion from fans and the media.  Analysis is appropriate, but the discussion should at least be fair and accurate.  Those are my words in defense of the King.

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