It’s just a genuine, heartwarming, beautiful story, right? After a four-year sabbatical, today LeBron James decided to go back home.
But in any narrative, if the protagonist is going to be at the center of a sea of abject joy and triumph, someone has to lose. Someone has to be in the pit of despair, whether that’s justified or not. In this tale, it’s the Miami Heat.
At noon today, James took to the pages of Sports Illustrated to state that: “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart.”
“My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
It’s exactly what we’d hope a great athlete would say, that family and place and a genuine, selfless sense of responsibility rank above money, or vanquishing opponents at all cost; that despite their ability to routinely defy the laws of physics, when it comes to what’s really important, they aren’t that different from you and me.
It's hardly a scientific poll, but it's pretty much universally being lauded. "Good for LeBron" was the top Twitter trend following his announcement.
And it has spurred a near-ecstatic state among the faithful. They’re dancing in the streets in Cuyahoga County where true believers, like a pilgrimage to Mecca, have been camping out at James’s Akron home since yesterday afternoon, even though it was common knowledge that he was actually in Las Vegas at the time.
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s front page is also handling the news with less than total restraint.
And then there’s the Miami Heat. While the rest of the sporting world is cavorting and popping bottles of the good stuff, kissing sailors and weeping uncontrollably, there’s a fan base that’s been left standing at the altar.
It probably won’t have the emotional juice of Cleveland’s post-Decision 1.0 rending of garments, though. Considering the heartfelt nature of James’ Sports Illustrated article and the fact that he took them to four straight trips to The Finals, screeching J’Accuse, labeling James selfish or some kind of soulless mercenary seems wholly out of place.
But make no mistake, the Heat are kind of screwed right now. We probably won’t ever know what conversations were had between James and his fellow Heatles, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, that led them to believe that by opting out of the final year of their contracts, they were taking the necessary steps towards yet another slash and burn campaign through the Eastern Conference. Whatever was said, at some point, James clearly changed his mind, or, if you’re feeling less-than-charitable, he stabbed them in the back.
While there were certainly signs that the unthinkable might be true, that James would break up the band, Heat owner Micky Arison seemingly didn’t see this coming.
Now that the LeBron James bottleneck has been removed, the floodgates are starting to open in NBA free agency, though it looks like the roster won’t be totally barren.
Even though the Houston Rockets just dealt Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers along with a future first round draft pick, and they have a deal in place to send backup center Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans, Chris Bosh appears to be poised to remain with the Miami Heat:
If Bosh decides to stick around, you can be fairly sure that Dwyane Wade will remain as well.
With the exception of perhaps his hometown Bulls, he’s not going to have a ton of suitors out there, considering the last time we saw him on the court, he looked old and irreparably broken, limping and struggling to keep up with the San Antonio Spurs.
So while the franchise isn’t going going to enter a total overhaul like the Florida Marlins after they had to unload the core of their store-bought 1997 and 2003 World Series titles, they will not come close to sniffing the finals while they accumulate assets and attempt to carve out enough cap space to be players in the summer of 2016 when Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose may be available to the highest bidder.
For the moment, though, there’s not a lot of empathy for the Miami Heat. This photo, which began circulating soon after LeBron’s essay dropped, is Example A:
In a larger sense, it’s due to the sense that Miami—and Miami Heat fans in particular—never deserved a player of James’s transcendent brilliance. There’s a running gag about their general indifference, their tendency to show up late to games (or not at all), and that the team’s promotional bit of draping the seats with white shirts was actually just a feeble effort to gloss over the fact that there weren’t any actual people there to root and holler.
They were excoriated for leaving the arena prior to Ray Allen’s historic shot to win Game Six of the 2013 Finals, and when your most famous celebrity backer is Justin Bieber, well, the jokes practically write themselves.
The one truly devoted Heat fanatic is probably Filomena Tobias, who gained a measure of notoriety for screeching like a rabid banshee at the Chicago Bulls center, Joakim Noah. A brief bit of digging revealed possibly the most Florida backstory of all time, replete with an accusation that she murdered her husband by drowning him in the pool, rampant cocaine use, a massive insurance payout, an Internet psychic and, "a sexual liaison with a gay porn star–exotic dancer who went by the name Tiger because of the tiger stripes he had tattooed on his body.”
You don’t feel pity for that. You just point, laugh, and maybe claim that a tiny bit of justice has been served. Now that James is gone, it’s assumed that the bandwagon fans will flee like an army of suntanned rodents fleeing Pat Riley’s sinking yacht.
Or as Bleacher Report’s Jim Cavan said:
Or this, from the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, the Philadelphia 76ers, Michael Carter-Williams:
There was even a Tweet claiming that the Heat twitter account had lost nearly 300,000 followers since LeBron's announcement. It turned out to be false, but it certainly had enough of a feel of truthiness that it circled the world before the debunkers set the record straight.
At least one fan is trying to keep the fires stoked.
There’s a counterargument to be made that Cleveland actually represents the best basketball future for James. That despite all his talk of home being where the heart is and redemption, he realizes that young team, stocked with former first round draft picks and a stud point guard in Kyrie Irving, represents the best chance for James to continue his dominance as he ages. As Bill Simmons wrote in Grantland, “He couldn’t create what he wanted to create in Miami. Not anymore. This had quietly become 2009 and 2010 all over again — LeBron stuck on the wrong team, with the wrong teammates, being asked to do too much like he has been throughout his career. They weren’t bringing the best out of him. That much was clear.”
In that case, it is a kind of betrayal. They may have been a useful vehicle to get him where he wanted to go, but the idea that, “We are brothers for life,” as James stated, shouldn’t be given much more credence than the advertising campaign that Nike released this afternoon.
Personally, I think both are true. James wanted to return to Cleveland for all the reasons he listed, and it’s probably a shrewd career move long-term. That doesn’t make him a callous, Machiavellian schemer. Contradictory impulses and motivations are okay, even if they’re harder to wrap our minds around.
Furthermore, if you’re going to say that joining the Cavs is the “right” thing to do and frame it as a moral choice, well, that’s giving credence to the idea that leaving was wrong. The gray area, where he made decisions regarding work, some of which he might regret, but are all part of a fascinating career arc for the world’s greatest current player, seems far more interesting than shoehorning him into a simplistic black and white hero/villain narrative.
But just to add a final note of crushing irony, even if Miami were to go into full rebuilding mode, though it’s top-ten protected, their first round draft pick next season will go to the Cleveland Cavaliers, as part of a sign and trade agreement for Miami’s 2010 acquisition of ... wait for it ... LeBron James.
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