Miami in Pinstripes: the New Evil Empire
July 8, 2010
In the moment LeBron James uttered the words “South Beach” on Thursday night in front of a national television audience, the country witnessed the birth of an Evil Empire — the Yankees of professional basketball — with that slick-haired hombre, Pat Riley, at the helm.
James and Dwyane Wade have been likeable enough fellows in their various selling poses, including James as a mischievous puppet and Wade as Charles Barkley’s co-star in clever cellphone commercials. But together in Miami, with Chris Bosh rebounding for the superstar wingmen, they have created something fascinating, potentially fearsome and possibly quite loathsome.
Who outside of South Florida wants to root for Miami after the way James walked out on Cleveland and his home territory of northern Ohio in a mercenary reach for championship rings? On the other hand, who won’t want to see the fledgling super team take a big fall?
Had James stayed in Cleveland, he would have had the support of a nation wanting to see The Loyal One rewarded. Teaming up with Wade, Bosh and Darth Riley makes him more anti-hero than hero — but an even stronger marketable commodity for the N.B.A. brand. That loud noise emanating from out West is Commissioner David Stern cheering from his vacation spot in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Bad guys sell tickets, too. In the course of one week, James switched personas, like a professional wrestler, and the way he explained it Thursday night, his mother, Gloria, gave him permission.
“I thought I’d hear a different reaction,” he said of the phone call he made to her Thursday morning. “She felt it was going to make me happy.”
Funny, though. Jon Barry on ESPN said he thought James didn’t look happy. Maybe that’s because the view from the mountaintop of leverage that he carefully constructed to be the springboard to the rest of his career turned out to be something short of breathtaking.
In all directions were shining cities ready to welcome him with open arms and ready checkbooks. But there also were flaws in the windows of James’s lofty perch, cracks that might have been invisible to the eye of the average pro basketball star, but not to the man who envisioned crystal-clear free-agent perfection.
As early as November 2008, James was calling July 1, 2010, “a very big day,” beating the drum for when suitors would come calling, or begging, and all he would have to do was say “eeny, meeny” and then board his chosen starship Enterprise.
Along the way, there were disquieting playoff power outages in Cleveland, no ultimate N.B.A. credential to anoint him as a genuine savior and not a single suitor that could guarantee him a bed of roses to go along with his ransom.
By the time James made his grand announcement, it wasn’t as if he was choosing among the lesser of evils. But if heaven is a playground, it hasn’t yet been granted an N.B.A. franchise, and James’s blatant overreach for attention only intensified the pressure not to beam into a situation that could damage his carefully crafted brand.
Miami lured him with his Olympic team running mates, Wade and Bosh, but he joins them on Wade’s turf, where the latter has already achieved sainthood by winning a championship in 2006. He leaves fans cursing him in Cleveland, where the owner, Dan Gilbert, called his ESPN show “narcissistic,” his departure “cowardly” and vowed — foolishly, no doubt — that the Cavs would win a title before James.
James can also count on rabid booing in New York, where the Knicks assiduously courted him, tanked two seasons for him and created their own bloated market for Amar’e Stoudemire for him.
“It takes courage to play where the lights shine the brightest,” James L. Dolan, the Knicks’ owner, said while introducing Stoudemire Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Was he suggesting that his $100 million power forward had something in his belly that James didn’t, or utilizing his last good bargaining chip, challenging James to be a man by taking on Manhattan?
Losing out to Riley, their former coach and sworn enemy, has to be the worst part of this. The Knicks will have to fill the blanks around Stoudemire, settle next season for low-level playoff contention at best. In Newark, the Nets will dream about better days in Brooklyn. Turns out James didn’t want to be the leader of a basketball renaissance in a great basketball city. The King followed Bosh to Dwyane Wade’s team.
A longtime friend and high school teammate, Dru Joyce III, argued that James’s critics are missing the point. “People always think it always has to be about the one superstar,” Joyce said in a telephone interview. “But I think what LeBron is saying is it’s about the team. He’s going against the grain and it’s hard for people to accept that.”
James made a more grandiose show of free agency than anyone ever has, but he didn’t create the culture of entitlement. He’s just the latest to exploit it, and Joyce was right about one thing: all would have been forgiven had he just told his interviewer, Jim Gray, he was staying in Cleveland, basking in his own stardust.
Maybe that was the main selling point in Miami. When the playoff dust finally settles, it won’t all come down on him.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 9, 2010, on page B10 of the New York edition.