July 9, 2010

A stupid thing happened on TV: What's ACTUALLY interesting about LeBron's decision.

By now, everyone knows that LeBron James will play basketball in Miami. And if the reactions of the Internet community are any indication, people are mighty pissed.

"Never in my life can I remember someone swinging from likable to unlikable that quickly," said Bill Simmons in his most recent column, and he's probably right. I didn't watch his special last night, but I did spend a half-hour rehashing the last couple days with my Cleveland fan ex-roommate after the fact. He was sad, as he should be, and we discussed how the city will respond and how the Heat will do over the next few seasons.

But I think everyone's missing the big picture here. Everyone is ranting about where he's going (or where he's not going), but not enough people are talking about why. This is one of the biggest sports stories in recent history, and one of the strangest, but it's not just because a world-famous basketball player, arguably the most talented, is changing teams. It's because we've been invited inside the psyche of a 25-year-old man (you could even say kid); we've been granted insight into what makes him tick.

I don't claim to know much about LeBron James; basketball is my least favorite sport, and he's of no more interest than any other star in the NBA. But the way he made this decision, the way he presented this decision, and the way everyone is responding to this decision strikes me as fascinating. Nothing like it has ever happened; it emphasized that sports is now very much a business, that there are a lot of things about it that we shouldn't like, and also that it's so much more about the people and the personalities playing the games than it is about the games itself. That probably hasn't been up for debate for a while now, but if any event put the stamp on it, it was last night.

First off, the idea to announce it on an hour-long ESPN special. This is especially what set the Internet off, as a) most people think ESPN is a insufferable propaganda machine that eats its own shit for sustenance, and b) LeBron was finally exposed as the ignorant, inexperienced young man that he is. Now, he's not that ignorant, as he is a bazillionaire who, despite alienating an amazing number of people over the last week, remains beloved a large portion of the world. When he gets back out on the court, especially if the LeBron/Wade/Bosh triumvirate win a whole bunch of games/titles, most people won't care about his 60-minute PR nightmare. It'll go away, like almost everything does over time.

But for now, it's intriguing to take a look at it and wonder what he was thinking. Did he expect people to be riveted by what they saw? Did he expect his fans, and NBA fans in general, to swoon over the three stars uniting in South Beach? It's hard to imagine how LeBron and his team thought last night was a "good idea," that it was something that would really push the LeBron brand over the top. A lot of people watched it, and God knows it got a lot of people talking. But in the end, LeBron went to a state where everything but college football draws mostly a "meh" response, where anything short of total basketball dominance will be just another story among many. It was the safe choice, not a bad one by any means, but one that really didn't seem to warrant 3,600 seconds of chatter.

I've read some people ranting about ESPN "pulling punches" and "not asking the tough questions" last night. Honestly, if you expected Stu Scott, Mike Wilbon and Jim Gray to do anything but swoon at the feet of the mighty LeBron, I'd wonder if you ever watched ESPN before. Anyone who stuck it out after LeBron's announcement and was surprised by how passionately yet gently the ESPN staff cradled the balls and stroked the shaft, welcome to sports in the 21st century. Everyone's in bed with each other, everyone loves everyone else, and it's all about playing nice and making a bunch of money in the process. And it was for charity! Everyone wins. I wish I was rich, so I could act like a boring, aloof dick and get away with it because I donated a bunch of money to the Boys & Girls Club.

Everyone should understand that LeBron James probably doesn't care about his legacy. I imagine few, if any, athletes are self-aware enough to realize, or even consider, the fact that their day-to-day actions affect a "legacy" that fans and journalists cobble together and alter whenever they deem it necessary. He has a shitload of money, he'll always have a ton of fans, and he gets to play in a fun, beautiful city with two of his good buddies. Would we all rather he be a giant competitive asshole like Michael Jordan and want to stab every opponent in the throat? Would that make him more fun to watch/cover/cheer for? Would any of us choose cold Chicago, shitty New York or shitty and poor Cleveland over sunny Miami? He made a life decision, not a legacy decision, and that's because he's a 25-year-old guy who wants to have a good time and enjoy himself. Did we expect anything but?

Just because he looks like a man doesn't mean he is one, and just because he made what seems like a curious decision OR didn't properly thank Cleveland fans OR didn't mention the mother of his children doesn't make him a fiend or a bastard or a genuinely bad person. He's a guy, really, just like any other guy. Analyze the sports aspect of his decision to death: will it make the Heat a title contender, can a team survive with only three legit, albeit very good, players? If you're a Cleveland fan or a Knicks fan, bitch about how he left or how he never showed up at all. But don't just attack the guy; study the guy. Think about what he did, what you'd do, and how ridiculous it all was. How popular it became, how polarizing it ended up being, and the ramifications it'll have on sports, sports reporting and sports personalities, specifically, in the future.

The cool thing about being a sports fan nowadays is that the lives of players are more accessible than ever. This isn't cool in the sense that it makes the actual games more fun, but it does make things more intriguing. It's pretty easy to find out who's a jerk and who's a cool guy, which can sometimes make it tough to root for an athlete or even a whole team. But you can also watch them live, watch them think, and watch both their decision-making processes and their maturation as human beings. You can read what they think on Twitter. It makes them more real, but also accentuates how different their lives are from ours. It helps you realize that you don't have to look at all athletes as role models, which is good, trust me, because they never have been. They play a sport well, and that's super neat, and I like to watch them do it. But some of them are bad people, and some of the ones that are good people still make really dumb mistakes. We're now more able to be discerning, to pick and choose which ones we like for more legitimate reasons, and to watch it all play out in front of us like the money-earning entertainment it always has been.

In a way, it's kind of like a zoo. We gawk at LeBron as he makes a life-changing decision, then rant about how idiotic he is and how demeaning he was to his hometown and loyal fan base. Sure, he has eleventy billion dollars, but to get it, he has to dance for us. And if he dances wrong, he'll hear about it. He'll get @ed on Twitter, he'll get blasted on all the major websites, he'll get yelled at on the court and in the streets. It might start to eat him up inside, or he might roll around in his giant pile of money and party with Wade and Bosh all night. We don't really know, but he's not retiring, and we're not turning off our TVs or closing our laptops. He makes money we can't even imagine and lives a life we can't fathom, but it's OK because he's so far removed from us that it doesn't matter. He's still a member of the human race, but only biologically.

But watching the path in front of him unfold, and how he's reacted to it each step of the way, strikes me as the most interesting thing to happen in sports in years. Because for all his differences, for how real and yet unreal he is, the decisions he has to make are fueled by human emotions. And when it's all said and done, he doesn't even have to hide away like Tiger; everything he's done has been out in the open, for the world to see, and none of it is wrong. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it's over. But seeing a boy become a "man," seeing him deal with an incredible amount of money and a decision that weirdly affects the happiness of millions of people he'll never meet and doesn't even care about, well, that's something that I think is profoundly unique. Whether it's unique in a good way or a bad way doesn't really matter, because the runaway train that is professional sports in the 21st century isn't slowing down for anyone. This, everyone, is just the beginning.

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