Cleveland is left at a loss
“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.’’
With that, LeBron James brought joy to the Miami Heat and their fans, disappointment to New York and Chicago, and enormous sorrow to people in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, who have, as he himself said, “seen me grow from an 18-year-old kid to a 25-year-old man.’’
The vehicle was an hourlong ESPN special last night, which was unprecedented in American sports history and which was decried by many as an astonishing manifestation of egomania on the part of a young superstar who has basically conducted himself in a mature manner throughout his career. But James seemed to veer into a new realm during this recruiting process, culminating in this look-at-me declaration, which was in direct contrast to the low-key M.O. chosen by Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant, who announced his decision to sign a five-year contract extension via Twitter.
But this is 21st century America, and LeBron James is a classic product of his times. He is five years younger than ESPN itself. The network put many of his high school games at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School on television, which many thought was crass. But it all seems natural and normal to him. There is little sense in exhibiting great moral outrage about the process. To paraphrase a certain football coach well-known in this area, it was what it was.
And now the Miami Heat are what they are, a bizarre collection of top-level players who will be surrounded by a lot of low-level, minimum-wage talent. LeBron James will be teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the former a player who is only slightly less gifted than James, and the latter a top-flight forward whose range of skills separates him from all but a few big men in the NBA. They will automatically become the latest so-called Big Three to terrorize the league.
But the rest of the team is currently a mystery, and that’s not hyperbole. The only people other than the Big Whatever are the enigmatic Michael Beasley and solid point guard Mario Chalmers. But for there to be enough money to pay the great triumvirate — who will all be making less than they could have commanded on other teams — Beasley must go. And any way you slice it, there will be little more than chump money available for the auxiliary members of the 2010-11 Heat. The question will be: Can a team thus assembled actually win an NBA championship?
This situation is highly analogous to that of the 2007-08 Celtics, at least as they were constituted in the summer of 2007. I, for one, denounced that roster from 4 through 12 as the worst in the league, a rash pronouncement that proved to be far off base. But in order for the Celtics to become champions, Danny Ainge had to come up with such key supporting players as James Posey, Eddie House, and, as the final piece of the puzzle, P.J. Brown. Clearly, Pat Riley, the Heat president and basic chief hoop honcho, has a lot of work to do.
As far as the jilted suitors are concerned, all the sympathy should be extended to Cleveland. New York spent two years preparing to welcome The King, but their entire pitch was based on nothing more than a ludicrous entitlement mentality. I’m speaking more of the fans and media than the organization, and it was all summed up by the back-page headline on the New York Daily News that shrieked, “Don’t Screw Us Now!’’ I mean, really.
Chicago will survive. Many people believe the Bulls would have represented a better avenue to a quick title, and with their signing of free agent forward Carlos Boozer they will be rated ahead of the Heat by a lot of experts.
But Cleveland, oh, wow, that’s going to be devastating. There is no way to exaggerate the proprietary feeling the sports fans of Northeast Ohio had toward a player who was an enormous high school star in Akron (think Worcester to Boston) and who provided them with countless thrills during his seven years as a Cavalier, during which he played in six All-Star Games, made first-team All-NBA four times, and led the team to its only trip to the Finals, a losing effort to the Spurs three years ago.
But that doesn’t tell the half of it. As has been well-documented, Cleveland has not enjoyed a major sports championship since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964. And now, with the Indians in the dumper, the Browns classically mediocre, and no NHL franchise, the next title is nowhere in sight. But even that doesn’t cover it all.
LeBron was beloved because he had preached community and loyalty. He was the hometown kid made good, and that resonated in an area hard-hit economically. Yes, even more so than other locales in this country. He was a source of pride. He was one of them.
And now he has abandoned them. That’s the way it will be framed. Is this fair? Should they have been able to hold him as an emotional hostage? Did he owe them anything at all?
The good news for all of us is that this ordeal is over.