By Jason Keidel
You’ve seen the sardonic messages splashed all over social media. Everyone is calling LeBron James the best GM in the NBA, based largely on his ability to wrench Kevin Love from Minnesota, which instantly imbues the Cavaliers with three All-Stars and a gold-plated path to the Eastern Conference title.
But as with his time in Miami, when the masses frowned over his manipulation of free agency, when he orchestrated the Big Three’s run to four NBA Finals, there’s a lingering cynicism over the power King James wields over the world. And there’s a clear duplicity to it all.
People are oddly obedient. When a young, gifted lawyer or economist fresh out of college picks his employer from a buffet of offers, it’s capitalism. But when an athlete picks his team and teammates, he’s a pampered millionaire who’s too soft to pay his dues. LeBron was eviscerated for his detour to South Beach, branded a baby who couldn’t cope with losing in Cleveland. A true champion stays home and wins incrementally.
In other words, they want the athlete to adhere to the military ethic. Grunts can’t eat with officers, even if soldiers they do all the work. And just as we assume that some silver on someone’s lapels is proof of some abstract superiority, we entrust our salaries and much of our lives to the power brokers – from politicians to corporate titans – just because of their status.
That’s the very thinking that gave us Donald Sterling. Yet still no one says anything when Sterling will make a billion-dollar profit from the sale of the Clippers.
No one objects when Roger Goodell hoodwinks the NFLPA in collective bargaining on behalf of the owners. No one minds when teams cut players and tear up their contracts. But when a player holds out for more money during his peak years, tries to capitalize on the closing, chronological window of his prime, then he’s a greedy thug who isn’t grateful for his millions and mansions and should be ashamed to ask for an extra few quid when kids are starving on distant continents.
For some reason, we hold no grudge when billionaires rule their companies with an iron fist. They are so far above us, we naturally assume they “earned” their riches and their prerogative to move the pawns of industry from their high, corner offices. They deserve their place in the clouds, and we deserve ours, just a few paychecks from homelessness.
And since our beliefs are distorted, so are the realities. We must suspend, embarrass, or imprison a basketball player for smoking weed, but when an owner gets popped in his car with a bucket of painkillers and 29 grand in cash, well, he needs rehab and understanding.
LeBron James, by dint of his talent and temerity, operates in the rare climate of an immortal, an orbit so high not even Dan Gilbert’s Learjet can reach it. He is, even as a player, a captain of industry, more vital to the NBA than Adam Silver or any owner. LeBron is the de facto logo of the league, the silent commissioner, and essentially the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And unlike many owners, who inherited their teams and their checking accounts from their fathers, LeBron James earned every nickel of his fortune, every cinder block of his empire, every decibel in his voice over policy, politics, and professional basketball.
You could argue that landing Kevin Love is some kind of karmic reward for returning to Ohio, a “welcome home” gift for being so loyal to his ancestral country. That’s certainly the more romantic narrative. But the truth is that LeBron James has a very giving persona, on and off the court. And people are attracted to givers.
Kevin Love is dying to share the court with LeBron, as were Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Who’s pining to play with Carmelo Anthony? JR Smith and Ron Artest. Though Kobe Bryant is an icon and bona fide champion, he’s usurped the lion’s share of the Lakers’ payroll, knowing that he isn’t the same player – old, tired, and torn achilles are bad prologues to the 2014 season – and that his stratospheric contract precludes high-end players from joining him.
Yet LeBron took less money in Miami, when he was exponentially better than anyone in the sport, for a better chance to win a ring. Running the floor with LeBron is not just a matter of points or wins. It’s a life lesson in sharing.
Sure, he gives you a great chance to win, but it’s also how he wins that makes him unique. LeBron had an epiphany when his Heat got smoked by the Spurs. He not only realized his time was up in Miami, but he also witnessed the basketball ideal in San Antonio. They played the game the right way, the way he wants to play.
And now with his move back home, to fix the frayed edges of the rust belt, he has transcended the hardwood, into a mythic figure who has mutated from pawn to policy-maker, from prince to king.
It’s good to be the King. It’s really good to be King James. Especially good when the king is a good guy.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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