Upon taking office following the resignation in disgrace of Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford declared, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
That’s how I’ll feel after LeBron makes his announcement.
When was it that we started talking about his potential free agency? Three years ago? Four? Was it before the ad campaign that insisted we were witnesses, or maybe innocent bystanders? Or was it five minutes after the Ping Pong balls went Cleveland’s way in the lottery?
It was sweet that the Akron lad would get to play before the home folks. But surely he’d have to go elsewhere to seek his ultimate fame and fortune, wouldn’t he? Bright lights, big city and all that. Kareem won a title for Milwaukee, then maneuvered a trade to L.A. Shaq was similarly too big for the lights of Orlando, seeking the megawatt stardom available under Hollywood kliegs (what would we have done without “Kazaam”?). To be the global icon of his ambitions, LeBron would have to follow their example and find a bigger pond.
And so the ordeal began.
Suddenly wins and losses were no longer the prime commodity in the NBA. Cap space was. Will this player help us win? Who cares – when does his contract expire? If it’s 2010, we’ll take him. A league built on the dynamism of its players shifted to selling hope and snake oil.
It wasn’t an all-out dump, like in the days before the draft lottery. The team had to be competitive enough to make King James think he could win a championship there. (Note to athletes: When fans and peers call you “King,” it’s cute; when you call yourself “King,” it’s creepy in a nicknaming-a-body-part way.)
Two seasons were taking place at once: the one on the court, and the one in the shadows of the contract files. It was impossible to be just a basketball fan; you had to ponder capology and accounting rules and all the intricacies we turn to sports to get away from.
The Knicks were among the most eager to play the game. For two years, while Tony Kornheiser shilled for them on “Pardon the Interruption,” team president Donnie Walsh set out to undo the long-term damage inflicted on them by the previous regime. Away went players Isiah Thomas had signed, traded for, or given extensions. Back came contracts that would end in 2010, and only incidentally had human beings attached. Since the team was deliberately not trying to get better and win, the front office naturally gave steep discounts and rebates to all who’d bought tickets.
Sorry. Drifted off into fantasy there.
It appears the teams best able to meet LeBron’s presumed conditions are Miami (where Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have indicated they’d take less than maximum money to make room for him), Chicago (which just signed Carlos Boozer, who played with LeBron when the King was a rookie), New York (who would team him with newly acquired Amare Stoudemire during the latter’s intermittent appearances on the active list), and maybe even New Jersey (owned by Russian bajillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, soon to move to Brooklyn and eager to make a splash – though “Brooklyn” and “splash” are two words usually associated with cement shoes).
The Cleveland Cavaliers were in the unique position of having LeBron and having to woo him, too. They have gone all-out in the last two seasons to try to win the championship, not always wisely. They let go the coach and general manager who put together the team that reach the conference finals just once in the last three seasons. They can offer LeBron more money than anyone else, because the league rules favor a team trying to keep its players.
Will he stay or will he go?
Thursday night, he will announce his decision in an hour-long special on ESPN. The Worldwide Leader in Overkill will promo the event throughout its evening SportsCenters, provide hosts and interviewers for the program, then unleash its legion of so-called experts to explain why every word they’d uttered on the subject in the past three months was wrong. I’m sure everyone with sixty minutes to devote to five seconds’ worth of relevant content will be riveted. I’ll catch the news online, then watch the re-airing on ESPN Classic.
I hope he stays with the Cavs. No one should have the mass suicide of his home town on his conscience.