At approximately 9:28 pm ET last night, the sports world's most coveted free agent in recent memory, and maybe in history, made a decision. Having been followed by hounds of media everywhere he and executives of six NBA franchises – the Cavs, Knicks, Nets, Clippers, Bulls and Heat – went for the past couple of weeks, you'd think he was President LeBron James and about to make an important decision for the country regarding war or something equally relevant. But that was the scene that James and ESPN, via its absurd one-hour 9-10pm ET special wanted to set in order for the world to know where this one pro basketball player will be playing in the near future.
After the veteran and unabashedly self-indulgent ESPN sports reporter Jim Gray tortured the viewing masses with tons of leading questions, "King James" finally announced he is leaving his NBA home of seven stellar seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the Miami Heat. There were no tears, no dramatic moments, just a calm announcement that "I’m gonna take my talents" to a Pat Riley-run team that already has NBA champion Dwayne Wade and the recently acquired former Toronto Raptors star Chris Bosh.
It was the right professional decision, as far as going to the NBA team that can win the soonest is concerned. Riley, who has his own championship rings, can now build a championship team around the new Big Three of James/Wade/Bosh like Boston did with Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen/Paul Pierce two seasons ago (and nearly again this season).
But how LeBron James went about making his decision was in bad taste and surprising for a mid-20-something that seemed wise beyond his years when he came into the league in 2003 as a teenager.
First of all, who needs a one-hour special to say, "I'm playing for X"? No other free agent in pro sports history has felt the need to make such a needless, theatrical and overly self-important announcement. The whole ESPN LeBron special was just a ratings ploy, and James was all for it. So that entire spectacle was his first mistake.
Second, as James stated, only a handful of people knew his decision before it aired live on national TV last night, and the Cleveland Cavaliers organization that drafted him, nor any of his now former teammates weren't among them. That is classless.
The reaction among Cleveland fans has been furious, with some Cavs fans burning LeBron James shirts.
Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert also felt this frustration in an open letter to Cavs fans. But Gilbert went over the top with his criticism of James, going so far as to call the prized free agent's departure from Cleveland a "cowardly betrayal," and saying with much bravado that he guarantees the Cavs will win an NBA title before the "former 'King' wins one." That sounds more befitting of something an angry fan would say rather than an owner. Current and future Cavs players, along with NBA commissioner David Stern are likely raising their collective eyebrows over this letter, as they should.
James is a coward for not letting the Cavs know of his decision before the public, and really is narcissistic for making them and the world wait for an adoring one-hour ESPN special to learn of his next destination. But he didn't "betray" anyone by using his right to test the free market to determine his future.
Right now, Miami aside, LeBron James is hated among many corners of the NBA fandom, especially in Cleveland, where they will likely not forgive him anytime soon. That is understandable. LeBron was their closest hope to seeing a pro athlete lead a team to a championship in years. And now that hope is gone.
But among the larger sports world, the all-about-me way LeBron went about his big decision, plus his sore-loser mentality – refusing to shake hands with Orlando in the playoffs two seasons ago, his seeming lack of 100% effort against the Celtics in this year's playoffs and quick toss off of his Cavs jersey for the last time after the C's eliminated him – has tarnished his all-around, nice-guy image some.
For good and bad reasons, he has become the A-Rod of the NBA. Good because he's leaving a longtime franchise for a team with actual championship experience. Bad because both have a narcissistic personality (though LeBron has yet to be photographed kissing himself in a mirror).
Is there anything James can do to repair this media-obsessed, full-of-himself image he has cast of himself?
After the details of James' new Heat contract is worked out, he should write an open letter to Cleveland Cavaliers fans and those in and out of the organization who worked with and supported him since he came into the league in 2003.
In the letter, he could also apologize with some actual heart this time, for not being able to bring the city an NBA title. That would be a good start.
Photo of LeBron James credit: Chris Chappelear of Flickr