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LeBron gets to choose his destiny as free agency begins

Jun 30, 2010, 1:00 PM EDT

lebron_james_arty.jpgLiving in a free country has many advantages. You get to freely select where you live, who you marry, what you do with your time, where you work, what you do, what you say, and how you feel.

But along with those freedoms is a cost. It’s the money you need to accomplish what you want. It’s the fallout of what you say and how you represent yourself. It’s the meaning of the choices we make with the freedom we’re given.

Every decision has consequences. What we do, and how we do it, matters. We affect not only our own lives but those around us, and sometimes, in the rarest of circumstances, our decisions can influence communities, cities, states, the nation, the world.

LeBron James begins the final stretch of a path he began months ago. Years ago, really, when you consider how his last contract was structured, specifically, to lead to this moment, along with those of his friends and peers. This decision is one marked by pomp and circumstance, and just the attention the decision is garnering increases both his brand, and the pressure on him to make the right choice. This is the apex of his power, his ability to shape the league for years to come. And he has a series of priorities he has to align in this process, which isn’t easy.

James is, to be sure, soaking this moment in. He’s milking it for all it’s worth. He’s the biggest story of the summer, and he’s not dunking one basketball in public. He’s sought after, dreamed of, prayed for, and being begged everywhere he goes by casual fans and the rich and famous alike, to save their franchise. It’s a good feeling.

But what most people are missing is how important this decision is. Consider the following:

Bloomberg hours ago came out with an estimate that says that James’ departure could cut the value of the Cavaliers by $250 million. His name is being used in smear campaigns in elections. New York City’s Economic Development Corporation puts his impact on the city at over $57 million a year. Every city has a slogan. Every city has a campaign. Every city has a pitch. And James will have to decide what’s most important to him when he decides to put his name on the dotted line.

What exactly is he choosing between? Here is what hinges on his decision.

1. Money: This topic is broached with skepticism, disgust, and aversion by major media personalities and fans alike. We want our athletes to care more about their fans, more about winning, more about anything else than money. But realize, whatever James does, someone misses out, someone is hurt. If he leaves Cleveland, the franchise he helped resurrect will fall to ruin. This is the kind of thing that can submarine a franchise permanently. The city would be so burned by the ordeal it may never recover in terms of basketball. All the money that has poured in around the attraction of James departs.

If he goes to New York, he’s got the best chance of making the most for himself and his people. Forget the NBA salary. Six teams have room for his max. It’s about everything that goes along with it. Yes, we live in an internet age, and his exposure is universal. But the fact is that endorsing events, products, concepts in New York garners more money than it does elsewhere. And being based out of New York brings in more people which brings in more dollars. But what does he care? He’s going to make $16 million dollars next season, regardless. Why does the money matter?

Because he has an empire. Like it or not, James employs a good number of people. And he has the capacity to build brands, companies, endeavors which will both create more money for himself, and allow him the opportunity to pay more of those who support him. More money means more charity dollars. A bigger empire means more employees. Yes, we’re talking degrees of obscenity between net incomes, but those things do trickle down all the way. And that’s on his mind.

We live in a society where money talks, and cliche endeavors walk. He has a responsibility to himself, his employees, his family, and yes, his hangers-on to make the best decision he can, financially.

2. Championships: James has to win a championship. No, sorry, strike that. He has to win multiple championships. He needs to challenge Jordan and Kobe, and he does not have all the time in the world.

He’s 25, yes, but 28 will be here soon, and then 30, and then the window starts closing in, even for an athlete of his unbelievable stature. He has a responsibility to his fans, his legacy, and honestly, to basketball, to become a champion, and a perennial one at that. This is what we expect of him. It’s a vicious cycle. He performs amazingly, we demand he will his team to the playoffs. He dominates the playoffs, we demand he wins a championship. He wins a championship, and we’ll demand he wins more.

That’s what sports is. And from the day James stepped into the league, he’s been expected to reach that standard. It’s that pressure, that feature that will so heavily define his legacy (which will also impact his empire) that makes New Jersey a hard sell. That makes New York a hard sell. That makes the Clippers a near impossibility. And it’s the reason there’s so much discussion of teaming up with Wade or Bosh, or both.

LeBron has seen it. He’s fallen to it. He’s watched Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (and Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest, and…) win titles and he knows that’s the new formula. A team with potentially three to four Hall of Famers just beat a team with potentially four to five Hall of Famers. That’s the model. And he knows if he wants to get where he needs to go, he’s going to need help. And not Mo Williams or Wally Szczerbiak or Shaquille O’Neal six years past his prime. He needs a partner, someone he can rely on, who is truly “excellent.” That’s what he has to be, in terms of his sport.

Chicago is there, with a core in place, and it’s obvious Bosh is receptive to that idea. There are downsides, but they’ve shown the commitment (out of nowhere) to putting him at the next level. The coach, the point guard, the role players, they’re all there. But he’s got to be sure. Absolutely sure. Miami?  Wade. Sure, they have no legit point guard and the only other player on roster is a basket case. But Wade. He’d have to share the spotlight, but will that really tarnish his legacy if they fulfill what they’re capable of? But it’s there. He has to consider it. And that ring will continue to be lorded over him, preventing him from reaching his ceiling (if he has one) as a player, as a legend, as a business until he obtains it.

3. Legacy: Chicago is his best immediate roster to contend for a championship. But there’s a statue out front already. No matter what James does, he’s going to be under that statue. He would have to win seven rings, and be the most dominant player on the floor and the league, be such an unstoppable force that even Bosh or whoever his his wingman is considered a footnote, in order for him to exceed the man whose statue stands outside the United Center. It’s a city rich with history, that holds up the Bulls as the one true championship organization (despite their last 13 years and no offense to the Blackhawks).

It’s a city that will demand greatness of him. But it comes with a cache of greatness just below that of t
he Celtics and Lakers. It’s his chance to put the Bulls in the same category, if he can make things go right.

New York stands as a testament to his greatness if it succeeds there. The greatest player in the world, in the greatest city in the world, in the world’s most famous arena, bringing New York back to basketball prominence. His name would be among some of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. And Alex Rodriguez. His life would be the utmost it can be, if he judges it by fame and fortune. His legend will be more if he’s successful in New York than it will be in New Jersey, in Miami, in Cleveland. It’s not fair. And it’s not right. But that’s the way of the world. And that’s something he needs to consider. He owes it to himself, to his people, to his fans to make the most of himself. And in terms of being elite, some would say the only way to do it is to to do it in New York.

But what about building your own legacy, in the world’s most famous town, across the bridge?  The Nets play in New Jersey for two more years. But he would then make his home in Brooklyn. A new franchise for a new era. The house that LeBron built. With Jay-Z as his marketing partner and mentor, running the borough like, well, a King. It’s one thing to be considered a great among greats of a franchise. It’s another to be the icon, the logo, the only one that matters.

But of course, if we’re talking legacy, we have to intertwine it with something else, the last, and possibly most important LeBron James must consider before he puts his signature on a dotted line.

4. Loyalty: Cleveland needs this. Ohio needs this. And he knows it. This is a city and state that spends half its time numb with sports disappointment, yet keeps coming back to the well. They keep asking for more. And James represents their best hope they’ve ever seen of greatness. He grew up there. He’s been a part of the area’s lore since he was a high school kid. He has given more, and been given more, than arguably any athlete ever has.

They watched Jordan’s jumper over Ehlo. They watched the Fumble. The drive. The Indians in general. But it goes deeper than that. They have invested themselves in this young man, identified with him, made him their own. They have put their hopes and dreams on him, and him leaving, for the destinations he’s being targeted by, isn’t just about sports. It speaks to the Midwest being abandoned, yet again, for the bright lights of a coast, or a city with East Coast qualities like Chicago. It’s a rejection of their values like family, loyalty, and the idea that where they live is somewhere worth being. Sure, it’s just a free agent. It’s just a basketball player.

But sports matter to people. We invest in them so that maybe we can get some sort of positive return. And Cleveland has had too much negative return. Re-signing with Cleveland is not the best choice for LeBron. It isn’t. There’s no way I can sit here and write that honestly. Jamison is getting older, and he was the big piece that was supposed to make it all work. The roster is good but not elite, the General Manager was let go, his assistant is running the show, and they can’t seem to find a coach. The franchise is in utter disarray at the absolute worst time. And that’s why re-signing with Cleveland would mean so much.

Other cities will offer him more, give him more, provide him with more opportunities. If his passion is his empire, New York will grow it. If his focus is his legacy, then Chicago or Miami can grant its ascendancy. But if his heart is in Akron, with the people he grew up with, with the fans that have cheered him on from puberty to the Finals, then Cleveland must be the choice.

It’s not the right choice. There is no right choice. No matter what, someone gets hurt by this decision, someone loses out, some part of him suffers an infraction.

It’s true that the choice is up to LeBron. He gets to make this choice with the freedom he’s been given, by God and this country, and this sport, and in reality, it won’t be the most important decision he’ll ever have to make. We make that every day with the kind of person we choose to be, with how we live among one another. But this decision has consequences which he needs to, and will consider. He’ll be wooed, lauded, and celebrated. But he’ll also be decried, defamed, and cursed. That’s the burden. That’s the glory. And it’s up to him.

Good luck, LeBron. We’ll be watching.

  1. bhcompy - Jun 30, 2010 at 2:48 PM

    You know that Chicago is west of Cleveland, right Matt Moore?

  2. terry - Jun 30, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    It’s only a game
    It’s only a game
    It’s only a game
    It’s only a game

  3. commonsenseguy - Jun 30, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    The argument that Chicago won’t provide a legacy because he’ll be in Mike’s shadow, is quite possibly the stupidest argument put out there;
    Do you think Jeter winced when he was chosen by the Yankees, because he didn’t want to play in the shadow of the Babe, Joe, and Reggie?
    Was Kobe disappointed when the Lakers traded for him because he’d have to live upto the accomplishments of Jerry, Wilt, Kareem and Magic?
    How about Steve Young following directly in the footsteps of Montana, only 1 SB, but is still loved in SF, and a Hall of Famer.
    Or what about the big three in Boston, never could they live upto Russell and Bird, think they were scared to follow those legends?
    The point is following the greats is a priviledge and challenge to professional athletes, one that is embraced and pushes those who are great to be greater, not something that they run from.

  4. tomd43 - Jun 30, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    He said “East Coast qualities.” He knows Chicago is west of Cleveland, btu he is saying that Chicago has the qualities of being an East Coast city.

  5. zaglossus - Jun 30, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    When he makes his decision he makes his decision. Until then I don’t care about all this media advice and second-guessing.

  6. Pay Attention - Jun 30, 2010 at 3:37 PM

    If you were to read it carefully the article states “a city with East Coast qualities like Chicago” meaning yes it’s part of the Midwest but is closer in caliber to an East Coast city such as New York.

  7. Randy - Jun 30, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    Nice article Matt. I’ve been following the NBA for 35 years and I love the history and competitive spirit of the league. So much individual talent and yet it’s still a team game. I too think James stays in Cleveland because the “home town boy does good” persona is such a big part of his brand. If he does go to the Bulls or Heat, don’t pencil them in as champions too quickly. The Lakers and Celtics won’t be intimitated by an upgraded roster of stars. It takes at least 8-9 good players to win a title. Many pundits are overlooking the importance of skilled role players. I’m bored with all the conjecture about James. He’s very talented, but he’s no legend until he actually wins some titles. Yes, that means at least 3-4 if he wants to be in the elite company with Jordon, Kobe, Magic, Bird, Shaq, and Kareem among others. I thought he was on his way this year, but the Celtics demonstrated why teams are superior to individuals – at least in the game of basketball.

  8. djonny - Jun 30, 2010 at 4:26 PM

    Go have dinner at the south pole. Who cares? You ain’t Mike, will never be Mike and never carry a team to 6 championships. Great Kid, but come on.

  9. Josh - Jun 30, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    @Randy…Too bad you never learned how to spell JORDAN.

  10. Bill - Jun 30, 2010 at 5:11 PM

    Lebron gave up in the playoffs this year. For that reason he can take a hike as far as I’m concerned. BUT if he signs with Cleveland, all the New Yorkers, west coasters, Chicago-ians maybe will learn a lesson about loyalty. Loyalty, btw, is a common trait in the midwest.

  11. Brian Blank - Jun 30, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    @Bill You’re kidding right? Chicagoans don’t know loyalty? Hello, ever heard of the Cubs? The Sox? The Bears? The Blackhawks? All of these teams have had decades of losing seasons yet their fans are some of the most loyal in all of sports!
    As for LeBron playing “in the shadow” of Michael Jordan, I say nonsense. Michael is probably my all-time favorite athlete (along with Walter Payton and Lance Armstrong) but LeBron can be equally great and the Chicago fans would LOVE him! All he has to do is keep getting better — just like MJ did — and the championships and his legacy will be ensured.

  12. Ken C - Jun 30, 2010 at 6:13 PM

    I like your perspective, this was a great read. Someone needs to send this article to LeBron.

  13. NorthSideClippers - Jun 30, 2010 at 6:16 PM

    You say Chicago has a coach, he’s untested. As an organization the Bulls have had a lot of high, lottery pick draft choices since 1999 #1 Elton Brand, 2000 #4 Marcus Fizer, 2000 #7 Chris Mihm, 2001 #4 Eddy Curry, 2002 #2 Jay Williams, 2003 #7 Kirk Hinrich, 2004 #3 Ben Gordon, 2006 #2 LaMarcus Alridge, 2007 #9 Joakim Noah, 2008 #1 Derrick Rose, 2009 #16 James Johnson, 2009 #26 Taj Gibson. This club has had a lot of bad luck with draft choices and head coaches since 1999. That’s a lot of high draft picks with not enough to show for it. Would this be a better choice than Cleveland.

  14. Tee - Jun 30, 2010 at 6:26 PM

    I dont think Labron will leave Cleveland. That’s his home and he has proven many times his loyalty to them and vice versa. The media attention is great for his career,and he is enjoying every bit of it, but ultimately Cleveland is his hometown. It’s like Kobe leaving L.A. It will never happen!

  15. Greg Jones - Jun 30, 2010 at 7:33 PM

    Good article. Thoughtful, detailed, and comprehensive.

  16. LogicMan - Jun 30, 2010 at 8:32 PM

    I too thought the overall tone of the piece was quite objective.

  17. Lakers4Lyfe - Jun 30, 2010 at 8:58 PM

    Any bets on how many more PBT articles we will see on a basketball player who has failed for seven seasons to win a championship? I’m betting 60 more before he signs with anyone. LeBron has shown no ability to step up his game in the playoffs. His numbers actually go down from the regular season and round to round (check it, because its true). He’s a choker who can’t play team ball. For the life of me, I can’t understand why the sports media loves this guy and furthers his image by writing 10 articles a day about him. It’s really getting old PBT. Look at your coverage. Almost every article is about LebBron since the finals. Heavily weighted LeBron news and he’s shown he’s just not worth it. Again, when he has a ring, we’ll care. Until then, why the hype?

  18. BGBill - Jun 30, 2010 at 9:14 PM

    Best journalism on the topic I’ve read so far.

  19. Sam Elowitch - Jun 30, 2010 at 10:32 PM

    Yes, this is America. But no, one doesn’t have the right (yet) to marry whom we wish if that person happens to be of the same gender as oneself.

  20. The Truth - Jul 5, 2010 at 11:46 AM

    Hey commonsenseguy,
    I could not have said that better. Lebron will love the challenge of Playing for whatever team he chooses!!

  21. plecoptera - Jul 6, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    great article

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