If I chime in on LeBron James, does that officially mean that EVERY columnist/blogger in the world of sports media would have dedicated print/type to the subject?
I will admit that I have much less moved by the LeBron James saga than the large majority of this country. I was unmoved by his free agent courting process, I was unmoved by ESPN’s “The Decision” special, I was unmoved by his decision to bolt Cleveland for Miami, and I was unmoved by Dan Gilbert losing his mind Thursday night.
I will also admit that rarely am I particularly moved in any way by a subject in sports that doesn’t garner any sort of emotional investment from me. With no offense to the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers, my level of involvement in the NBA Finals was minimal at best. If I was home and the games were on, I watched them. I certainly did not plan my month of June around making sure I was home to see Kobe Bryant go up against Paul Pierce.
I have no emotional investment when it comes to LeBron James. I have enjoyed watching him play at times (his masterpiece against the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals was special), but I have never been much too concerned about what he was doing on or off the floor.
Apparently I’m one of the few.
The most compelling thing about the LeBron saga for me has been the reaction-both in Cleveland and across the country. Be it fans burning LBJ jerseys in “The Comeback City” or Jesse Jackson forcing himself into the topic, I have been intrigued by all of the attention that has been placed on the subject.
Heck, even my partner on “The Morning Reaction” Drew Forrester has been inspired to talk about the NBA, a subject I couldn’t even ask him to discuss the other 11 months of the year.
Obviously the most irrational reaction has come from the shores of Lake Erie, where sports fans have not only burned jerseys; but have made much more dangerous threats and have compared the man they previously called “The King” to their other most despised sports figure-former Baltimore Ravens majority owner Art Modell.
Also amongst the reaction have been the inevitable comparisons to heartbreak-or potential heartbreak-in other cities. For example, Yahoo! Sports’ Les Carpenter (formerly of the Washington Post) wrote a column comparing James’ decision to depart Cleveland to the decision Cal Ripken made in 1988 to re-sign with the Baltimore Orioles.
It’s a fair comparison. Both were local products who achieved great success early in their career with their hometown team. There are also key differences.
Had Cal Ripken walked away from Charm City following the 1988 season, he would have been doing it in an era where fan reaction would have been much more difficult to gauge.
There were no sports talk radio stations in Baltimore in 1988. Blogging didn’t exist. Only the columnists at the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post would have REALLY had a chance to express the feelings about Ripken’s decision in a way that could have been knowledge to the man who would eventually become a Hall of Fame-caliber player.
There are also career differences-as Cal Ripken had helped lead the Birds to victory in the 1983 World Series, while LeBron James had never reached the mountaintop with the Cavs. Cleveland fans are starved for a championship at this point considering the many near misses of not only the Cavs, but also the near misses of the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians over the last 25 years.
Part of the angst felt by Cleveland fans certainly has something to do with the fact that they had to be convinced James would be part of the solution to finally end the city’s title drought. In reality, it’s hard for fans in ANY city in the country to really understand the mental makeup of a fanbase that hasn’t claimed a major pro sports title since 1964. Heck, in Baltimore alone we’ve won 5 titles since then, despite having only two pro sports-one of which was missing for over a decade.
However, I don’t necessarily think it’s unfair to try to consider how we’d feel in the situation. It’s with that in mind that I offer this hypothetical, which may or may not have any real validity in the big picture.
Let’s imagine that the Baltimore Bullets never left town. Instead of moving the team to Washington, Abe Pollin was granted an expansion team in DC and sold the Bullets to local ownership. Let’s also consider that instead of the Bullets franchise winning the 1978 NBA Championship; the “Washington Wizards” expansion team won the title.
Stay with me.
Let’s continue with the hypothetical and say that the Baltimore Bullets franchise during the 80’s and 90’s had about the same success level as the team that ACTUALLY moved in the nation’s capital did. The Bullets/Wizards franchise made just one playoff appearance between 1988 and 2004-a 1st round sweep at the hands of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1997.
Now let’s consider that in the mid-1990’s, the team had moved out of the clearly defunct Baltimore Arena and into a new building, potentially where M&T Bank Stadium now sits. The building is now known as the “Under Armour Center”, but was previously known as “PSINet Arena.”
Still with me? I hope so. I’ve laid the groundwork for the “Baltimore Crabs” (the NBA still forced a name change due to the violent nature of the name “Bullets”); a team that has existed since 1963 without winning a NBA Championship and has at times struggled to survive given the organization’s struggles and the level of pro competition in both Baltimore and DC.
Now, let’s have that organization meet a significant player. Let’s say that Towson Catholic graduate Carmelo Anthony decided that instead of going to Syracuse, he would follow in the footsteps of fellow Catholic League star Juan Dixon and could commit to Maryland. During the ’02-’03 season; ‘Melo would join with Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas to lead Gary Williams’ Terrapins to a 2nd consecutive NCAA Championship and then bolt to the NBA.
Look, I said this was a hypothetical. I probably should have said “dream sequence.” But let’s not split hairs here. I know Carmelo was BORN in New York and has always been fascinated with The Big Apple, but let’s pretend he was MORE fascinated with staying home. It works better here.
Being one of the poorer teams in the ’02-’03 season, the Crabs obtained the #2 (or #3) overall pick in the NBA Draft; where they were able to select Carmelo after the Cavaliers selected LeBron James.
Suddenly, a franchise with no direction and no hope becomes a team with a local star player-a player that would quickly develop into a perennial All-Star and would lead his team to the playoffs year in and year out.
Games at the Under Armour Center are now sold out before the season after previously being attended at O’s-like rates. Businesses near the Inner Harbor boom 50+ nights a year when the Crabs are at home. Crabs jerseys with the Number 15 on them are as popular sellers as Ravens jerseys with the Number 52.
On top of all of that, the Crabs really put things together in 2010-2011, and Carmelo eventually leads the Crabs to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history-where they unfortunately lose to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Did you stay with me?
It’s the summer of 2010. The Baltimore Crabs have acquired some solid players, but were fortunate to get past the Miami Heat in ’11 because Chris Bosh was hurt early in the season. With a healthy Bosh teaming with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat are again viewed as the significant favorites to win the East. Amare Stoudemire had a stellar season for the Knicks, and rumors swirl that New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul will join him at Madison Square Garden to try to make a run at the Heat.
Carmelo Anthony is now facing free agency. He’s beloved in Baltimore, where his family and friends have enjoyed watching him play night in and night out. The people of Baltimore view him as an icon, but he’s not sure he can get over the hump and win a championship given the commitment level from ownership.
With all of that in mind, Carmelo bolts. He signs a max deal to join Amare and Chris Paul in New York, where a welcome party is held in Times Square and he’s given a key to the city by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Now here’s the question.
How do you feel?
Are you burning a jersey in the street?
Are you calling Carmelo a “coward” or a “traitor” or “Benedict Anthony”?
Are you ready to picket outside the Carmelo Anthony Youth Center?
Or are you willing to say “he’s still a hometown guy, and I’ll always be grateful for what he did here”?
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer.
The reality is that I might be closer to “burning a jersey in the street” than I would be to “thanking him for the years he gave to the city.”
How would you react? How would Baltimore have felt if this were OUR star?
It’s worth considering.